The news seems to be nothing but negative these days, so why not cut it out completely? David Olliff tells us about the benefits of living without the news media for year and how re-shaping this habit led to a balance of perspective and rediscovering of self.
A year of re-shaping a news habit.
As 2017 began, I embarked on a year-long challenge to live without the news media. I cannot entirely explain my reasons for this choice, and as it turned out it was a more challenging task than I had imagined. Certainly, the news stories of 2016 carried something of the fore-shadowing, if not the for-boding about them. I’m sure everyone can think of a news thread or two they would rather have remained blissfully ignorant of as 2017 unfolded. I cannot really say of course, since up to this moment I have only the vaguest impression of world affairs last year. I must be honest and admit that there were some stories, some figures on the world stage, which I didn’t want intruding into my thoughts any more. But it isn’t the news or the business of following current affairs that I have any strong opinion about, it was more my own reaction to it, and the way in which I came to see my engagement with the news as a self-limiting habit.
News narratives are more intrusive than they have ever been. Out of interest, before I offer a list of the kind of things I had to do in order to avoid news media, try and list for yourself the range of news media sources that you have been exposed to in the last few days. For me, avoiding the news meant: disabling news apps on my phone, changing the home page settings on several internet browsers, changing settings on the search engines I use (Google and Bing), changing settings on my YouTube account, sitting with my back to the TV in the pub, avoiding the news-tickers that scroll away in some waiting rooms (even the Dentist and Doctors now) and trying not to read headlines at newspaper vendors. All this, not to mention other people: their conversations, TVs, iPads and phones. I’m not as reclusive as this might sound either. I work as a teacher and live a normal family life. I didn’t ask anyone to change their behaviour around me, but I found as the year went on that I learned very little about the news from other people.
This article is not about the practical challenges I was presented with however, I want to explore the sense of empowerment that can be achieved by challenging any self-limiting habit. For me it was my own habits in response to the news narrative. One thing has become powerfully clear: if I can exercise choice over a narrative as intrusive and compelling as the news in the modern era, I like to feel that I can exercise it over any self-limiting narrative.
1. Releasing the habit
It is always a good time to examine and re-assess the habits and routines which come to make up daily life. When I came to look at how I was spending my time at the end of 2016, I noticed that I was spending several chunks of time a day reading articles on popular news websites. In addition, I listened to the radio frequently which meant hearing news updates several times a day, including current affairs programmes to and from work in the car. These chunks of time soon added up, and in many ways I noticed that the news habit was a self-limiting habit. When I could have been creating, reflecting or simply resting, I was fooling myself that following current affairs was an essential thing for me to do. It was a habit which, along with many others I need to work on, allowed me to tell myself that my true self is not realisable.
For me, the self-limiting habit I intuitively felt needed to be challenged was my news habit. Finding out which habit it would be good to release may take some soul-searching. It could be that a close friend can help by asking a few searching questions, or perhaps there are clues to be found in our dreams. The trouble is, habits which need to be released won’t always be bad in themselves. Keeping up with current affairs is widely regarded as a good thing to do. The question is not whether a habit is bad, but whether it is self-limiting for you. Most habits which don’t actively encourage us towards self-realisation are probably part of a pattern of self-limitation.
2. Realising choice
Self-limiting habits can be very comforting, so coming to accept that we have a choice can be very unsettling. When I decided to release my news habit I had to accept that following the news was a choice, and that living under the influence of the news narrative was optional. Of course, it doesn’t seem optional. It doesn’t even seem practical to avoid the news in modern western society, let alone a rational decision. It isn’t just that I had become expert at telling myself I was powerless to resist. The news narrative carries its own insistent imperative: good people, responsible people, grown-up people follow current affairs.
For me, realising choice entailed a number of practical challenges alongside the will power required to release an engrained habit. In some ways, overcoming the practical challenges became a distraction in itself so I tended not to notice the challenge to my will power as I regularly congratulated myself at my ingenuity. And therein lies the key: regular messages of self-approval and reward can help you realise choice. Realising choice is more than knowing choice is possible, it is about the real-isation – the making real – of choice.
3. Rebalancing perspective
It is always important to hold a balanced perspective. Balance implies being in harmony between two things, such as between the local and the global, or the self and everyone else, or the now and the yet-to-come. I found that the news narrative was causing me an additional layer of worry and sadness not only because of the terrible events that happen to others, but particularly because of the speculative, fear laden narrative concerning things that may come. It is a key maxim of every spirituality I have encountered that we should live in the here and now. Living in the here and now is the primary teaching of mindfulness, and the teachings of Jesus encourage us not to worry about tomorrow since tomorrow is a matter of faith.
For me, releasing my news habit has been helpful as I try to live more in the present. Releasing any self-limiting habit is likely to entail the rebalancing of perspective however. I suspect that self-limiting habits are self-limiting because they are a symptom of imbalance. Like old fashioned ethics founded on virtue, the self cannot flourish where we focus too much on any one perspective: thinking too much about others can be as limiting as thinking only about the self; thinking too much about global affairs can be as limiting as thinking only about the local.
4. Rediscovering self
There is nothing like the feeling of reclaiming time and using it to rediscover yourself. In the times I used to spend reading news websites, telling myself I was too tired to do anything else, or that keeping up with the news was essential, I now find new things to explore and learn. When I sit at my desk for an all too brief lunchbreak, I now use the internet to learn painting techniques. At home I read more often, meditate for a time, or just sit still. I have found a little more of that childlike joy which comes from looking at things anew. Just like my daughter who will simply go and play when she has a few spare moments, I leave the phone behind and enjoy simply being.
About: David Olliff is a teacher of theology, philosophy and religious studies with an interest in esoteric spirituality.