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Bury Your Head or Go Insane? Dealing with the Flood of News & Social Media

“I wonder if being sane means disregarding the chaos that is life, pretending only an infinitesimal segment of it is reality.” –Rabih Alameddine, Koolaids: The Art of War 

Hello friend,

I lost my temper on social media this week. I feel ashamed of it now as I think of the moment. Not ashamed of what I said—in fact, I wish I had said more to make my point more clear—but rather, ashamed that I let what is happening on the news and in social media cause me to boil over in rage.

I am a mellow, happy guy and have a habit of very deliberate processing with my journal that allows me to deliver measured, thoughtful responses to most issues that arise in my day. I don’t fly off the handle. My opinions may ruffle feathers, but not usually my delivery. Because I don’t lose my temper. I don’t write angry. Until Tuesday….

Probably like you, I followed the big story of last weekend—the ban on refugees and travel restrictions from certain Muslim-majority countries and its subsequent protests—on the news and through social media. The nature of the ban, as well as the criteria for selection of the nations involved in it, was deeply disturbing to me and only the latest in a long line of red flags being raised in my conscience regarding the new administration. I admit to being highly sensitive to the reputation of America internationally being dragged into the mud, and also when I feel the government does things that increase the gap between the ideals that America supposedly represents and the reality we are representing in practice. So, I was already edgy going into the new week.

After the election, I had mostly removed myself from social media until around Christmas. And though I kept tabs on the news, it was a much-needed break from the idea circus that is Facebook and the like. After the holidays, I slowly inched back onto my apps and, not surprisingly, became progressively re-addicted. I use social media as much for news as to see what my people are thinking about and doing. If I watch CNN on television or listen to NPR on the radio, then I subscribe to them on social media. So, I get a mix of real news and then my friends’ interpretation and reaction to the news (mixed in with some fun photos of their kids and their food, and an occasional cat video).

If you have been alive with your head above ground these last couple of weeks, you probably know that all is not running so smoothly in America. If you only watched reputable news channels and didn’t even know what “social media” meant, you would know that. Likewise, if you were a social media nut but didn’t care a thing about “serious” news outlets, you would also be aware of the tension that currently defines us at this point. And if, like me, you have both regular news and social media, well, you are swimming in it!

By Tuesday night, I definitely needed some goggles and a snorkel.

I had watched in horror as the Executive Orders came down. I heard the stories of people unable to return to their jobs and families here in America after visiting relatives in banned countries. I thought of the many Somali families in my own community—classmates of my children—and how they would be affected. I thought of the refugee family that my church is sponsoring—we had their apartment all set up with furniture and supplies—who was supposed to arrive this week from Somalia that is now stuck in Kenya (the mother has been in the refugee camp there for twenty years, her children never knowing any other place). That part was particularly heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, of course, I wondered about the fate of our schools as the Senate seemed about to confirm someone who seemed wholly incompetent to be in charge of them; and about the future of free speech in America as even the most neutral, even-handed news outlets are being warned and belittled by the administration; and about the environment and climate change scientists as they come under attack; and about whether our next Attorney General would actually stand on the side of the law and the Constitution; and on and on and on. There was no shortage of stories, no shortage of crises.

In the midst of all of the news and reactions Tuesday evening, as my blood pressure seemed to rise with every post, I read one from a childhood acquaintance, a long rant (her word) about how President Obama had just done this same ban on Cubans two weeks ago, and where was the liberal media then, and angrily on and on. This is when I should have checked myself, turned off all electronics for the day, and taken some deep breaths. But no. I let it make my blood boil, the effects of too much time in front of the screen taking hold. Even though her whole premise was based on a falsehood, making the argument completely unsound, I couldn’t just laugh it off. I was on the very edge of writing a reply to her and setting her straight, but I gathered my wits just enough to recognize that with some people, there is just no talking sense into them (another lesson from my short time on Facebook).

And just as I began to think I had done well in resisting a fight, I scrolled down and hit the one that sent me over the edge. It was from someone I wasn’t even sure I knew, but I think she was in my brother’s class in school. Anyway, it was a meme—of course it was a meme, it is always a meme—with a picture of the plane hitting the World Trade Center on September 11, saying something like “For all of you whining about the ban on Muslims, a little reminder for you.” I almost screamed. I was absolutely livid! I could not let it go. So, against the better judgment I had just applauded myself for a moment earlier, I clicked on the “Write a comment…” space. I typed the first thing that came out of my head (after the swearing, I mean): “Are you serious, Sheila? Perhaps we should post a picture of the KKK performing a lynching and call for a ban of all Christians.” Return. That was it.

