Oliver Burkeman’s amusing (but ultimately useful) Guardian column about self-help was always a good thing. He recently stopped doing it but, almost in its place, rises a newsletter called The Imperfectionist, which is (so far) even better than the column.
On November 3rd, the day America went to the polls, he observes that people have, in recent years, developed a tendency to “live inside the news”:
[Since 2016 it] was as if more and more people were shifting their psychological centre of gravity, so the news was somehow realer to them than the concrete world of their work, family and friends. I don’t just mean that they were “spending too much time online” or “addicted to social media” (although they were, and we are). I mean that the realm of presidencies, referendums and humanitarian crises had become the main drama of their daily lives, with their actual daily lives relegated to the status of a sideshow.
He’s right. I noticed that too. When I first worked in an office in 2006, it was against the rules to read the news during work time and most of the major news sites were blocked. When I made a brief return to that world over a decade later, it was generally considered inhumane to disallow access to the news. It had become common to practice to keep a rolling news app in the corner of the screen and we’d all openly talk about news events as they unfolded.
In the “how then shall we live?” corners of the Internet, a lot of us used to suggest turning a blind eye to the news in the interests of mental good health and focusing instead on more important or fulfilling things like idling or the development of escape plans. The really important information would reach you eventually, was the general idea, and the rest of the news was beyond your control and tantamount to gossip. Better to ignore it, we said. But since 2016 (and especially now in 2020) the ostrich strategy hasn’t really been possible. We need to know where it’s safe to go and what we’re allowed to do. For better or worse, that’s important information and we can’t just look away.
There is, however, a line between staying usefully informed and being swept away by the sort of nervous, unproductive horizon-scanning that emerges from general anxiety. There’s also a difference between being open to useful guidance from political or cultural leaders and hoping so fervently for certain outcomes that one feels like one can’t ever look away. Staying glued to the news at the cost of, say, reading a novel or going for a walk or being consciously present with loved ones, doesn’t help your hoped-for outcome to happen.
Anyway, Burkeman says it all rather well and he urges the reader to find ways to focus on friends and family and generally more local pursuits instead of, this “living inside the news,” so I urge you to check it out.
You hear it said that it’s a marker of privilege to be able to back off from the news – to spend a pandemic planting bulbs in your backyard, or get absorbed in your creative work while democracy declines. But if it really has become a privilege to retain one’s sanity, I think it’s one the privileged need to exercise, not disavow. In an era when the news leaves half your friends paralysed by misery, it’s no indulgence to make time for whatever’s pleasurable or engrossing in your life. On the contrary, the world needs sane people more than ever.