An Argument for Turning Off the News

The amount of misery in the world remains strikingly steady over time. People around the world are maligned or even destroyed because of their religion, skin color, gender, size, sexual orientation.

What can the average person do about the overwhelming pain and strife riding with us through time? Yes, a special leader can step up and make substantial changes. Yes, we need to work together for a better society. But do we need to know about every atrocity, every crime, every time human depravity wells up from dark places?

Our media – sensationalist, rooted in human instinct, and efficient – broadcasts injustices over our shrinking planet for all to see. Nicholas Kristoff, my favorite columnist, travels the globe to report on humanitarian crises, human rights abuses by governments and nations, domestic crimes. Exposing vile circumstances helps us cap the quota of pain on Earth. But how much can you or I do about the fact of human suffering?

Though I disagree with Mother Teresa on some fine points (like women’s health and theism), I agree with her here:

“What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”

– Mother Teresa

In fact, this post will be peppered with the sister’s jewels of wisdom, because she spoke robustly on the topic: ACT LOCALLY. We cannot save every little boy and girl from starving or suffering. We cannot prevent every rape. We cannot guarantee that every human brain is wired without glitches that might create sociopaths. But I can watch out for my friends. I can lend a struggling family a little support. We can embody upright values in our community.

Action

Sometimes I ask myself, how much of my life should involve the contemplation and absorption of foul narratives? Never before has so much information been so readily available. According to some calculations, we’re inundated by more than 174 newspaper’s worth of information every day. As pointed out in this article, a hundred years ago, an individual would have been lucky to read fifty books in a lifetime. Now news streams to us via telephone and TV and computer at ever faster speeds. Those innumerable horror stories aren’t a world away, they’re staring at us from a smart phone. That’s a good thing insofar as we can do something about it. But we can’t do something about everything. Mother Teresa knew it. She said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.”

We may receive the equivalent of 174 newspapers of information every day, but much of this news is bad news. And we are missing out on two things. First, we too often fail to see good news. Second, our local problems are overridden by more shocking developments that are not only out of our reach but unrelated to our lives. Meanwhile, that local youth program lost its funding. A homeless person froze to death in the slues last week. That neighbor kid went hungry all weekend until he could get back to school for state food.

A Hero in my House

My wife recently inspired me with her embodiment of Sister Teresa’s suggestion: “Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” You see, we work in a school district, matching at-risk youth with volunteer mentors who boost these kids’ self-confidence, social skill, and school attachment. Each day, Megan supports these matches that, as one mentee put it, gives kids “a reason to get up and go to school, and a reason to feel better at the end of the day.” Still, Megan identified one kid to whom she could give something extra. This kid had been truant 75% of the first month of school. He never exercised. He was bullied for his weight. He was depressed and lonely and without hope.

Megan started exercising with him, taking him on walks around the school. She began pumping him up with a mantra: Come to school every day – I can do it, I know the way.

She would start: Come to school every day. He would finish: I can do it, I know the way. Rain or shine, she’d walk laps with him. Busy or tired or stressed, she always made time.

John’s class was scheduled to go on a field trip today, a hike to Delicate Arch. It’s a mile and a half uphill climb to the most incredible vista in Arches National Park. A month before the hike, it became obvious; this field trip would defeat John. He hadn’t ever been on a hike up steep slickrock. He hadn’t walked even a mile before. Chances were good that he’d have to stop with an aide and wait for his class to come back down. He wasn’t going to make it.

Over the last four weeks, Megan upped the length of their daily walks. She started talking him through visualizations of what the trail would be like, the terrain, the rock formations, his progress. They found games to pick up his pace, chasing each other’s shadows, playing tag, letting other kids join in, asking a friend to bring her dog for a walk. John loved Maya, and that happy dog pulled him by her leash, running through campus and over to the church lawn and across the nearby park, leading the panting kid toward better health.

Field Trip

The big class trip. Megan and John left early in our car, to get a head start. Megan talked with John about pacing, and she agreed to carry along his golden Pokémon card so he could hold it during their breaks. Half way up the big hill, John and Megan watched the bus pull into the parking lot below, the kids stream out into the morning sunlight. John climbed to his feet and started going again, remembering from their visualization exercises, “We’re more than half way. Soon there will be a ramp of slanting rock.”

They took a few more breaks. They carefully navigated an exposed ledge. Megan watched John’s face as they rounded the last bend and got a look at the iconic vision of Utah, the most spectacular rock feature of the West. John stopped. “Oh, WOW!” He didn’t think it would be so big. He didn’t realize he’d be so close. Visualization hadn’t captured the improbability of this rock formation.

John, left, enjoying the view of Delicate Arch, Arches National Park.

A little while later, his class showed up, kids panting. “Wow!” a girl exclaimed. “How did you get up here so fast, John?” He just beamed, the happiest kid on Earth.

A Cup of Light

John hasn’t missed a day of school in months. His mom reports, “This is the happiest I’ve ever seen him.” His grades are up. He’s gaining more friends in his class. A few days ago, John said, “School is better now, because Megan walks with me every day.”

Where will the average, extraordinary person do the most good? Locally.

I vow to read a little less bad news. I vow to be more like my wife. I vow to live more like Mother Teresa:

“Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

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8 thoughts on “An Argument for Turning Off the News

  1. I had just finished reading some more bad news online just before this came up, so I could really identify with the feeling of being overwhelmed by all the bad news. I was just as excited about this kid when I read your account, if not more excited than the day Megan called to report his success. I am constantly amazed by her gift to reach these kids. I know you have played a large part in her development as a person who touches others. I would love to learn to be so encouraging. Thanks for sharing. I think you give all of us something to think about. I loved a lot of Mother Theresa’s thoughts on reaching out to others. I appreciated her living her faith rather than preaching.

    • It’s a pleasure to see Megan connect with youth who have lost their way. How fortunate is a world where she spreads good will – nourished by your family and realized through singular compassion – as a matter of routine? Very lucky indeed.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Beautiful story about John’s success and well done, Megan. Good to know that what you are doing has such clear value. Not many of us can say that.
    A comedian made a joke the other day about how the news MADE the economic crisis. If it weren’t for watching and reading the reports we may well have not realised there was anything wrong. Economy is all about trust, confidence and speculation and the reporting sent it haywire. You get what you expect to get, right – visualisation…
    I often have thought about what I want to do with my life in this grand world but you are right, act locally.

    • Yes, Simon, I’m very interested in this topic of perception changing reality. There is something beautiful and scary about the notion that ideas (many nebulous and unfounded) can have such dramatic consequences. You point out a great example. This phenomenon seems to apply to the human species as a whole, but also to the individual. Seeing isn’t always believing; what we believe is often what we see.

  3. I know someone who will spend hours retelling every gruesome news report in detail and bitch about the bad news while they are retelling it !! One day, I realized that they were becoming the very poison they so fiercely despised. We do become what we ingest, both physically and mentally.
    And your Megan/hike story… More proof that awareness does change the outcome. Maybe we all need to spend more time being aware of the GOOD STUFF ! Bravo to Megan and thanks Dan for this story, and taking the time to make us all a little more aware of the good stuff going on right here in our own backyard !

    • Kathy, if only I could tell all the wonderful stories of GrandAM mentors (like YOU) who are making a difference in our community! We’re lucky that in our line of work, it’s easy to find amazing neighbors quietly doing great deeds.

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