There’s life outside the news

  • October 25, 2006

I have lately taken to reading about God’s holy ones, as we find their doings and sayings condensed and compiled in such compendia as Butler’s Lives of the Saints and The Oxford Books of Saints. It’s an activity I can recommend to anyone who wants to broaden his or her understanding of God’s wonderful work in transfiguring and renewing human life. It is also fascinating to visit far-distant Christians (and not so distant ones) and get a sense of their struggles — which are often quite similar to the ones we face in modern times.

One of the saints with whom I’ve recently become acquainted is St. John the Dwarf. This short man was one of those many remarkable people who, in the dying days of the Roman Empire, forsook the sociable life of cities and took himself into the Egyptian desert. The goal of these desert monks, as Thomas Merton has put it, was not to escape anything, but rather to find themselves in God, free of the day-to-day distractions and obligations that bog us all down in civilized society. St. John became famous for his spiritual simplicity and wise counsel. And for one other thing: his avoidance of the news of the day.

Reading about St. John’s life and witness, I was especially struck by this last point. How could I not be? All my career as a writer has been spent in close contact with news organizations — newspapers, magazines, radio and television networks — either as an employee or as a freelance contributor. But even if I were pursuing some other line of work, I would still be aswim in a sea of news, coming at us from the daily press, from TV and the Internet. Google News, one of my favourite web sources, is forever gathering and sorting thousands of articles on whatever is topical at the moment and making them readily available to everyone. For Catholics with access to the web, there is Catholic News Service and Zenit. Whatever your interest — sports, technology, business, politics, entertainment and so on — there is a news service, news channel or news program to satisfy it.

Given our instant and continuous access to sources, it would be quite easy to spend all one’s waking hours doing nothing at all other than attending to the news of the day. As a writer for mass media, I feed an awesome machine. As a consumer of news, I have recently found myself rather uncomfortably addicted to the lazy pleasure of checking Google News whenever I take a coffee break. I guess doing so is relatively harmless. At least I think it is.

But the example of St. John the Dwarf gives me pause. Here is one of those eminently free men of the desert — one of those Christians the church holds up as an embodiment of what life and liberty can be — who did very well without something we modern people spend hours a day chasing. Not long ago, I caught myself drifting into the habit of watching two solid hours of television news a night. That’s in addition to the many moments throughout the day with Google News, and whatever other news source I check out.

In the end, all this news-watching and news-checking adds up to a great passivity that cannot be good for the soul or society. I am aware that there could be certain exceptions to the rule. Watching the horrifying news from Sudan, for instance, could arguably lead people to do something concrete for the victims in Darfur — send financial aid, write letters encouraging governments to act now to stop the genocide, and so on. But how many pictures of destitute women and children can one see without being numbed? Is the glut of war-zone imagery on TV and the Internet really making people more active in the work of justice or peace? Or is it merely making the world of suffering seem both impossibly remote and terribly permanent and altogether too overwhelming to do anything about?

Whether as producers or consumers of news, we need to be more vigilant about the role of mass media in our lives — more aware of the downside of paying so much attention to the news of the world, which St. John lived so well and fully without.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)