Quieting the noise of news

“… the newspapers fetches you the troubles of everybody all over the world, and keeps you downhearted and dismal most all the time, and it’s such a heavy load for a person.”

Tom Sawyer Abroad

Having worked in the news business, I rarely get my fill of knowing what’s happening in the world, but there are times when it indeed can be “a heavy load.”

These days, I seem to hear more frequently that people are feeling weighed down by the news. Given the content of reports about terrorism and killer viruses, that’s not surprising, but I think it also has to do with the pervasiveness of news in our culture. No longer do we find out what’s happening from a daily newspaper dropped on our doorstep or through a single evening television newscast. Now, thanks to 24-hour cable news and the Internet, we have little time to digest anything we hear and see. A multiplicity of voices constantly beckons, teases, and even demands: “Wait till you hear“ and “You’ve got to see this.”P1000484

Response to this glut of information and imagery seems to take two forms: We can’t get enough or we can’t take it. Some love being continually connected to TV news or the Internet, often to the distress of those who live with them. Others take the opposite view, receiving only a minimum of news, if any, and staying focused on the immediacy of their own lives, either because they have enough bad stuff to deal with on a personal level, or because they want nothing to interfere with their state of blissful oblivion.

Given my own appetite for news and tendency to vacillate between extremes, I’d like to propose a middle ground in hopes of encouraging people to be aware of what’s going on while still maintaining some semblance of peace. After all, it’s true that we can handle only so much, but we also have a responsibility to know what is happening in our world and to respond as we are able.

To stay informed without losing our peace of mind, it’s good to be aware of how news is packaged today and why even a steady diet of it is not only unsettling, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee an accurate or complete view of what’s going on in the world.

First, news is not only omnipresent, but highly visual and presented in a way that bombards us with images, trivia, and sound that often take precedence over substantive content. Before you turn on the TV or look at your computer, remember that you are about to enter a highly stimulating zone in which a discordant multitude of rapidly moving pictures and noise will be competing for your attention. On TV, images will be jousting with voices, music, and the news crawl at the bottom of the screen. On the web, advertisements will pop up in the middle of news stories, forcing you to decide whether you want to shoe shop, keep reading about the Ebola crisis, check out the links in the text, or go to a related story. All this is hardly calming.

News is also coming to us from sources other than news organizations as Twitter, Facebook, and email have become vehicles for sharing news and rumors of the latest political scandal, environmental threat, or constitutional crisis. Most of us could spend hours reading what comes from these alternative sources, especially if we belong to interest groups and have friends who post stories on social media or send them to their email contacts.

So before jumping into the roiling sea of news and information, we need to brace ourselves and think about why we’re going in. Is it stimulation we seek or do we know where we’re going and what we hope to find?

Ask yourself what you really need to know about the place you live and the issues and people you care about and where you can best get that information. Find a few sources you trust and stick to those. If you lean toward a particular point of view, add a source representing the opposition to your mix, for the sake of balance, keeping in mind that no presentation of news is going to be completely objective.

Then, consider before clicking if what you are about to read or view is something you’ve defined as a priority in your life or if you’re about to waste your time on gossip or frivolity.

Remember, too, that even when reading about priority topics, there is a risk of over-consuming. Recently, I was caught up in an email exchange with friends who shared my concern about an international news story. We busily forwarded links to each other as we speculated as to what it all meant. By the end of the day, I was weary, as was one of my friends, who wrote: “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting burned out about this whole thing. I could spend entire days reading and reading all the current news about what’s going on, but I am limiting myself. I find that it does me no good, and often makes me restless and anxious. It’s like the nightly news. Some info is important to know in regard to what is going on, but the rest just gets rehashed.”

When something big is happening, many of us have a tendency to watch and read nonstop. At some point, though, as my friend said, we are hearing little that is new and only recycled opinion and fact. That’s the time to take a break.

As for when to consume news, each person has to find his or her own schedule and establish some limits. At our house, we watch a local TV newscast in the morning long enough to get the weather, knowing that the news content is likely to be short and shallow on substance and long and deep on anchor chatter and the latest from the sports and entertainment worlds. Apart from one cable TV news show we watch weekly, we have pretty much abandoned all but occasional TV news programming and instead read news sites online along with two national newspapers that come to our house. We also try to leave the Internet at least two hours before bedtime.

