03 September, 2014
Whenever I break my promise to myself and read a newspaper or scan a website to see what’s going on in the world (or, to be more precise, the happenings that the media thinks are worth reporting about), I feel awful. Sometimes, I get a splitting headache.
You can’t blame me, though, what with all the horror stories that the media relentlessly bombards us with—stories about suicide-bombings in this country and civil war in that and about political big-wigs thundering against each other for alleged corruption and crime, reports of rapes and sex scandals, murders and mounting inflation, looming famine and endemic poverty, and news about melting icebergs, rapidly disappearing tropical forests and species hovering on the verge of extinction.
That’s pretty much what passes off for ‘news’ these days.
As they say, for the media ‘bad news is good news.’
Can you seriously expect me to remain unaffected and keep my cool reading or hearing about such alarming stuff?
Can you really accuse me of being ‘excessively sensitive’ if by the time I finish reading the day’s newspaper I feel dizzy and nauseous and think my head is about to burst?
Last week, I was really naughty. After having stayed off from ‘news’ for a fortnight—you won’t believe how blissful those days were—I decided to take a peek at the newspaper.
‘Only the headlines. Please, please, please! Nothing more, I promise!’ I begged myself.
‘Hmmm. Okay,’ I agreed, though with some reluctance. ‘But no going beyond the front page. You know how awful you’ll feel awful if you do.’
But you know how easily one can lose self-control if one isn’t careful. And that’s exactly what happened to me that morning. The front page of the newspaper that day was so full of horror stories—reports of violence and mayhem from across the world—that at once I forgot my promise to myself as I began scanning page after page eager to know more.
Half an hour later, I put the paper down.
I was utterly exhausted. Drained of all hope, joy and enthusiasm. Completely paralysed. Overwhelmed with worry about the present and fear about the future.
A feeling of terrible dread and despondency haunted with me for the rest of the day.
It was as if life was just one long story of irredeemable darkness and despair.
That no good could be expected of it.
That there was nothing positive happening in the world worth reporting about.
That there was no cause whatsoever to celebrate, no reason left to live.
That there was nothing that could stop the world from hurtling towards a terrible end.
That for me to feel cheerful and happy in the midst of the enormous misery around me was an unthinkable crime.
If spending just half an hour reading a newspaper after a break of a fortnight made me feel so awful, can you imagine what I’d be reduced to if I were to read the paper regularly or listen to ‘news’ on TV every day or if I spent hours scanning ‘news’ websites on the Web, as I once used to?
There was a time when I felt that I just had to be in the know of what (the media said) was happening all over the world—by which, of course, is meant, by and large, all the frightening things I just mentioned—riots and wars, global warming, assassinations, corruption in ‘high’ places and other such developments.
Not once did I ask myself, though, why I needed this information in the first place.
How was reading about a terrorist group downing a plane in some country I would probably never visit, a sex idol divorcing her seventh husband, or the marathon victory of a certain political party in a recent election help me, in my own personal life?
How, if at all, could such information make me a better, happier, more loving and compassionate person?
Being hooked on to ‘news’ might make me an informed person, but could it make me a transformed person—which, in the final analysis, was all that mattered?
I never paid a moment’s attention to such questions.
Never in my many years of being addicted to ‘news’ did it ever cross my mind that ingesting a heavy dose of negative ‘news’, often heavily sensationalised and alarmist, every morning could prove to be deadly poison for my soul, mind and body.
Consuming ‘news’ on a daily basis had become something that I did automatically, spontaneously, and unthinkingly. I had come to regard it just as ‘normal’ as eating, breathing and defecating. Since everyone else read (or, it was said, ought to read) newspapers (this was the time before cable TV and the Internet), I thought I had to do just the same. I’d be considered an ‘ignoramus’, a ‘drop-out’ or even ‘freak’ if I didn’t. Being addicted to ‘news’ seemed so utterly ‘natural’ that it never struck me that from Adam and Eve till say four generations ago, our ancestors lived perfectly decent lives without the daily newspaper.
There was another reason why I was hooked on to ‘news’: unconsciously, I felt that it was important for me to know about the terrible things happening across the world because that, I thought, was my way of empathising and bonding with people undergoing horrific suffering. Not to read about their plight was, I felt, tantamount to selfish indifference. And the guilt I would feel for that was simply unbearable.
Ever since I realised the havoc that regular doses of ‘news’ were playing with my soul, mind and body, I decided that I just had to cut down consuming it. Sometimes these days, I go without ‘news’ for weeks—and then I feel amazingly positive. At such times, I am able to discern the amazing goodness that abounds all around me—things to cheer and celebrate that the newspapers don’t ever talk about, things that give me hope and a reason to live and love life. It could be watching a kitten playing with a paper ball or a little girl gurgling in her cradle, drinking a cup of coffee with a friend and savouring the conversation or seeing a cloud floating in the sky or an old man feeding an army of ants—things newspapers wouldn’t consider particularly ‘newsworthy’ and ‘significant’.
I do still feel a twinge of guilt sometimes, though, when I stay off ‘news’ for a long stretch. Am I being indifferent to the pains of people going through unimaginable pain, I ask myself then—in places like Gaza or Iraq or the Ukraine? Am I trying to shut my eyes to the undeniable pain of life? Am I being a cowardly escapist?
