Ashes to Ashes: On Watching the News

I never watch the news if I can help it. On the surface of it, this would seem to be at least an ostrich-like attitude: Shouldn’t we, as responsible citizens, be au courant of things? A more somber rejoinder from someone who heard me might be that such an attitude is un-Christian: Shouldn’t we, as responsible Christians, be au courant, if only to be able to keep things in our prayers?

To the latter rejoinder, I would answer with a qualified affirmative. The qualifying would refer not to one’s Christian responsibilities, but rather to the original topic, namely the news. The point is (and I think C. S. Lewis admitted to some such practice on his part), if something is happening, someone will be sure to tell me, or I will simply pick it up from the conversations that float through the air. 9/11, for example: I was in Austria that day and spent hours in front of a television set that belonged to some Franciscans. Of course I, like everyone else, was riveted. But it eventually became clear that Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw were repeating themselves over and over, hour after hour. Once I had seen the footage of the first horrifying red and black clouds of flame and smoke belching from the Twin Towers, I had seen what was relevant.

Not that one would dust one’s hands off, so to speak, and caper on about one’s business. An epochal horror was in process. But the first five minutes gave me all that I could encompass, either in my imagination or in my prayers. What could I do but send up Kyrie, eleison, for the rest of that day and the days that followed, both for those killed and for all who had loved them—and for the perpetrators (if we wish to take seriously any number of injunctions from the Bible, not to say from the mouth of Our Lord Himself)?

In any event, I find myself wondering now and again whether the instant, unremitting, universal avalanche of “news” that comes at us now (what with television, the information superhighway, and one thing and another) does not constitute our own special 2 1st-century version of the original sin.

That’s a bit thick, surely? Sin? Well, here is what makes me wonder about it all. What was the original sin? One way of putting it would be to say that we bit off more than we were made to chew. And now? Is anyone’s heart, up to and including St. Francis’s, up to the task of taking on the sorrow of the entire world, unremittingly? Even Our Lord did not rush about Galilee, frantically trying to attend to every leper and pauper and widow. For every cripple he healed, 20 more were around the corner.

All of which forces me to the conclusion that there are three things I can do about this avalanche. (1) I can get surfeited, not to say blasé, about it. “Oh—another mudslide in Bangladesh. Eheu! (2) I can go mad. “It’s all too much! I can’t cope!” Or (3), I can turn it to intercession. To do this, I do not need to listen to the anchormen for very long. My wife, whose spirit is more dauntless than mine, can tell me, “There’s been a kidnapping in Colorado,” or “There was a bomb in Tel Aviv,” or “They’ve elected a sodomite prelate in the Faroe Islands.” With this much information, I can (and do, God being my help) take the matter to the foot of the Cross.

If this sounds either cavalier or a bit unctuous, one can only say, “But when the chips are down, what is my responsibility here?” T. S. Eliot warned in his “Four Quartets” about those who are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Mudslides or kidnappings are, of course, infinitely more than distractions. But they can become such in the limited space of my own soul if sheer curiosity rather than intercession is the driving force of my response to it all.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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