Even when she was struggling to get by, my mother subscribed to the morning and evening newspapers. This was back when cities the size of Columbus, Ohio supported two daily papers. When my stepfather moved in he brought us Newsweek and the Sunday edition of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I spent one summer watching the Watergate hearings and providing summaries each evening to my mother and stepfather. Family gatherings always featured political discussions that devolved into political arguments. My siblings and I, just like my mother and her siblings, were far more likely to disagree, at full volume, about politics than about who was the favorite child. During graduate school I spent a summer watching the Iran-Contra hearings in the morning (I lived on the west coast) and writing my thesis in the afternoon. My partner also has a thing about current events. She was once asked her why she doesn’t like going to the movies and she said she’s afraid she might miss a breaking news story.
My family’s deep commitment to being up-to-date with the news of the day is born of the conviction that it is our duty as citizens to understand what’s going on in the world—near and far. How can you have an informed opinion if you aren’t informed? How can you make an educated decision at the ballot box if you aren’t educated about the candidates and the issues?
When a current political crisis was mentioned at my book group recently two of the women looked at us blankly. They told us they don’t watch much news. In the past I would have, silently, accused them of burying their head in the sand, questioned their right to vote, and seen their choice as part of what’s wrong with the world. In my newly evolving capacity for non-judging awareness I heard their comment not with disdain but simple curiosity about my own behavior. What’s happening inside of me when I start the day with national news broadcasts, check my news-filled Twitter timeline throughout the day, and read the spots off the daily papers?
When I was a kid my familiarity with current events made me feel smart when my inability to diagram a sentence and manage basic algebra made me feel stupid. But I’m not a kid anymore and I’m ready to admit that when I retreat into news coverage it’s to put myself beyond my own feelings of fear, uncertainty, and worthlessness. I’m well prepared to debate most any topic but emotionally and spiritually I am out of touch with myself and with the present moment. Watching the relentless horror of mass shootings, deadly political unrest, and government corruption I feel overwhelmed by rage and utterly helpless.
Having known and loved a lot of people with an addiction, I label my behavior as that of a news junkie with care. My behavior is that of an addict in the sense that when I bury myself in the news it is in order to escape dark feelings about my own life. It is also to engage in self-defeating behavior, behavior Jonathan Foust describes as “less than wholesome.” In an excellent talk titled “From Addiction to Wise Action,” he asks listeners to identify behaviors, anything from use of substances to repetitive thought patterns, which cause us suffering. What would happen, he asks, if we take that behavior to its extreme?
In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, I imagine myself never sleeping again. I imagine having no thoughts of my own as my head becomes filled not just with facts but with the opinions of all those talking heads from across the globe who fill our new sites and airwaves and timelines. In this world, I am utterly plugged in and completely disengaged at the same time.
When Foust then asks us to imagine our lives in the absence of these unwholesome behaviors and thoughts, I don’t imagine withdrawing from the news altogether because I agree with Thomas Jefferson that, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Instead, I try to cultivate behaviors that keep me grounded in the present—starting my days with writing, physical movement, or reading that is not about current events, avoiding shouting matches that call themselves newscasts, seeking news sources that educate me about unfamiliar people and places, and taking action locally where I know I can make a difference.