“The News can’t be fixed. There is something about daily publication, all by itself, that distorts reality. That is why the addiction to News that so many of us share has brought on a kind of stupidity. Our whole society shares this stupidity, and so we have a hard time recognizing it.”
C. John Sommerville, ‘Why the News Makes us Dumb’
For some years I’ve listened daily to a few minutes of news on the radio when travelling to or from work. When a few weeks ago a reader suggested to me that news is a significant cause of stress today it gave me pause. I think she is right.
The omnipresence of News is more than a matter of its being broadcast in most every time and place in which we find ourselves. We actually carry it with us as a kind of backdrop for our lives.
And what a backdrop it is. You’ve seen and heard for yourself; you don’t need me to recount it. Political intrigue, presented at its most banal; physical violence, often with an emphasis on the firearms used; sexual misconduct of public figures, often in lurid detail; the advance of various ‘lifestyle’ choices presented with an air of detached and neutral objectivity; the ups and downs of ‘the economy’—whatever exactly that is, presented as the deterministic interactions of impersonal forces.
C. John Sommerville’s article in First Things, later expanded into a book, offers a thoughtful account of the manifold problem of News: News as carefully crafted product of an industry, which whatever other ends it has, must first of all be profitable; News as giving a false sheen of importance; News as obscuring the bigger context of things it reports; News as addictive and so on.
Right now I am simply noticing how the relentless presentation of certain things as news-worthy, and others implicitly as not, is oppressing. And even depressing.
Consider by way of contrast what I’ve heard of an old Sicilian tradition.
My brother is married to a lovely Sicilian, a sister of whom has explained to me a practice they called “i fatti” or “cuntare i fatti,” literally “to recount the things that have been done.” An elder would regularly, such as each Sunday, gather the young people around the fire and recount to them current events in the world or village, as well as the deeds of ancestors and other villagers. Interspersed among these stories were tales created in the imagination of the tellers, and often these tales would be serialized from week to week.
What a comparison: i fatti, and the News. Both provide a backdrop for life. Both, it would seem, speak to a deep human need to hear about ‘what’s going on’ and ‘what has happened.’ Both give a person a sense of the community to which he belongs, and of the broader story of which his own story is a part.
But one comes from the mind and heart of a family member or villager, and is tailored to the life and sensibilities of the hearers, while the other from a cynical industry with an agenda. One tends to give hope and good example; the other tends to drag down. One gives a sense of purpose and belonging; the other tends to alienate.
I am not saying there is no place at all for the News. Each of us will have to find our way. I think I’ll continue to listen to some—though perhaps less. My wife is grateful that I do it in her stead. I think I’ll also look for better sources of intelligent digests and commentary.
Would that it were easier to forge our own version of i fatti; I’m certainly going to ruminate on how we might. Yet in any case when I find myself wondering “What’s happening in the world this morning” I will try to remember: instead of turning to mass media, I can simply look outside my window, or think of various households that I have known well.
The sun is rising today, and it is presiding over a host of natural processes the wonder of which is undimmed by human folly. And mothers, fathers and their children are waking up and turning with a purpose to the rhythm of a daily life shot through with meaning. I will try to have these things, among some others, provide a backdrop for my daily life.
Stress and Its Causes Mini-Series
II: Stress: The Lack of Presence in Our Lives
IV: Stress: News as a Backdrop for Life
V: The Stress of Relating to Our Spouse, or Anyone Else of the Other Sex
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This is helpful as I continue to struggle to discern how much and what sort of Church news is appropriate for me, particularly given impact it can have on my spiritual well-being, my emotions, and my thinking. Although your post doesn’t address the subject of Church news, the conclusion I draw from it is that it is a sadly impoverished faith that draws too much from the contentious goings-on in the 21st century Church. If I am going to spend daily time reading about the Faith, one could argue that even five minutes a day on current Church news and opinion overemphasizes the hot button issues of the present. My time would be far, far better spent filling my mind and imagination with the treasures offered to us by saints and authors of great literature or just by going for a walk in the woods behind our house! Any recommendations you or anyone else could offer on approaching Church news, particularly now that much of it is unsettling, would be appreciated.
