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When It’s Time to Fast from the News

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 05/14/15

How much bad news is enough?

“I can stop any time I want to.” We know this to be the telltale sign of an addict who is in denial about his addiction. We’ve all heard it before. “Sure I can stop drinking (smoking, gambling, etc.), I just don’t want to right now.” I’ve used similar phrases myself. I’ve used them when speaking of a compulsion that began when I was in high school.

You might call me a “news junkie.” As a young boy, I grew up watching CBS News after dinner with my family, secure that whatever Walter Cronkite said was true. (I know better now.) By the time I was in high school, I had subscriptions to several news magazines, and bought the New York Times on Sunday. In college I read several newspapers and listened to news radio throughout the day. Somehow I had always known that it was right for a responsible citizen and one who claimed to be educated to be kept informed of the news of the day.

By the time I was ordained, Internet news was on the rise, and the university I taught at had a free and unlimited connection. My addiction to news flourished. The whole world at my fingertips! I justified the hours I spent immersing myself in the news by saying that as a teacher and preacher, I had an obligation to know what was going on in the world. I still maintain that, but with certain qualifications, which I will get to in a moment.

When I started teaching full-time, I was appalled by my students’ lack of knowledge, and, worse, lack of curiosity, about the news of the day. Legislation, treaties, riots, floods, arrests, assassinations—they were blissfully ignorant of all of it. And I could scarcely convince any that they were missing out on anything. I once asked a class of 35 students about the Fourth Amendment. None knew what I was referring to, although one student suspected that it had something to do with religion. “This does not bode well,” I thought to myself.

When I would ask my students what they were doing with their time while I was spending so much time keeping informed, many would shrug their shoulders. A few admitted to me sheepishly, “Well, we heard that no news source is trustworthy, so we just gave up.” All of these students had unfettered access to the Internet and television, and with those resources they spent a great deal of time striving to be entertained, but little to no time being informed.

One who is not well informed about the state of the world can scarcely claim to be a responsible citizen or a truly educated person. And I will make bold to say that it is hard to be able to claim that one is a good Christian if one is ignorant of and indifferent to what is taking place in the world around us. Didn’t Jesus scold those who did not “read the signs of the times”? (Matthew 16:3) Sadly, many adult Christians seem to be as out of touch as the college students I have taught over the years.

Now comes the big, “HOWEVER…” Like any good thing (food, drink, etc.), seeking to be informed can cross the line to excess. One can neglect one’s daily duties by being glued to the TV newsfeed, just as one can neglect one’s duties by scrolling through photos of people’s cats on Facebook. One has to make a prudent discernment regarding how we spend our time so that we do not fail the duties of our state in life. An excessive amount of time dedicated to absorbing the news is not the object of my big “HOWEVER…” Instead, I want to apply it to the excessive *absorption* of the news and the ill effects that may flow from it.

As an undergraduate, I spent four summers working as a claims adjuster for an auto insurance company. I spent four summers reading thousands of accident reports. Consequently, I have a sense of how things can go wrong that one might call, charitably, “atypical.” Years later, I spent a year as a chaplain in a Level-1 Trauma Center in a major city—there I could see and hear what life looked like when it goes horribly wrong. One result of those two experiences is that I am quite safety conscious; I also have a heightened sense of human fragility and our capacity for bringing about unnecessary tragedy. Also, I am less surprised than most when things do go horribly wrong. That gives me an “atypical” tolerance for facing bad news. While there is much that scandalizes me, little shocks me. That fact allows me to spend more time immersed in the news than most people—and that can be a problem, as we’ll see.

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