Caught in the Current of Current Events

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

“The newspaper is the second hand in the clock of history; and it is not only made of baser metal than those which point to the minute and the hour, but it seldom goes right.”

– Arthur Schopenhauer

There’s a story that when Napoleon’s army was abroad at war, his mail would come only sparingly. By the time he was presented with a decision to make, most matters had often already settled themselves out in real time. Ironically, not knowing the latest updates proved to be useful to him. His ignorance allowed him to see the larger picture at hand and not get dragged into minor details. Doing nothing, it turns out, was often the best thing Napoleon ever did.

Unlike the heir of the Republic, I check the news a lot. I’m devoted to the latest updates of Who Did What, Who Said What, Who Won What, and Who Wore What. My excuse is that I’m being a responsible citizen; that it’s important to be informed; that I’ll have more balanced views (about who wore what). Staying abreast to current events, however, doesn’t seem to help my actual life. Rarely have I checked the news and thought to myself, “I’m glad I did that. I feel better now.”

There seems to be something deeper going on than wanting to be informed.

Another 19th century Frenchie, poet Paul Valery, once wrote, “If some great catastrophe is not announced every morning, we feel a certain void. ‘Nothing in the paper today,’ we sigh.” I happened to read this quote in the middle of an exciting news week: the Super Bowl, the Iowa Caucus, a Democratic debate, the Oscars, the upcoming New Hampshire Primary, and – I’m ashamed to admit – the Coronavirus which has claimed the lives of over 1,000 people. The news, as we know it, can so easily turn the world – people’s actual lives – into a spectator sport. Paul Valery has helped me realize that, for me, the news was no longer a way of staying informed, but my drug of choice. The fact that his observation was made two hundred years ago only goes to show that our tendency to feed on current events runs far deeper than our current political climate. We have always been desperate to live outside of the ordinary. And what good does it do?

While staying updated on one’s ever-changing news feed seems like the responsible thing to do, my experience and world history both prove the opposite. Living from headline to headline often leaves me in a lingering state of panic. While knowledge can equip me to solve problems, it can only go so far, especially when the problems are too big for me to face. Ironically, I’m sometimes prone to be even more misguided in my personal life than before.

This happened on a grander scale in wartime England leading up to the German blitzkrieg [warning: animal lovers may want to skip this part]. In early September 1939, the citizens of London were so afraid that they were going to run out of supplies and not have enough food for their pets that they euthanized 26% percent of the city’s pet population. In a wave of panic, 400,000 dogs and cats were exterminated over a period of about four days in what would be later called “The Great Cat and Dog Massacre” (covered extensively in a book by Hilda Kean). None of this was done out of real necessity. The British government didn’t issue any instructions to kill any animals. It was a spontaneous act by a people who were terrified by the thought of war. Of course, almost immediately, people realized that they had made a terrible mistake. This is often what happens when we are living fearfully in the moment, when we feel like the responsible thing to do is to take matters into our own hands, when there is a problem that we cannot control and we think the answer is to control it. So what can be done?

A friend of mine says his doctor prescribes a “news fast” for people who struggle with worry and anxiety. According to my friend, this doctor is someone who cares deeply about people and the world. The doctor isn’t prescribing denial as much as he is relieving his patients of the duty to carry the world’s burdens. His prescription is a bit like a sabbath, the law instituted by God that was designed to help us rest. Often times, when you stop moving you realize that the world, in fact, keeps turning. And then you realize that you are not turning the world. And then you realize that you are not God. And then you realize that’s a good thing.

In these moments, it helps me to consider the Apostle Paul’s words: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). While the news that the world provides often leaves us in a state of panic and confusion, the Bible offers a type of news that we call good, news that can’t be manipulated or twisted, news that is objectively true. It is both current and eternal. It addresses the plight of the world, it diagnoses the problem, but it also brings a solution. As we receive it, we find that it’s not just headlines or abstract information, but the ultimate Human Interest story. It is news that has to do with a loving God, a sovereign God who loves the world and keeps it spinning, a God whose primary interest is you.

Featured cartoon from The New Yorker.