The Christian life is a revolutionary life because the Christian assumes a critical distance from the world and in spite of all contradictions, keeps saying that a new humanity and a new peace are possible and they cannot come about without us …
Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands
“How do you get your news? Paper? TV? Internet?”
Well-meaning interlocutors who go around with this question on their lips assume too much. They assume, for instance, that the person they’re interrogating actually wants to “get the news.” They also overlook a circumstance that even the most obtuse among us can hardly have failed to note: namely, that, sooner or later, the news is going to “get” you whether you want it to or not.
“Getting” the news is not the problem. The real challenge is finding some forgotten corner of the universe where it might be possible, even for a single blessed moment, to escape the news.
The news, in all of its diverse forms, has in our day become what Blaise Pascal called a diversion. A diversion, said Pascal, is something we pursue because it prevents us from facing the truth about ourselves. “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance,” he wrote in his Pensees, “men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” Provided it serves to block these unpleasant thoughts, a diversion can be as petty, as silly, or as random as you please: “Men spend their time chasing a ball or a hare; it is the very sport of kings.”
Diversions such as the news keep us so busy that we never notice the vanity of the world, the vacuity of our daily existence, or the bankruptcy of our own moral and spiritual condition. As long as our attention remains riveted on the results of the election, the score of the game, updates about the missing Malaysian airliner, or the latest exploits of Lindsay Lohan, we don’t have to remember that we have no idea who we are, why we’re here, or what we’re supposed to be doing.
Pascal saw all of this clearly. What he may not have foreseen was the advent of a day when the tables would be turned and our diversions would start pursuing us.
Such is the current state of affairs. In many of its details – particularly the frenetic pace of the chase – it is unprecedented. But it’s not altogether new. Far from it. Even in the 1840s Thoreau had begun to feel the suffocating effects of its approach:
Hardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, “What’s the news?”… After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. “Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man anywhere on this globe,” – and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wachito River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark un-fathomed Mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“But the rudiment of an eye.” One wonders about the appropriateness of Thoreau’s word-choice here. A “rudiment” is an “elemental beginning;” whereas we, the victims of the modern media barrage, have only a “vestige”. We can hardly see anything anymore – hardly anything, that is, except what they want us to see.
It was in an attempt to cultivate within himself something more than this mere “rudiment of an eye” – to develop a deeper and subtler inward sensitivity to real truth – that Thoreau withdrew to Walden Pond. As he put it, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” In other words, he went to the woods to achieve that critical distance from distraction and diversion without which it is impossible to see what must otherwise remain unseen. He went to the woods to escape the news in order that he might become new.
This kind of distance is of paramount importance to all who wish to follow the Pilgrim Path. It is, in fact, the second of our distinctive Pilgrim values. Jesus knew all about it. That’s why “He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16). He forsook the world that He might see the world for what it really is. He separated Himself from the world that He might love it with a pure and deathless love.
We can do the same if we care enough to put our minds to it. If and when we do, we will make a surprising discovery: it is only in turning off the “news” that we prepare ourselves to receive, reflect, and embody the very Best News of all.