When the news is disturbing, instead of dwelling on it or fleeing, it can help to take some action. Call a legislator, write a letter to the editor, post a civil comment on a website, donate to a charitable cause, or find a way to share what you deem important with others, perhaps allaying fears and correcting misinformation. People of faith also can pray. As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who was very much in tune with the news of his day, wrote in his journal in 1960, “It is simply a time that I must pray intently for the needs of the whole world and not be concerned with other, seemingly ‘more effective’ forms of action. For me, prayer comes first, the other forms of action follow, if they have their place. And they no doubt do to some extent.”*

*From A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals

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Engaging silence

“Silence, like the sunlight, will illuminate you in God.”

These words from the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton once greeted visitors to a barn in Monroe County, Michigan, that had been set apart as a place of quiet and prayer. The barn was closed a few years ago and has since been razed, but I thought of the sign on the door recently as I was reflecting on those among us who cannot live without constant sound. In their cars, they must have the audio system playing, and at home, the TV is always on, sometimes even as they fall asleep.

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Wood thrush. (This one is recovering on our deck after striking a window.)

In talking with friends who live or spend time with such people, I have pondered why this is so and, indeed, why all of us are uncomfortable with silence at times.

A writer friend tried to puzzle it out in an email as we were discussing the beginnings of this blog. She wrote, “What you’ve said reminds me of something I learned in Aristotle where he says the reason people are afraid to be alone (i.e., to be silent) is because they’re afraid of seeing who they really are. So, they fill their life with lots of distractions . . .”

Silence, as Merton suggested, does shine a light onto who and what we are, showing us things we would rather not see or consider. But perhaps it is just as true that our fondness for noise and stimulation is rooted in our fear of the seeming nothingness of silence and stillness – the vast abyss that looms before us when our tools and toys are set aside or turned off. The sheer magnitude of the quiet unsettles us and so we rush to fill it with something – anything – that can momentarily distract us and assuage our discomfort.

When blogger Kim Smith (NatureIsMyTherapy.com) wrote recently about her quest for more stillness and her struggle with distractions, she cited a piece in the Utne Reader on “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing.” In it, Christian Williams talks about “losing the ability to sit and do nothing” because he, like everyone around him, now habitually turns to a smart phone to fill down time. In urging us to “spend more time staring into space rather than into a screen,” he suggests that silence and stillness are breeding grounds for new ideas and solutions. I would add that being still is not so much a state of nothingness as a canvas ready to receive a different design or even a moment of delight. Silence is really a preparation, a cleansing, a clearing of the ground for something new or better that we will never hear or see if we constantly fill in the background with noise or stimulation. Some friends who have recently gone on silent retreats engage in this kind of purging when they agree to refrain from speaking, except to pray out loud or meet privately with a retreat leader. This discipline has a purpose: so they can hear the still, small voice of God that is often drowned out by the clamor of our lives.

The other morning, as I was waking, I heard a wood thrush singing outside. It is a sound I typically hear earlier in the spring and so I wasn’t especially listening for it, but the conditions were right: the window was open, the clock-radio was set for prime bird-singing time, and when it did go off, it was not blaring, but set to play gentle music at a low volume. I was also able to hear and enjoy this bird’s reedy song because I had made space to listen to and identify it some years ago. One spring evening, I followed the sound through the woods, eventually training my binoculars on its source and pairing the wood thrush I saw with the splendid sound I had been hearing. Had I not stilled myself and carved out some times of quiet to become an observer of birds, I would have missed this auditory treat, part of a rich feast of bird song available to anyone willing to listen and experience the enrichment it brings to life.

This is just one example, but in offering it, I mean to say that those who master silence and stillness lead lives that are anything but hollow. They may not have filled their minds, eyes, and ears with a panoply of ready stimuli that form the stuff of social chatter, but having confronted and engaged the seeming emptiness of silence and the initial discomfort it brings, they hear and see what so many miss – another layer of life that lies beyond and above the pressing business of what we call living.