I rarely follow the news and almost never get it direct from news sources. What news I’m up on tends to find it’s way to me through filters – blogs I read, emails from friends, Facebook posts and hearsay.
This is not because of laziness or a lack of concern with being informed. Indeed, I love information, trivia, knowledge and truth. However, I found that keeping up on the news, especially reading papers and watching news shows, significantly diminished my quality of life. It made me angry and depressed more often than not.
This is not because the cold, hard realities of terrestrial life are simply all bad news. In fact every day billions of people are voluntarily, peacefully co-operating and being made better off through trade, commerce, community, and friendship. Millions of things are invented, quality of life improves, the creative destruction of the market (in both goods and ideas) brings about untold beauty and opportunity. Indeed, with a little bit of reflection it is not hard to see how vast, mysterious and awesome life is, even in the smallest tasks of a typical day.
But, probably for rational reasons, the news chooses to focus on those relatively few happenings between relatively few people that are violent, coercive and troubling. A disproportionate amount of space is devoted to that tiny sliver of our individual and societal existence, politics, and nearly all the rest to all the other dangers and troubles in the universe.
It’s not an accurate picture of the world, nor is it particularly useful. I think it was for this reason (and perhaps the generally bad quality of the writing) that C.S. Lewis warned against frequent newspaper reading. Mark Twain (I think) said “Those who don’t read the news are uninformed. Those who do are misinformed”.
Does this mean we turn a blind eye to reality so that we can be happy? Isn’t that a form of escapism? Frankly, I think that’s the wrong question.
There is a phenomenal scene in The Silver Chair, part of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, where a group of children and a kindly swamp creature are trapped in an underground world by an evil queen. The queen has them under a sort of spell and she is trying to convince them that there is no outside world, but only the cavernous underworld. When they object and say that the outside world is real she asks them what it is like. They tell her it has a sun, which is much like the lights in the cave only bigger and brighter; it has lions which are much like the cats of the underworld only grander and more fierce, and so on.
The queen remarks that there is no outside world at all, but that the children have simply taken things from the real world and pretended they were bigger and better. It was a mere game, and the reality was in the caves all along.
The group is on the verge of being persuaded of this sad state when the humble swamp creature proclaims that even if this were true, what would it say about the real world? What kind of world would it be if children could easily create a make-believe world that was so much better? Even if the outside world is make-believe, he declares, it’s so much preferable to the “real world” underground that he’d rather go on pretending. At that the spell was broken, hope restored and the deceptive queen’s power rendered inert.
It is more than a mere cliche to say that perception is reality. Expectation is also reality. Believing a better world is real and possible makes this world better, if for no other reason than that positive, optimistic people are more pleasant to be around.
The evidence also supports optimism. Who could ever have predicted the kinds of technologies and opportunities we have available today even just 50 or 100 years ago? The iPhone alone is jam packed with capabilities that were the stuff of sci-fi even a decade ago.
Why then do we listen to the news when it constantly reports on the fearful side of the present and future? That is only one view of reality. It’s a tiny slice of all that is, and a very unrepresentative slice at that. If a human can only take in so much of reality at once, why would I focus on the negative in a sea of positive?
I’d rather create my own reality – a powerful, free, beautiful one – than get angry about the false reality portrayed by the news. If that’s escapism, so be it. Escaping something bad into something better is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a choice to perceive and embrace reality in a more useful, constructive manner.
It doesn’t mean injustice doesn’t exist, or that there are not things I am hoping and fighting to change – not least of which are in myself. It just means there are better ways of doing it and thinking about it.
Instead of letting it be selected for me, I choose each day what bits of news I take in about the vast and wondrous universe. It beats the hell out of the paper.