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News as Spiritual Exercise

Richard Knottenbelt
On Cliques (September 2021)
Inward Light

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the torrents that flow from TV, radio, social media, and the occasional print publication. Vast arrays of information, persuasion, entertainment, and junk threaten our sanity. They can also condition our attitudes and perceptions in ways that we are not even aware of. As Friends, we want to engage with news media in ways that reflect our deepest values. But how?

To begin the search for answers, twenty Friends spent an intense ninety minutes together at Intermountain Yearly Meeting 2021, sharing practices, observations, and feelings. This was an interest group billed as “Reading a Newspaper as a Spiritual Exercise.” In this, the term “newspaper” was taken as shorthand for all media, “spiritual” indicated the intentional values-based dimension of life, and “exercise” meant activity repeated to achieve greater competence and strength. Friends considered several dimensions of this question, including: the sheer volume of contemporary mass media, misinformation, and the relevance of news for personal action.

Volume: Concerning the sheer volume of news emerging from the mass media, Friends generally seemed to feel called to pay attention to what is happening in the world. However, they also described various strategies for limiting the volume of news that flows into their lives. Although some pay attention to “everything,” others limit their attention to national or local news items. Some “ration” their news intake by doing without TV, refusing to participate in social media, or setting themselves time limits. 

Another approach to limiting news consumption involves determining the breadth of news sources that Friends pay attention to. Some deliberately set out to encounter the “other side” and follow a discipline of questioning articles: “What is this trying to say?” “What is missing or has been left out?” “What is wrong with this?” Struggling with such questions can free the questioner from a fixed mind-set and can help narrow disagreements among people. Other Friends essentially try to avoid certain points of view altogether.

Hate speech has become something of a political football. Some Friends confessed to being in its thrall, especially during the years around the immediate past presidency. One participant recalled that, during the Iraq War, she felt called to place photographs of George Bush and Saddam Hussein side-by-side on her meditation table. This helped her focus on the humanity of the leaders and their peoples. She found however, that she was not able to place a picture of the previous incumbent of the White House on her meditation table. She became possessed by internal, long-lasting tirades against him, which she only broke free from when she heard the message, “You are destroying yourself.”

Friends seem generally wary of jumping into the roil of social media. The quality of thought expressed on social media – and on the online “feedback” forums of news outlets – varies greatly. These platforms convey some high-level debates at one end, some very unpleasant repetitive outpourings on the other, and everything else in between. Friends wondered where their own voices would be most likely heard, especially by people with different starting points and experiences. Several Friends observed that local media outlets often provide more accessible opportunities for sharing meaningful comments than commercial social media platforms do.

Misinformation: Entwined with the problem of “too much information” is the problem of misinformation. It is almost impossible to ever know what is really happening. Our brains certainly process the information we ingest, but the results of this are unclear. We might be merely accepting or reinforcing world-views that limit our understanding and warp our thinking. We might be gravitating into smaller and smaller groups, which give us a sense of safety.

The news media are our chief interface with the big wide world that is beyond our immediate daily experience. While we search the media for coherent and meaningful pictures of what is happening, we must also try to discern how the news presenters are trying to persuade us. When considering what to do about some situation, we need to consider where our information is coming from. We need to decide how to select which media to expose ourselves to.

Some Friends follow an experimental approach in determining which news sources to trust. For example, one Friend observed that the popular Rachel Maddow will sometimes speculate about a political situation, hinting at having inside knowledge. When the Friend found that those speculations were being fulfilled consistently, his trust in Maddow increased. 

Other Friends explained that they tend to trust news outlets that report on broad ranges of views and experiences. For example, the “big two” newspapers (New York Times and Washington Post) – and some of the dominant TV channels – generally report on news concerning poor people as well as wealthy people, marginalized communities as well as major metropolitan areas. There is a special challenge in finding out what is happening to “no-power people,” and Friends see news outlets that invest in such reporting as trustworthy.

Relevance: Some of the most urgent issues facing Friends are world-wide concerns such as climate change. While human action is clearly needed for the earth to survive as a living entity, most people find it difficult to relate to the detailed international agreements described in the media. We can give our general assent to such agreements, but their real relevance perhaps only comes when we act on them in our daily lives. News media that help us “think globally, act locally” will be the ones that we find to be most relevant. They help us feel ready to consider acting on the basis of our knowledge. They prompt us to consider: Does this make me want to write a public response? Make a donation in support of some cause? Lobby an elected representative?  Take part in – or even organize – an event or protest? Pray?

We cannot do everything, but we may be surprised by what happens when we follow leadings of the Spirit. Our openness to discovering where the Light might lead us is at the center of Quaker spirituality. As Thomas Kelly wrote in Testament of Devotion, “[The] loving Presence does not burden us equally with all things, but considerately puts upon each of us just a few central tasks as emphatic responsibilities. For each of us these special undertakings are our share in the joyous burdens of love. We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to.” I take comfort from those words, especially in reminding myself that “Spirit time” is not the same as the “world’s time.” If we are called to hurry, we will know how to hurry!

The tasks of caring for each other and for the world depend on finding those obstacles in ourselves and in society that keep us from the Source of Life. Caring action depends on liberating our imaginations – by blending old ways with new. As Werner Pelz, the Anglican theologian, wrote in 1967, “We must recondition everything which conditions us.”   ~~~

Richard Knottenbelt is a retired math teacher who migrated from Zimbabwe six years ago. He and his wife Pushpa live with their daughter’s family. He is a member of Albuquerque Monthly Meeting (IMYM).

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