By cutting down on sources of misinformation and outrage, we just may end up better informed ... and more at peace.
I’m writing this reflection from a coffee shop in the small German wine-making town of Hermann, which is nestled in a wooded valley along the Missouri River. Occasionally I retreat here to clear my head. Even though I love being a pastor and being in the thick of parish life, a week away now and then is vital to my mental health. In this particular small town, I spend time at a property that is accessible only by gravel road. It has no cell service, most of the neighbors are cattle, and each morning the view out the window consists only of the crowns of the burnt-orange foliage on the rolling hills as they peek over the fog rising off the pond.
When I’m here, I consume very little news. I lose touch with political talk and the latest controversies riling everyone up back in the city, and I disconnect from the local parish gossip. All I do is swim, do manual labor, read novels, ride my bicycle, and visit wineries. It’s paradise.
I know others have a place like this — a wilderness retreat, campground, retreat center, family vacation spot. When we’re there, the cares of the world fall away and we’re happier. Convention would have it that even though these vacations are nice, a person cannot live this way all the time. The “real” stuff of life is passing us by. At some point, we’re supposed to plug back in, get informed, take an interest in the news and update ourselves on political happenings. This is the responsibility that weighs on our shoulders as adults and, out of civic duty, we must pick up that load and carry it.
Or should we?
Recently, I found myself nodding my head in agreement with an article by Joe Heschmeyer over at Word On Fire. He titles his piece bluntly – How the News and Politics Is Destroying Your Soul. In it, he makes the case that consuming the news does not actually make us more informed. We have a mistaken view that the goal of news is to keep us up-to-date on the facts of world events, politics, and so on, but this is not the primary interest of the news companies. Like any other business enterprise, newspapers, websites, and television news channels must make money. This translates into a need for viewers, subscribers, and website clicks. In order to garner these, the focus is not on rational, unbiased information; rather, the focus is to addict us to outrage, anger, and fear. Not all news sources do this to the same degree, but it’s something to be aware of.
I thought this topic was so important that I preached a homily about it for my parishioners. I wanted them to see that true wisdom — an unbiased, accurate view of the world and the ability to react with prudence – has nothing to do with making decisions motivated by outrage and fear. The homily garnered a huge reaction. Most people appreciated it. A few privately admitted they were probably addicted to the news and could see how it was making them very unhappy, vowing to cut back.
A while ago, I did a similar experiment. I turned on my car radio and listened to the news for about 10 minutes. Many years prior, I’d stopped listening to so much news. I felt that was detracting from my happiness. I’ve never regretted that choice, but I wanted to hear what I was missing. Within that ten minute span, I became convince how terrible my life is, how the world is falling apart, how the politicians are all out to get me. My smile sank and a sense of anxiety settled over me like a cloud.
I turned the radio off and thought about what I’d heard. Then I compared it with my actual life. I reminded myself that my work is wonderful, my family is wonderful, that I am exceedingly, gratuitously blessed. I reminded myself that God loves his children and cares for us even more than the lilies of the field. I knew that some of my parishioners had been having a tough time lately, but also knew that our parish had drawn together like a tightly knit family to take care of each other. My life and the life of my parish isn’t perfect, but it is fundamentally happy. I looked out the window and noticed that the sunset was spread across the sky and the clouds were glowing with joy. The reality didn’t match what the news had been telling me – not even close.
We can’t always be on a silent retreat, of course, but we can be selective about the news we consume and remain just as informed as we ever were. In fact, by cutting out sources of misinformation and outrage, we’ll probably be better informed.
I do still keep up on what’s happening in the country and around the world. For Catholic news, I search out positive, life-affirming news sources like my local diocesan newspaper, and sites like Aleteia. For political news, I do some reading and research when it’s time to vote and don’t worry obsess about it the rest of the time. I enjoy reading long-form journalism on interesting, current topics. The rest of my attention goes to loving my family, serving my parish, and talking with friends. We don’t need to know what everybody thinks, who is currently outraged about what, and what new development we’re supposed to panic about today. We cannot change any of that, anyway. We can, however, seek Godly wisdom and live our best lives with the ones we love.