Perhaps you’ve found yourself in a conversation where someone expresses surprise — and a hint of judgment — that you were not aware of a recent item of news.
In our information-rich world, we can feel that we have a duty to be informed, to know what’s happening, and, inevitably, to have an opinion. Yet if we stop to examine these assumptions, this duty appears absurd. It is impossible for anyone to know everything that is happening today, much less to have a thoughtful opinion about these events. What would we do with all this information anyway?
The prickly, unorthodox nineteenth-century writer Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) might serve as a surprisingly helpful guide in developing a richer account of what we ought to attend to.
Living Beyond Ephemera
Thoreau didn’t have to deal with social media and television, but he did live through the news revolution sparked by the telegraph and the steam-powered rotary printing press. Such technologies were as prone to spreading trivial distractions and misinformation as are the digital technologies we rely on today.
Thoreau jokes, for instance, that when the transatlantic telegraph cable is in place, “perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.” Hence he urges his readers to step out of this stream of ephemera and attend to more lasting truths:
If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events that make the news transpire — thinner than the paper on which it is printed — then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them.
In many respects, his advice parallels what the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” If we are rooted in these deeper verities, we will be better able to discern which contemporary events are important for us to know about and what a proper response to them might entail.
Tragedies Close to Home
Thoreau’s advice entails a withdrawal from the full flood of information that would otherwise overwhelm us. Yes, this might mean that we will often “miss out” on the things other people are talking about, but we shouldn’t necessarily view such ignorance as a vice.
The novelist and essayist Barbara Kingsolver, in an essay detailing why she and her family don’t watch TV, describes a time when she missed out on an event that dominated the national consciousness. John Kennedy Jr. had been killed in an airplane crash, and her friend was shocked that she hadn’t heard about this tragedy. Kingsolver wasn’t apologetic for her ignorance and instead told her friend that this event made “no real difference in my life”:
It’s not that I’m callous about the calamities suffered by famous people; they are heartaches, to be sure, but heartaches genuinely experienced only by their own friends and families. It seems somewhat voyeuristic, and also absurd, to expect that JFK Jr.’s death should change my life any more than a recent death in my family affected the Kennedys. . . . On the matter of individual tragic deaths, I believe that those in my own neighborhood are the ones I need to attend to first, by means of casseroles and whatever else I can offer. I also believe it’s possible to be so overtaken and stupefied by the tragedies of the world that we don’t have any time or energy left for those closer to home, the hurts we should take as our own.
“When we are overwhelmed by far-off tragedies, we are less able to attend properly to those events close at hand.”
Kingsolver’s concluding warning parallels Thoreau’s advice. When we are overwhelmed by far-off tragedies and controversies, we are less able to attend properly to those events close at hand, events to which we are more able — and perhaps even obligated — to respond.
Distracted from Our Chief End
One of the essential challenges to cultivating proper attention comes from the fact that we are bombarded with so much information that clamors for our eyes and hearts. As Joseph Pieper (1904–1997) puts it, “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!”
The necessary response to this abundance is to withdraw, at least partially: silence the phones, shut the computer, switch off the TV. This is, in part, why Thoreau made his famous two-year foray to Walden Pond. He needed to step away from the bustle of Concord life to recalibrate his sight. Even Jesus practiced this mode of withdrawal. As Luke records, throughout his public ministry Jesus regularly “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). By withdrawing from what seems most pressing in the moment, we gain the space needed to attend to what matters for eternity.
“By withdrawing from what seems most pressing in the moment, we gain the space needed to attend to what matters for eternity.”
This perceptual recalibration was Thoreau’s explicit purpose in going to Walden Pond. As he states his intentions in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” A few sentences later, he specifies that he hoped this deliberate mode of living would enable him to determine whether “the chief end of man” really is “‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’”
Thoreau’s neighbors — and many Christians today — would “somewhat hastily” assent to this doctrine, but it is difficult to follow through on this purpose when we are distracted and overwhelmed by all the information sent our way.
A Thousand Painted Butterflies
For Thoreau, the fruit of his withdrawal was a renewed appreciation for the glory of God in creation. He took detailed notes of when different plants blossomed or fruited and when the ice on Walden first formed in the fall and melted in the spring; this was the news he wanted to follow closely.
In a journal entry written near the end of his life, he describes the experience of sitting “in the woods admiring the beauty of the blue butterfly.” While most books about insects that he has found are written for farmers and detail the insects’ instrumental goods or evils for agricultural crops, Thoreau insists that insects are valuable for other reasons:
The catechism says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, which of course is applicable mainly to God as seen in his works. . . . Come out here and behold a thousand painted butterflies and other beautiful insects which people the air.
Thoreau’s claim that the catechism’s answer to the question of man’s chief end “is applicable mainly to God as seen in his works” stretches the bounds of orthodoxy, but delighting in the beauties of God’s creation is certainly part of how we ought to glorify him.
How Walden Changed the World
Watching butterflies might seem less serious than attending to the weighty matters that fill the newspaper each morning. Yet while Thoreau missed out on plenty of the news that occupied the minds of his fellow citizens — including, perhaps, whether the princess caught the whooping cough — he perceptively and redemptively responded to many of the fundamental issues of his day.
Thoreau’s incisive critiques of imperial wars, racial slavery, and unjust economic structures had a profound influence in the years leading up to the Civil War, and they went on to inspire people from Mohandas Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. Crucially, the speeches and essays in which he developed these ideas were only possible because of the kind of attention that he honed at Walden Pond, an attention that withdrew from the noise of the moment to exult in the glorious beauty of butterflies.
Thoreau’s example suggests that if we want to improve the quality of our engagement with the news, we will very likely need to reduce the quantity of information we consume. When we step back from the information fire hose, we renew our ability to see God at work in the world and become better able to recognize how he might be calling us to join in his work.