I didn’t realize that Prince had died until I saw the front-page headline in the break room at work the next day.
My jaw dropped.
“Prince died?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yeah,” said a co-worker. “Didn’t you know? It was all over the news yesterday. And I think Chyna died, too.”
“The whole country!?” I asked, and was visited by a flurry of thoughts. First: That really should have been the headline; Prince was great, but China — you know — 1.4 billion people. Second: Scratch that economic threat to American global imperialism. And, third: Perhaps I should start keeping up with the news again.
I was relieved to learn later that it was Chyna, the former wrestling superstar and actress
who died, and not China the country,
though of course the news was still very sad.
And I was reminded again of how out of touch I am with current events. This is true despite having made my living in a newsroom. I was a reporter for two decades; then, I taught journalism to university students for eight years, exhorting them to keep up with what was happening because, you know: It mattered.
Yet a certain world-weariness had begun to creep into my engagement with the news some years earlier. Part of it was having been in the business long enough to develop a sort of Ecclesiastical perspective — not in the broader Christian sense, but in the “there is nothing new under the sun” sense of the Old Testament preacher. Variations on the same themes presented themselves time and time again: senseless crimes, tragic deaths, violence and injustice, manmade and natural disasters.
As journalists we could sometimes make sense of it, and sometimes not. We occasionally prompted meaningful change with our reporting, but mostly things went on substantially as they had before. The world kept turning, people kept behaving scandalously and it all stopped seeming so urgent, so important.
Of course, there’s a powerful argument to be made for nonetheless staying engaged, namely that we cannot strive to right wrongs, do good and generally become a more principled and enlightened species if we keep our heads in the sand. This is true. But it’s also true that the sheer weight of so much daily suffering, dying and conflict — the stuff of which news is substantially made, most of which we can do nothing about — can gradually, insidiously, burden our hearts and tax our spirits. It can feel like a slow-acting poison.
That’s why Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we watch what we take into our minds no less than what we take into our bodies.
“We practice mindful consumption to protect our body and our consciousness from ingesting toxins,” he writes. “Certain television programs, books, magazines and conversations can bring into our consciousness violence, fear and despair. We have to practice mindful consumption to protect our body and consciousness and the collective body and consciousness of our family and our society.”
I didn’t like this counsel when I first read it; it felt vaguely paternalistic. After all, we are not children, but capable, thinking adults. We shouldn’t have to self-censor the material we ingest for fear of its potentially destructive effects.
Now, I’m not so sure. Many of us — especially those who have been on the planet awhile — have experienced what Thich Nhat Hanh is talking about, though we may not immediately connect our ennui or irritability to mental toxins. And in our hyper-accelerated information age, it’s not just the content that corrodes, but the rapid-fire form in which it’s delivered.
Scientists have long known that regular exposure to the fast and fragmented imagery of modern media rewires the developing human brain in worrisome ways. I suspect that adults are affected, too. I know I feel more rested and better-centered after an evening with a good book — or a leisurely walk, or, in loving conversation with a friend — than I do after bingeing on Grey’s Anatomy.
It makes sense: We all know that sugar, booze and other toxins will eventually take their toll on our bodies; why should our psyches be less affected by careless consumption? And minds and hearts so burdened are less likely — not more — to be healthy themselves, and thus able to make a constructive difference in areas within their realm of influence.
This doesn’t mean we need to check out entirely, only that we might check in more selectively, feeding our world-weary minds and hearts with the same care we might our sick, tired or aging bodies. Because, Dearly Beloved: We are gathered here to get through this thing called life, and we don’t want to make it any harder than it already is.