News, context, and anxiety

Most people know the feeling of being anxious. A big event is in the future, you don’t really know what is going to happen, and you feel a stress crawling up into the edges of all your thoughts. At its worst, the anxiety paralyzes you and you search for something to distract you from thinking about what is coming up. You eat, watch Netflix, or cycle through social media. Anything to get your mind off whatever event is going to happen. At best, the anxiety pushes you to prepare more, pray more, and get ready for whatever is coming up.

But what happens when the event that you are anxious about is largely outside your control? If you are worried about your roof caving in because of water damage, you can take some steps to remedy the situation. But if you hear that 1000 roofs in England will cave in because of the rain, what can you do? Generally, you can just be anxious.

That is one of the downsides of our constant news cycles. The news feeds us events that we are often disconnected from and unable to do anything about. Coupled with the well-known fact that bad news garners more attention than good news (“if it bleeds, it leads”) our current news cycles create a perfect storm for making us an anxious people.

All this is probably pretty evident, but what generally isn’t talked about is the effect that anxiety has on our good works. An anxious people can quickly become a useless people. If we cannot address the problems that we are constantly hearing about, our responses can quickly shrink into unhelpful patterns

For example, a primary response is numbing our anxiety with endless distractions. There is so much bad news floating around that we want to check out altogether. Have you ever gotten to the point that you are sick and tired of talking about politics? And have you ever reached that point before you have had even one decent conversation about politics? Politics-how we are governed-is important, conversations need to happen. But we are filled so much unhelpful, fearful, and shallow commentary that we often want to escape politics altogether. But the real problem starts to manifest when we begin to numb out from the bad news of the world by watching more news. David Foster Wallace, in his article on television writes, “An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and downright needing it…But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes.” (Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction) Do we escape our anxiety by going to things that cause us more anxiety? Does the news drive us to numb out on more news? And could that-just maybe-be the business model?

And what’s the payout? What’s the use of all of this news? Do we use it for good works? Sometimes. Sometimes we use the news to respond to needs. Sometimes we use it to think long and carefully about the social issues of the day. But I’m willing to bet that we mostly use the news for entertainment. Neil Postman argues in his book “Amusing ourselves to death” that from the decontexualizing of news, when news is not relevant to where you are, came the rise of crossword puzzles and games like trivial pursuit. The idea is, now we have so much information that we have no application for, lets create a game to apply the information. It’s fun to know facts. But if that is what we use news for, lets label it as a hobby, and devote the appropriate amount of time. If you spent 3 hours a day collecting baseball cards, and those baseball cards kept you up at night, you should probably stop. Let’s apply the same standard to the news.

I think that for all of us it would be helpful for us to inventory our news intake. Does this intake make us anxious or angry and, if so, is there a corresponding payout of good works with that information? We are finite people and we have only been given a limited amount of time and a limited amount of things that we can concentrate on. Let’s make those things worthwhile.