“Out of clutter, find simplicity.” — Albert Einstein
If a frog leaps into a pot of boiling water, it will leap right back out. But if the frog sits in cold water that slowly comes to a boil, it won’t realise what’s happening and there it will sit, slowly getting cooked.
I kind of feel like that frog now. I’ve grown accustomed to various situations, habits and behaviour that in other circumstances I would have leapt away from. Instead, here I stew in this hot, boiling mess.
For these past few weeks – so much for a fresh start to a brand new year! – I’ve been feeling disgruntled and jumpy. Unable to sit and write for any length of time, I’m scattered and stretched – even without the excuses of children or bosses demanding my energies.
My space, my head
Being highly sensitive to my environment, I keep clutter to a minimum, my walls white and blank, and rarely let things pile up on my desk.
Noise pollution is something else I guard myself against. While I can’t do much about the cacophony of the city outside my windows, I never switch on the television. It’s the ads – the jump in volume, the screaming demand to buy buy buy, the repetitive jingles. I feel like I need to lie down in a dark room with a heated towel over my forehead.
Yet, I only recently realised that I don’t apply any restriction to digital consumption. I’m that frog, you see. Because of its stealth nature, the space it occupied in my life gradually took over so I didn’t even notice it. Until now.
I’m online a lot. I do research, I blog, I email. These aren’t problems. But my consumption of news and current events, I think, may be. (Social media too, but that’s another post…) I see my mother read her favoured newspaper every morning cover to cover, and then she tucks it into the recycling basket. I, on the other hand, get the drip drip drip effect. All. Day. Long.
I consume news with little discernment. This is partly because I want to be a good citizen of the world and keep up with events. My homepage is an international newspaper, giving me the headlines every time I open a new browser window. There’s also the endless analyses and debates. As a reader, I’m sucked into the vortex of consumption.
The problem is that it’s other people’s opinions. Somewhere along the way, I’ve unwittingly moved away from processing the information myself. My views and responses have become secondhand. How sad is that? If the constant imbibing of all this was enlightening in some way, that too would be fine. Instead, I feel fatigued.
Three reasons why:
(1) It’s overwhelming. With 24-hour news channels and endless digital platforms, every issue is analysed from every angle (but especially the sensationalist ones) even when there’s no more left to say.
(2) It’s manipulative. My friend Hilary pointed out that the news media is designed and functions to play on our fears and anxieties. And we are drawn to it because so many of us are also motivated by our fears and anxieties.
(3) It’s relentless. It’s there, free, and ready for (over)consumption, being promoted everywhere I look. The more they feed me, the more I eat. The more I eat, the hungrier I get.
What if I stopped engaging with it for a week? I was already not watching the news on television, or listening to it on the radio. But I could dramatically limit the constant barrage of information that I am – yes, by choice – consuming online.
I decide to:
- Change my homepage browser.
- Scan the headlines of two newspapers once in the morning and stop at that.
- Read only articles that are evergreen (that is, not news-related).
How it goes
Having only ever had a newspaper as my homepage, I’m flummoxed by what to have in its place. I don’t want another media site, anything that encourages me to buy, or one that pushes others’ opinions at me. This, I realise, rules out just about everything I view online. I finally settle on the Google search page.
As I scroll and only read headlines, I become agitated by all the unrest and unhappiness in the world. I used to be hit by this several times an hour. Isolating it to once a day highlights how the effect is visceral – I feel the dip in my spirits, the rise in anxiety. Days 4 and 5, I forget to even scan the headlines and my days are delightfully peaceful.
Not reading a zillion articles online is the hardest. I remember constantly feeling I was in “catch up” mode – except the list to read was never ending. There was the news, but also the analysis, the reaction to the analysis, and the reaction to the reaction as well. Sheesh. No wonder I was fatigued.
Blocking them all, I can focus on completing a blog post I’d started months ago. There’s bigger work I need to do, but it’s a start and I feel better.
I dust off my old maxim: do less to achieve more.
I can see clearly now
Removing myself from the media cesspit for a week, I see:
• I have to actively hunt for a headline that is celebrating something, because the news is so incredibly negative. Politicians and the media gleefully exploit divisions and disputes, instead of promoting harmony and unity. (Of course: strife allows for more debates, more drama, more column inches.) Removing myself from the onslaught of negativity, I’m no longer feeling righteous, indignant and hostile all the time. The shift feels dramatic.
• Nothing terrible happens if I don’t follow a news story intently.
• I had become used to hand wringing, instead of doing anything constructive. I don’t at all believe we should exist in our own orbit, ignorant of the suffering or plight of others; as it is, narcissists focusing on selfies and gossip already take up too much space in this world. But I want to limit my engagement to supporting people who are actual problem solvers, not just armchair pontificators.
• I had never thought of my online reading as taking up “space” in my life. I had given it a pass because it’s digital. But, of course, too much of it is another form of clutter.
• I focus on my surroundings instead. Specifically, my mother. I note how she calls everyone, stays connected, nurtures people, visits those who’re ill, telling funny stories and keeping their spirits up. Against the Serious Importance of world events, it doesn’t sound like much, affecting only those of us in her vicinity. But the impact is lasting and palpable, and has far more real-life value to me than engaging on a macro level through a negative news feed.
The cons of no news
Guilt for not keeping up. I overcome this by understanding that coverage is always biased; the media is led by scandal, blood and terror, and everyone is pushing their own agenda.
I worry that with a near-blanket ban, I may miss out on the good stuff too. Here, I have to trust that anything worthy of my attention will eventually get it. When I lived in countries where I didn’t speak the language, the important bits were always translated to me; the rest became background murmur. It was hugely peaceful.
I fret over feeling disengaged from my environment. Then I remind myself that I don’t imbibe the most popular media either: reality shows, current music charts, soap operas. Unless related to books or films, most cultural references sail right past me.
Has limiting news helped me?
In terms of enhancing my mood – yes, very.
Is it maintainable?
Largely, yes. Curiosity means I will go beyond mere headlines, especially for a story that grabs me, but I now know there’s no need to follow it without restraint.
The ultimate test: has it elevated or depressed me?
By shifting focus to the immediate, the positive and the pro-active, this is a sweeter place to be.
Verdict: now I’ve leapt out of the pot, I’m not jumping back in.
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” — Hans Hoffman
Meditating on how we see the world, here are three explorations of blindness:
The producers of the new NPR podcast Invisibilia did an episode for This American Life last week on blindness. Listen to their story about Daniel Kish, who can do everything from riding a bike to climbing mountains, despite losing his eyes to cancer as a child. He clicks with his tongue – echolocation, as used by bats – to determine the space around him, making him the ultimate Batman.
A blind photographer uses his camera to gather evidence of what he can’t see. Watch Proof, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and with a tender performance by Hugo Weaving, a story about trust and betrayal, love and friendship, truth and honesty.
A teenager with the love of speed and freedom, a corporate high-flyer, a novice trekking across India on an elephant. View one of the most inspiring TED talks ever: Caroline Casey speaks about Looking Past Limits.