In my weekly musar class, Rebbetzin Dina Schoonmaker spoke about the strong desire people have to be up on the latest current events, and the harm that “TMI” (Too Much Information) inflicts upon us. Before all of the advances of technology, people lived in their small villages or towns populated with a few hundred or thousand other people and knew what was happening with those around them. If somebody was sick (and it was public information), they knew. If somebody died, they knew. If somebody in the community lost their job, they knew. If somebody was hurt in an accident, they knew. The village was a cohesive unit, with everyone sharing in the pain and difficulties of one another. But the villagers were blissfully unaware of what was happening on the other side of the world, or even in not-so-distant cities. News took a very long time to travel - if it traveled at all. Those were the days.
Today we live in a global village and life is radically different. We have easy access to the most horrific events from all over the world, complete with graphic images and real-life recordings of those traumatic episodes. We are bombarded with these horrors on a constant basis and they follow us around wherever we go. There are numerous problems with this reality, but one in particular is that this constant exposure causes unnecessary and harmful anxiety which is often followed by desensitization, a mechanism we use to protect ourselves from all the pain we are exposed to. Whereas once upon a time it was only on rare occasion that one heard about a car accident, today we hear about them regularly. So, while an old-time villager would be deeply saddened upon hearing of such an event, today we feel frightened because it’s an all-too-common occurrence. We feel threatened and, as a result, we feel anxious. We are fed an all-you-can-eat diet of tragic terror attacks, shocking murders, dreadful illnesses, and natural catastrophes at a rate so quick that we don’t have time to process one tragedy before we hear about the next. The human mind is not wired to absorb so much trauma. We can’t possibly “eat” as much as we are being fed. So, in response, we desensitize ourselves in order to protect ourselves from the constant pain that surrounds us. We read about one disaster or another and then move on with our day. Next. None of this is a good thing.
Everything the Rebbetzin said really resonated with me. So, right then and there, while sitting in my class, I made a decision to stop checking the news. Cold turkey. I didn’t make a neder or anything, so I’m not bound by this commitment. However, I did decide it’s something I’d like to try. At the time of this writing it’s been a little over a week, which in the grand scheme of things is not a very long time, but it’s not nothing either. I have to say that I expected this shift to be way more difficult than I’m finding it so far. In fact, if anything, I find it liberating. While my finger at times, as if with a mind of its own, will habitually move in the direction of the news apps on my phone, I’m able to redirect that little piggy elsewhere. It’s not that hard.
Most news - I would even venture to say almost all news - is negative. I recall reading a list of news briefs on the day just prior to “No More News Day” and there were five shocking stories listed one after the other! One more unbelievable than the next! Why do I have to read about all the screaming and squabbles that take place in the Knesset? Well, guess what? I realized that I don’t. What good does it ever do me to hear about the arguments and mudslinging? Why do I need to get upset? It’s not like if I know about it, I can call up the members of the Knesset and ask them to stop their behavior, and they will express their remorse and say, “You know what, Suzie? You are absolutely right! We are going to act civilly from now on!” Not happening. Similarly, I don’t need to hear the latest corona updates. I’m fully vaccinated and I wear a mask when necessary. I do my hishtadlus and daven for those who need tefilah. Why do I need to know exactly how many corona patients are connected to an ECMO machine and how many new diagnoses have been made in the last twenty-four hours? I don’t. I don’t need to hear about American politics and President Joe Biden on a daily basis. Why do I need to hear about every tragic freak accident? I don’t. None of these reports make my day in any way.
So, after my class, I got into my car and did not check what happened in the world during the previous hour. And do you know what happened? Absolutely nothing! It was okay. I didn’t get a news update just before going to bed or upon waking up in the morning. And the world continued to exist. I was not in the know and nothing terrible happened as a result.
I don’t think I ever even realized how often I was checking the news sites. But now I am free. I’m not inhaling heavy doses of negativity from morning to night. It’s eye-opening and wonderful. It’s much easier to focus on the more positive things in life as well as the people in my life. I still check my phone for messages, but far less frequently. When waiting on line at the supermarket I can pull out my Tehilim just as easily as I can pull out my phone. I have more time on my hands to do the things that actually matter.
I can’t honestly say that I’m never tempted to sneak a peek. But any time I feel a temptation, I do something productive and the temptation quickly fades away. I’m confident that anything I must know, I will somehow find out.
So far, I’m very happy with the way this experiment is working out. I feel happier without being weighed down by so much negativity. I don’t know how long this new approach will last, but I will try to hang on as long as I can. Of course, despite everything I’ve written, there are times when certain people must be in the know and they need to act accordingly. For example, the folks that work at the CDC need to be tracking COVID trends all the time. But that’s not my responsibility. One more important point: There is one news source that I won’t ever give up. Obviously, I’m talking about the Queens Jewish Link. It’s the best newspaper around and it has only the most positive impact on all who read it!
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.