On June 1, 1980, the Cable News Network (CNN) debuted and became the world’s first 24-hour television news network. Before then, you would have to wait for a small portion of evening programming dedicated to televising “the News” or wait for the morning newspaper on your doorstep. After that, you could go on living your life.
With the gradual advent of the internet in the 1990s and smartphones in the 2000s, the last thirty years have been an incessant stream of humanity being bombarded with what’s happening worldwide at all hours of the day. Tidbits of data from around the world are presented as if it affected every detail of your day-to-day existence, and it all demands your utmost attention, concern, and response (as writer and journalist, G.K. Chesterton attested, “Journalism largely consists in saying, ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive”). Journalism is now a rat race of outlets breaking the stories first, fact-checking afterward, and apologizing for mistakes never.
Anecdotally, I think we can all attest that this constant drip of global information hasn’t made us any happier or, perhaps, even better-informed. Over 80% of American adults reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress, according to a study by the American Psychological Association earlier this year. “Right now, there is a degree of uncertainty that is unprecedented for most of us,” writes Jacqueline Bullis, PhD, a clinical psychologist in McLean Hospital’s Division of Depression and Anxiety Disorders. “When uncertainty is high, it drives our brains to seek as much information as possible to feel in control. In the long term, these behaviors are increasing our anxiety by feeding into this belief that if we have enough information, we can control what happens.”
Now, we often scroll and scroll through the news for the sake of avoidance. The motion of seeking information allows me to escape present boredom and feel short bursts of that dopamine-loaded satisfaction when finding anything new—the Vegas slot machine effect the programmers wanted to emulate. Sometimes we want to be the first in our circle with updates, as though we are the privileged insiders of some gnostic information with the privilege of being the first to utter the words, “Did you hear . . . ?”
But to be “in the know” nonstop is exhausting. The constant news-dive hurts our ability to deeply focus on any task and—from a deeper theological perspective—conveys the desire to be omniscient, to have the knowledge of (and thereby, we assume, power over) the great tapestry that only God perceives; we desire “to be like gods” (Gen. 3:5).
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the gluttonous—those poor souls who lacked self-control and lived in unrestrained abundance—are doomed to wallow in muck and mire created by an eternally falling rain. Our modern understanding of gluttony often limits this sin to an overconsumption of food and drink, but consider that gluttony can apply to other areas of our life, like goods (books, clothing, gadgets), influence (likes, reshares, and other online affirmations), or yes, even the news. Do we possess self-mastery, or have these things mastered us?
In the attempt to possess a degree of control by incessantly feeding on the endless buffet of “news,” we find ourselves controlled (even addicted) to this machine that we cannot turn off. We’re like little Gollums, obsessed with the very thing that’s crushing us in despair and unrest. Now, Dante assigned gluttony just below lust in the hell’s Third Circle because he considered these sins to be a form of true, godly love that had, unfortunately, become warped in upon itself. Similarly, we might wish to consider that our overconsumption of news and news by-products may be less about boredom, or an attempt to control reality, than about feeding our desire for truth, to know what is real, and what ought to be receiving my mental energy and concern.
Toward that pursuit, and in such a restless and fragmented time of anxiety, our only recourse is to recenter ourselves on something—or rather, someone—who is truth. We Catholics assert that this must be the unchanging and ever-faithful person of Jesus Christ. But that’s easier said than done. Our technology, including the news, continues to grow smarter at hooking our attention with constant pings and notifications. As Bishop Barron recently described, “We live in a realm of spiritual deafness. We are bombarded with voices from outside, echoing around us until we are as incapable of hearing.”
We need to practice temperance in the face of gluttony, set limits on our scrolling, embrace times of silence, and reclaim the practice of fasting. We also must put Jesus at the absolute center of our lives: the center of all our thoughts, work, and leisure. If Christ is only one of the many spokes on the wheel of our priorities, then he becomes one more task pulling at our attention, and prayer becomes one more “box to check off.” But when we invite Christ into our center of existence, the transformation happens for our priorities, our joy, and the very renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2).
In lieu of the ever-changing “news” and all its anxieties, turn to the one who is forever ancient, forever new, and I guarantee you’ll find greater rest.