Perhaps there’s some truth in this accusation—I wouldn’t deny it outright. But I calm myself down by telling myself that knowing about all the horrors that the newspapers, websites and TV channels endlessly talk about won’t enable me personally to make any meaningful difference to the tragic situations that they describe. It hasn’t done that for the almost half century that I was hooked onto ‘news’, and I doubt it will in the future.
I’m definitely not going to the Ukraine or to Iraq or Gaza to help victims of the ongoing violence there or to Africa to assist the victims of the Ebola virus, so do I really need to know, on a day-to-day basis, about what’s happening in those parts of the world? Such knowledge could definitely be useful for people who plan to go to such places to help or those who might be in a position to influence policies. But since that’s not something I plan to do or am capable of, why should I read about such things more than I really need to and get worked up and depressed?
Ever since I gave up dreams of changing the entire world, I’m quite content with trying to bring cheer to, and share my love with, myself to begin with, and then the humans and other beings who inhabit my immediate vicinity. The best way I can do that, I’ve realised, is to be a cheerful and loving person myself. Injecting myself with regular doses of negative ‘news’ won’t help me at all in that regard, I know. In fact, it can possibly make things worse—by making me negative, fearful, worried, bitter, cynical and hopeless. And if it drains the joy and hope out of my life, how can I bring joy and hope to others?
If compulsively reading newspapers for almost 50 years didn’t made me a more cheerful and loving person, it is very unlikely that it will henceforth.
Learning about positive things, events and people would be a much better use of my limited time, energy and resources, I know.
Reading the ‘good news’—of the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada or the maxims of Kabir, or Rabinbdranath Tagore, Osho and Enid Blyton is, I’ve discovered, far a better use of time and far more likely to help me evolve as a person than compulsively reading newspapers.
Watching the clouds slowly crawl by or marvelling at a rose in bloom or a tadpole merrily swimming about is, I know, a far better use of my time than being watching ‘news’ on TV for hours on end.
By staying off ‘news’ that I don’t personally need, there are, I am firmly convinced, greater chances that I’d be able to really help others, by becoming a better, more loving, joyful and compassionate person, than if I were to remain the news-addict that I once was.
Almost all the great men and women who left a major mark on the world, I tell myself, never even saw, leave alone read, a newspaper, a TV news channel or a news website: the Buddha, Moses, Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad, Kabir, Mira Bai, Bulle Shah, Rabia Basri, Moinuddin Chishti, Jalaluddin Rumi, Guru Nanak, Confucius, Lao Tse, and a great many others.
I can’t think of a single enlightened being who took newspapers or TV news channels very seriously.
I think almost all enlightened beings so far were born much before newspapers, and, of course, TV and the Internet, were invented.
Is it a mere coincidence that the nuclear age, the age of global warming and global terror, is also the ‘information age’, the age of pervasive mediatisation, when what we think of as reality is almost entirely filtered through the lens of the ‘news’ media?
Don’t get me wrong—I definitely don’t think newspapers and ‘news’ websites and TV channels are an awful invention idea and that they all ought to be wound up. Far from it! I also don’t mean to say that there’s nothing good whatsoever to be gained from the ‘news’ media. I definitely don’t deny that some ‘news’ can be important and useful, even indispensable, and that the ‘news’ media certainly serve a valuable purpose in highlighting it. Without the media, it might have been impossible for this sort of ‘news’ to be communicated to vast numbers of people.
My point is simply that I personally don’t feel the need to be addicted to consume enormous amounts of what most of them churn out as ‘news’—on an almost moment-to-moment basis. I prefer to pick and choose what ‘news’ I want to read or hear or watch, if at all, depending on what I feel is useful and important for me. No longer do I feel driven, as I once used to, to allow my sense of reality be totally controlled by the media.
I find life infinitely less troubling this way, enormously more beautiful.
Someone else might think otherwise, though. I speak here just for myself.
At times when I wonder if I’m running away from the harsh realities of life by avoiding ‘news’ I have to remind myself that the world is in God’s hands—not ours, not even in the hands of the media or the politicians who think they run it—and that whatever happens, no matter how painful, must, in the ultimate analysis, happen for the best. This helps bring me out of despair when I sometimes fall prey to the temptation to read the newspaper more often or longer than I need to.
If you keep God out of the picture and see ‘news’ without bringing Him into your analysis of events (as the dominant ‘secular’ media does), you can easily lose heart when faced with the steady diet of horrific ‘news’ that the media bombards you with. But when you factor in God in your analysis, all events—even the most tragic—fall exactly into place. If you keep God at the centre of the picture and see all that happens in the context of His will, not even the most terrible ‘news’ can make you lose hope and cheer. You begin to see God’s hand and wisdom behind all events, even the seemingly most tragic.
Everything that occurs is the will of God, they say. If that’s true, there’s no need whatsoever, I tell myself, to fret, not even about what one might regard as the most painful or horrific events around us, for these are all brought about by His will.
And if all of this is indeed an expression of His will, there must be abundant good in them, although we may not be able to discern it.
When you realise that God is taking care of His universe in exactly the way He wants to and knows to be best, you won’t any longer fear that given the way the media says the world is going, you might soon lose your mental balance.
And so, I try to convince myself, there’s absolutely no need for me to allow myself to develop a headache and feel sick or to fall into a depression over the horrors that the newspapers routinely report. And I definitely don’t have to feel guilty, I tell myself firmly, if I choose not to know about them at all!