Over the past two weeks I have been devoting time to thinking through some of the unexpected sources of stress in modern life, and resolving to put them in their place. Among the most surprising of these factors for me has been the influence of news media on my peace of mind and levels of concentration. With the help of David Murray’s quite brilliant book Reset, I’ve come to recognise that the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of current affairs can be a driver for anxiety and intellectual clutter, as well as a general sense of malaise about the state of the world. In this post I want to share some of my thinking in this area, and some principles that I am putting in place with regard to how I relate to the wider world.
The news flash is now the norm: it is hard to imagine old news with its respect for boundaries, and its steady punctuality at specific hours of the day. Part of my late Dad’s ritual in returning from work was to spend half an hour watching the six o’ clock news, catching up with a digest of what had been happening in the world. Occasionally the news would break the barrier, would disturb our viewing, would intrude with a bulletin of pressing importance or significance – the death of a member of royalty, or a particularly notable atrocity – but such events were rare. Our approach to news in my childhood was very much ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’. Barring the playing of the radio with its hourly updates, many workplaces were hermetically sealed from what was happening in the wider world, the here and now was safely cordoned off from the there and then.
In 2019 we live in a perpetual state of emergency, with multiple briefings per day on the main news items, with vox pops, social media comments, predictions and speculations. The news insists on being part of the fabric of our day so that Donald Trump or Brexit are as much a component of our thought-world as the lives of our co-workers, or the pressing issues of our vocation. We have allowed smart phones to sound a constant air raid siren in our lives, carrying with us a personal ops-room where we are called on to make judgements, or to emote, according to what is happening right now.
There is little wonder that such an environment leads to stress. Much of our current news carries existential weight – the nature of nationhood, the complexities of race and class, the fundamental principles of identity – and we have chosen to bear the burden of such things almost twenty four seven. My phone offers headline banners and badges, bleeps and barrages of ‘latest developments’ which fragment my concentration and my emotions.
The decision to tune out from the news, so that I can tune in to at will, is part of how I intend to mute this source of unnecessary stress in coming days. Over the past fortnight I have stepped away from Twitter and rolling news, and unsurprisingly the sky has managed not to fall in. I have updated myself at key points in the day, and have found a greater degree of peace of mind in doing so. I intend to adopt this as my habit in future.
Media is always in the middle: one of the problems with the ubiquity of news updates is the nature of media, and more specifically its limitations. Away from regular bulletins, with carefully curated content, what we are often being exposed to is raw data, unfolding events, moments and snatches which will take time to properly develop into a story. This means that the narrative is constantly changing as to what has happened, and what significance it carries, and this can be deeply disconcerting as a consumer. Exaggeration and understatement are the canyons which line this pathway, into which media outlets frequently steer their followers.
Organisations like ‘The Slow Journalism Company’ are seeking to counter this side-effect of constant news by publishing their coverage well after the event, with carefully conceived analysis and extrapolation of what has transpired. For me this discipline of delaying my conclusions, of privileging those agencies who seek to be accurate in their portrayal of an event rather than simply being first to break it, will reduce some of the discombobulation of being a media follower. When I am exposed to breaking stories I have determined to remind myself that the media are in the middle, that their interim conclusions are nothing better than mere hypotheses, and that it will take time to unpack what has really happened and how important it is. This should effectively mute the crying ‘Wolf!’ that many headlines represent.
The internet can give me too much depth: paradoxically the depth as well as the breadth of the internet can make it almost impossible to put stories in their true perspective. An atrocity is carried out in a European city, a serial killer is brought to justice, the economics of constitutional change rise to the top story yet again, and immediately I have deep resources into which I can dive to recover further details of what has happened. In the opening of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath identifies a preoccupation with reporting on the execution of two spies with her onset of mental illness, stating that ‘I knew something was wrong with me that summer, because all I could think about was the Rosenbergs’. The insight behind this statement is staggeringly acute – we can project our wider anxieties on to stories and tragedies, making them proxies for our own problems and obsessions, fixating on details of stories which have risen to world or local prominence. The internet allows us to indulge this to the point of despair and addiction, providing a smorgasbord of information about the backgrounds of victims and perpetrators which are ultimately vexatious. We can take on board an excessive payload of emotional baggage as a result, all the while leaving areas which should accommodate authentic emotions sparsely populated.
For me, this is an area which needs careful and balanced management. I want to understand my world in a deeper way, but only at an emotional price I can afford. I need to counter balance much of the horror behind the headlines with the wholesome and beneficial truths which are my true bedrock. David Murray has said,
Many of us live as if Philippians 4: 8 says, “Whatever things are false, whatever things are sordid, whatever things are wrong, whatever things are filthy, whatever things are ugly, whatever things are terrible, if there is any vice and if there is anything worthy of criticism—meditate on these things.”
God is sovereign immediately and ultimately: in all of this, I need to remind myself that God is sovereign in real time. Even when the tidal wave of genuinely important news legitimately breaks my emotional and cognitive levee, I need to constantly guard against falling in line with the panic button politics which is on offer. Things might be politically and socially precarious, we might be vulnerable to all kinds of threats and evils, the course of history may seem to be flowing into all of the wrong channels, but God is sovereign there and then, immediately, unfailingly. If my approach to news is not that of the church in Acts 4 who passed current affairs through the theological grid of Psalm 2, who could reorient their focus to God’s sovereign laughter over the ways of the wicked, then I am looking through the wrong end of the telescope. God is presently establishing his kingdom, fulfilling his purposes, and building his church in the midst of the cultural and political rubble so prominently on display.
I’m grateful for the insights of others which have led me to recognise endless news as a potential addition to daily stress. I hope to put in place new reflexes which will help me to metre my access to the news daily and weekly, and which will enable me to respond to what I am hearing and reading in a way which more readily assesses its true importance to my life, and its true dimensions in the light of God’s rule and reign.