Thank you for this heartfelt comment. I am deeply sympathetic with what you share, and I think you are already thinking very clearly about what your best approach might be. I would only add this thought: I try to remember that the Lord is well aware of problems in the Church. My fretting, complaining and worrying achieves nothing; to some extent it shows a lack of faith and a lack of focus on what is most important. My place is to be faithful in the position I have; my place is not to fret about the extent to which others seem to fail in their positions. God has foreseen all; and all things will work together for the good. This, I keep reminding myself. Thank you again.
I will often scan the headlines of my city’s main newspaper but most often will not read the articles. Sometimes I will, but only if I need to follow the details of a story. I almost cannot handle auditory news (radio and tv) because it’s not just the details but the way they are spoken that raises tension in my body.
As a therapist, I find I can listen to client’s details of their lives and traumas, but I am aware that I have to limit that charism in everyday life. Likewise, not all people are gifted with the ability to hear the gory details (as you recount above) in news segments; nor are they always relevant to the story.
Sometimes I will listen to Catholic radio to hear a 5 minute recap of the day’s news and I always read the local and world news in my local Catholic newspaper.
Thank you for sharing this. What you relate makes a lot of sense. Wow do I know what you mean when you say: “…because it’s not just the details but the way they are spoken that raises tension in my body.” It’s interesting to think how as a therapist you know that there is real purpose to hearing the traumas that you hear. You can enter into the suffering of others in a special way. The news, however, does not bring this about.
May God bless your work.
“I fatti” sounds like a good description of a good homily.
Thank you, that’s an interesting thought! When I first saw this comment I thought it said “… a good description of a good family.” And I was thinking: indeed, would that more families could devise such a rich and intentional way to pass on their heritage.
I think your comment points to how there is something natural in the form of how i fatti was done that makes it very appealing and accessible to people.
I still think Sertillanges in _The Intellectual Life_ was wise in his recommendation of a weekly review over daily news. He was referring to newspapers, of course, but I have translated this into a regular practice of a week-in-review podcast. Though it’s not perfect and is not quite ideologically neutral (if such a thing were possible), my preferred source is the Friday News Roundup at NPR’s the1a.org. There you get about 40 minutes of domestic affairs and then 40 minutes of international affairs, with both news and analysis from intelligent journalists. It sometimes takes a few days for me to get through it on my much shorter drive to work, but I find it’s freeing to allow myself to be “a few days behind.” They tend to avoid fluff stories and go into worthwhile depth and contextualization. You cut down on ephemera and ultimately benefit from material having been digested and pondered over the course of the week.
Here is Sertillanges (toward the end of part 1 of chapter 7, “Preparation for Work”):
“As to newspapers, defend yourself against them with the energy that the continuity and the indiscretion of their assault make indispensable. You must know what the papers contain, but they contain so little; and it would be easy to learn it all without settling down to interminable lazy sittings! Anyhow, there are hours more suitable than working hours for running after the news. A serious worker should be content, one would think, with the weekly or bi-monthly chronicle in a review; and for the rest, with keeping his ears open, and turning to the daily papers only when a remarkable article or a grave event is brought to his notice.”
I really appreciate this quotation from Sertillanges. At the same time that he sees the daily barrage of news as an indiscreet assault, he suggests that we should find a way to remain reasonably current on the news. Surely this is because a person should be prepared to participate in various affairs of the community and to arrange his own affairs in view of what is happening in the broader community. Yet it is interesting to consider how few of the things offered as ‘news’ are in fact relevant to our practical considerations. Thus a digest such as the one you suggest really does seem to fit the bill. I thank you for sharing your practice; I am going to try to emulate it.