Clicking on my car radio, I hear two voices discussing—vehemently—a federal government conflict. Opening my podcast app, I find an entire category dedicated to “News,” or informing listeners of the latest scandals or controversies. And scrolling through YouTube, I find a host of suggestions for dogmatic political commentary.
The mere volume of news outlets, encompassing written resources, news channels, podcasts, and more, makes it clear: News is a major part of most Americans’ lives.
And while it might be easy to dismiss the onslaught of current events or snappy advice as insignificant or peripheral to who we are as a society, it might also indicate Americans’ growing apathy for the world immediately around them.
As Rolf Dobelli, writing for The Guardian, challenged his readers, “Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that—because you consumed it—allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.”
His point is clear: Much of everyday news fails to affect our daily lives. In some sense, news lets us avoid our real lives, pushing our attention outward into realms where it’s easier to feel charitable or kind.
Think about it this way: In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis depicts an older demon, Screwtape, admonishing a younger demon, Wormwood, on how best to diminish their “patient’s” true virtue. Screwtape tells Wormwood to focus the patient’s mind on things not in his immediate realm of experience:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.
To put it another way, when we focus our attention on news that’s irrelevant to us, we run the danger of making our consequent emotional response—sympathy, compassion, or righteous anger—a comfortingly imaginary construct. For example, we may read about children being abused in Iraq, and so we feel compassion for these children. But that compassion is focused far away and never gets expressed in our own immediate environment. How can we meaningfully invest our energy in unknown children across the world?
We run the danger of wasting our time, energy, and attention watching the news or scrolling through social media posts instead of directing it usefully toward our own communities. Our attention moves away from us, and we risk neglecting those around us.
We might consider the example of American colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards, who once resolved to “as far as [he could], be concerned about nothing but [his] duty and [his] sin.” And while Edwards’ statement might feel overly strong to us today, his basic idea rings true: The things that we most need to concern ourselves with are the things closest to home. Our “duty” is our own daily responsibilities—what we need to do—and our “sin”—that is, our shortcomings. Both are immanent, and neither requires flicking on the TV.
Of course, not all news is irrelevant, and it’s doubtful that news should be entirely abolished from our lives. On the contrary, news can be helpful when it equips us to do our duty well and live our lives in a more faithful way. We need only ask the question: Is the time and attention spent on such-and-such a news item truly contributing to living life well?
In the end, the question is one of responsibility and conscientiousness. We need to beware of falling into the trap that Lewis warned of: Believing that the events reported on the news or social media take precedence over our real lives. Because in the end, it is our actual virtues—not our imagined ones—that define us.
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