“I was much attracted by the theatre, because the plays reflected my own unhappy plight and were tinder to my fire. Why is it that men enjoy feeling sad at the sight of tragedy and suffering on the stage, although they would be most unhappy if they had to endure the same fate themselves? Yet they watch the plays because they hope to be made to feel sad, and the feeling of sorrow is what they enjoy. What miserable delirium this is! The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet where he suffers himself, we call it misery: when he suffers out of sympathy with others, we call it pity. But what sort of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage? The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author. Whether this human agony is based on fact or is simply imaginary, if it is acted so badly that the audience is not moved to sorrow, they leave the theatre in a disgruntled and critical mood; whereas, if they are made to feel pain, they stay to the end watching happily.”
I thought about this passage Tuesday morning as I drove into work. My drive into work is usually filled by listening to the CBS Sportstalk feed or NPR (depending on whose show is more interesting / what went on the night before); yet both DP and NPR were on Boston lockdown. I flipped the channels off, and put in a Robinella cd letting her dynamic voice wash away the pain and hurt that had poured through my speakers. As the music played I spoke to God saying, “not me, I’m not listening to any of it. I don’t want to hear it.” Truth be told I have not watched a single newscast since Monday. I haven’t seen a single picture. I haven’t clicked on a single tribute that has appeared on my social media newsfeed.
It’s not that I hate America in general or Boston in particular (their sports teams maybe, but not the city, not the people, nor even Tom Brady), I love my country and have many amazing friends with Boston connections. It’s not that my sympathies don’t go out to the city and the people, I grieve over this loss. It’s not because I am not a news junkie, I am. It’s not even that I am immune to rubbernecking, I have. It’s that one of my goals for the year can be explained by the Apostle Paul:
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
And so, I have decided to do my best to monitor my media intake, and to change how and what I think and converse. It seems to me that Augustine’s criticism of the theater might be doubly apt for the popular entertainment we call the news.
As I meditated on the words of Saints Paul and Augustine, I remembered that other day and that other set of explosions. On that fateful I did two things: watch the news and attend church services (two different ones with different people and styles of worship). The one thing had been agitated and angry. The other left me still sad and emotionally unstable, but also with a glimmer of hope and a sense that peace was there to be found.
This is hard for the journalism student in me to admit, but I think the fact that such images get repeated over and over and over; that such events get replayed and rehearsed and relived again and again and again, this cannot be good for us. Take Augustine’s phrase “The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author.” Does this not perfectly describe the 24 hour news channel? Sure, maybe they throw up a number to text to send a $10 donation. Yeah you! You could have gone to Mickey D’s for lunch but hey great job. Sure, maybe they encourage some act like wearing a certain item, displaying something, posting links to something. Shows such courage and loyalty on your part does it not? But more than anything they simply want you to stay on your couch, feel sad (or angry or happy- when they do their sentimental pieces), and keep applauding the work of the authors this story. Here Augustine’s pronouncement is never more true, “What miserable delirium this is!”
It is any wonder that we live in a time of such fear, paranoia, anger, and listlessness? I guess that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for the good people to stay at home watching the evil triumph on their TVs.
I do not mean we should not try to inform ourselves about the world. That all news is bad. There is a place for this; but as adults maybe we need to realize that sometimes the best medicine comes in small doses. Perhaps we need to become better gatekeepers allowing a stream of good information in without either overflowing the gate (or allowing a stream of detritus). Perhaps we need to own our media intake; and stop being so passive about how we interact with the world.
If we are going to stew in such emotional and nerve-wracking images, then there is only three outcomes (neither good). First, we will live in a pressure cooker with PTSD-like symptoms. Our lives will reek of desperation, pain, brokenness and fear. Second as Augustine predicted we may find ourselves experiencing an unusual reaction: the viewing of the pain of others leaves us feeling a sense of… pleasure. I do not know if this applies so much to tragedies; yet, there is something intriguing to me in the hagiography that occurs around the victims (and brave police, fire, and military forces to work in these events) that strikes me as unhealthy at best. This line of thought, however, goes a long way to explain the popularity of the housewives, Honey Boo Boo, and a host of other programming. Eventually these images will burn us out and make us blind, dumb, and deaf to the real pain going on around us, the pains that we could possibly alleviate if we could notice them. This is the real issue for me. I worry that it is too easy for me to get all worked up about the suffering of a people and city that I have no real connection (or even ability to help); and stay so jacked up that I miss the stories that are going on in my neighborhood (and about which I have the very real ability to assuage).
These are, I think, real dangers that pass by our conscious; even as we bemoan and bewail entire series of fake dangers. Like the velociraptors of JurassicPark we stare dead on with the dino that is of no danger to us; while his mates take us from behind and from the sides. It’s something to consider. I mean if we are gonna worry about being in a bombing; why not take some time out to consider more realistic threats.
 Phil. 4:8, NIV. Pulled from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians+4%3A8&version=NIV