As I sat there fuming, I thought of other things I wanted to say to her, such as “Interestingly, none of the nineteen hijackers on September 11 were from the seven countries banned by the President. They were from four other countries, all of which the President has business ties to.” And I almost hit the Comment box again, but thankfully, I found my senses again. But I didn’t let go of my outrage. I was still stewing about it late that night, tossing in my bed as I tried to sleep.

I knew it wasn’t just this one stupid meme that was tormenting me. It was all of it: the Executive Orders, the incompetence, the acrimony on both sides of the political aisle, the nonsensical responses on Facebook and Twitter, the fear that my friends feel and that I feel for them, the embarrassment on behalf of my country, the shame that I am not doing more to speak up and resist, and so much more.

I confessed my anger and my torment to my wife the next morning. I told her I was torn. On the one hand, I liked my several weeks away from social media and just a small but sufficient amount of regular news on a neutral news app. I was less stressed, riding the “Ignorance is bliss” theory. It made me think of a conservative friend of mine, whom I had spoken to just after the election and who knew I was bummed about it. She said, “I don’t even watch the news about this stuff. But at least I’m happy!”

It is hard to argue with happy. On the other hand, I don’t just want to bury my head in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening around me. As uncomfortable as it is, I think it is necessary to wrestle with that discomfort and figure out my place in its midst.

I feel like the biggest danger to us is indifference. Not caring. Not speaking up to support what our cause or idea is (or worse, not caring enough to even have an opinion). Just quietly letting it happen to us. I think of my hero Martin Luther King as he was considering his greatest obstacles to progress, well aware that it was not the Ku Klux Klan or other extremists but rather the masses of polite but silent white people allowing the violence and oppression to continue. “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

I think that appalling silence comes more frequently when we bury our heads in the sand, allowing denial to rule. It is a pleasant denial, but I am seeing now that in our most divisive moments, that pleasant denial is mostly cowardice. That conclusion doesn’t sit well with me. I think again of Dr. King, who reminded us, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of controversy and challenge.” There is a slippery kind of comfort and convenience to tuning out the world in times like now. Just turning off the news and social media. It is so, so alluring. Tragically so.

But how much is enough? That is the question that is torturing me now. I am determined to maintain my composure, to not let myself get as livid as I was on Tuesday night after too many hours of accumulating news stories and social media opinions. But I want to know the truth about the world, too. I want all the facts. I know I will be outraged by some, and I think it is probably time that more of us were outraged and moved to action by events in our world. But under control! I am not going to lose my temper. I am going to channel it the right way. But not in denial!

ARGH!!! This is hard! What is the right balance of intake versus processing, of reality versus sanity? That was my question to my wife.

Her suggestion: “Just pick one time per day—I think morning is best—to do a quick look at social media. Then, if you still want a regular news show, listen to something neutral, like NPR. But nothing more. Quick and done! Otherwise, you are sucked in!” That seems wise.

I have been attempting to follow her advice the last few days, mostly successfully. I sometimes, out of sheer habit, unconsciously turn on my phone, open Facebook, and start thumbing through. But then I catch myself and turn it off. I am just trying to be more conscious about it, to give myself permission to look only at a certain time of day for only a certain number of minutes. It is hard to resist, but I can tell my spirit is getting stronger for it. Not in denial, either. Facing reality, but not swimming in the rot. It is a delicate balance that I will no doubt be wrestling with for all of my days to come.

How about you? How do you balance denial with peace and sanity in these tumultuous times? Open up your journal and examine your level of engagement. This goes for everyone on every side of the political spectrum, and even those completely off the political spectrum who are simply trying to decide how much news of any sort they want to take in. Let’s start with your current habits. What are your news sources? Do you watch your local news? Cable news? Do you use news apps or subscribe to news pages on social media? If so, do you tend to choose more neutral sources or ones that skew toward your particular side of the spectrum? Do you read a lot of the “news” things that your friends on social media share? How about the radio, like NPR? How much time do you spend with each on a daily basis? How much time do you spend on social media in general? For both news and social media stuff, do you try to regulate the amount of time you spend per day? Are you addicted? How healthy is your relationship with all of this stuff? Does it ever feel like it is going to drive you crazy? Do you get angry? Is your anger and frustration more from the news in general, like the political strife or violence that always seem to lead the headlines, or from particular things that your friends share, like memes or rants? Do you comment and engage people you disagree with, even if you know it won’t change their mind? Does that make you feel better or worse? Have you found the right balance for yourself with the amount of time and energy you can devote to this stuff and still feel authentic and at peace? Are you more on the “Burying My Head & Smiling” side or the “I’m So Engaged I’m Going Crazy” side? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is the right balance of news and sanity for you?

May Peace be always with you,

William

P.S. If today’s letter helped you take a fresh look at this and find some clarity, please share. Perhaps together we can find a way to be both sane and engaged. Cheers!