If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The 18th-century philosophical query raises some interesting perspectives on reality and our participation within it. But there’s one part of the riddle that no one disputes: The tree did in fact fall. Things happen in this world—many of them stressful and polarizing—even if we make an effort to ignore them.
Now imagine a tree falls and everyone is around to hear it except for you. You’re on the outskirts of the forest, covering your ears. When you get back, everyone might be divvying blame for why the tree fell. They might be talking about who is most affected by this tree falling or what needs to be done in this post-fallen-tree world. That tree very well might be the talk of the forest. So if a tree falls under those circumstances, how hard are you going to have to work to ignore it, and what exactly are you missing out on?
For better or for worse, the news is never going on vacation. We passed that point in society quite a while ago. If you want a break from the news, even just to see what it might be like, you’re going to have to self-impose some sanctions. This kind of media avoidance is actually a rather popular method for achieving optimism—espoused by the likes of renowned abundance thinker Peter Diamandis. If you don’t fill your mind with pollutants—politics, controversy, natural disasters and tragedy, for example—your vision of the future will be much sunnier, as the thinking goes. So, with a bit of trepidation, I accepted my SUCCESS editors’ proposal to actively avoid the news and see where it took me. I stuck my head in the sand for an entire month while, presumably, trees were falling all around me.
Being relatively informed has always seemed to be something of a responsibility to me. Sure, we might see things that distress us on the news, but the notion that we can’t do anything about it feels like a slippery slope toward indifference. So, as most people, I’ve normally taken on the stress and anxiety that comes with consuming the news.
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It’s been reported that Warren Buffett reads six newspapers before starting his day. Personally, by breakfast I’ve normally half-processed a couple of headlines, which would then bounce around my head as unformed thoughts while I brush my teeth or feed the cat. Without those complex stories to halfheartedly grapple with during my monthlong abstention from keeping up with the rest of the world, my focus was a little more attentively placed on the things directly around me.
The leaves on the courtyard tree have started to grow back.
When was the last time I cut my fingernails?
Man, the cat has really gotten chubby.
What else do you talk about when you can’t talk about, well, what’s happening?
Do you remember those anti-drug PSAs they used to show us in school that went something like, “This is your brain on drugs”? Well, let’s take a second to talk about your mind on news.
The actual news is typically (hopefully) objective, but the implications of those hard facts are anything but. Two people can land on drastically different sides of the same bit of news. Processing our feelings on the news requires a sort of patient reckoning with how it affects us, how it affects others, and a handful of other personal factors. That healthy mix of cynicism and open-mindedness is what places us on the spectrum a safe distance between mindless robot and conspiracy theorist. We might not consciously take in the news with this mindset, but the reasonable among us do it naturally every day.
That’s all to say, when you take your mind off the news, it’s still trained to think the same way. Scrolling through Twitter one day, dodging breaking news stories like I would Game of Thrones spoilers, I stumbled across a video of a pack of Siberian tigers in China playfully chasing a drone. Not wanting to bother my editor, I made the executive decision that this was not news.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t spend the next 10 minutes studying it like the Zapruder film of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Similar to news-based journalism, the video was susceptible to our own biases: Tigers are much cooler than lions, and I shouldn’t even have to say that. And it also prompts us to ask follow-up questions: Where are the parents of these tiger cubs? And what exactly is China up to with this adorable drone footage?
My mind was off the news, but maybe this was something like withdrawals.
When I grabbed coffee with a reporter friend early in the month, I made the disclaimer that we couldn’t talk politics or current events, and I couldn’t help but be a little embarrassed when it resulted in a few awkward silences. What else do you talk about when you can’t talk about, well, what’s happening?
About a week in, I had started to become a bit unhinged. Feeling removed from society, I purchased Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalist manifesto, Walden, in which he leaves civilization behind for two years of self-sufficiency in a cabin. I turned to Walden for some confirmation that being out of the loop could be a good thing. I made time in the following days to read Thoreau’s celebration of Mother Nature. I even read it outdoors, as one does.
Thoreau said, “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.” To him, the news was just a continual rerun of things we’ve already been told, to keep the cycle going. “If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?” he asked.
It’s a fair notion from one of America’s great minds. But then again, Thoreau spent numerous hours a day hoeing beans in his garden, not because he needed that many beans but because he enjoyed the “inexhaustible entertainment” of it all. So we were bound to have some philosophical differences. Besides, I was stubborn, and I don’t think I wanted to see the good in this exercise. The cumulative stress of averting my eyes from the first few words of headlines was taking a greater toll on me than expected.
The events of Walden took place circa 1845-1874, long before the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle. But how does someone reach any level of intellectual stimulation in the 21st century when removed from current events? Early in the month, my response was that it wasn’t reasonably possible. A key element to addiction is our ability to convince ourselves that we can’t exist without whatever we’re addicted to, and I wanted my news fix.
I can’t pinpoint the moment when the challenge of living without the news got easier. I just know it was at least a week or so before the moment I was willing to admit it.
That moment didn’t come until the very end of the month during a conversation with Neville, an acquaintance of mine who is a novelist, technology writer and tennis instructor. He let me finish describing the hardships and emotions of the experiment before casually mentioning that he had avoided the news for most of the past two years, briefly checking in the night of the 2016 election. He doesn’t even bother with the weather forecast, claiming people spend a disproportionate amount of energy planning around the weather compared to the chances it will affect them.
What shocked me most wasn’t that Neville had gone so long without the news. It was that I previously had a number of stimulating exchanges with him and had no idea. Meanwhile I dramatically disclosed my no-news policy in the majority of my conversations that month. I realized there was actually plenty to talk about without the news. We’re constantly receiving and processing information all around us, even if it doesn’t come in the form of a news ticker or smartphone notification.
A key element to addiction is our ability to convince ourselves that we can’t exist without whatever we’re addicted to, and I wanted my news fix.
It was after my conversation with Neville that I thought back to my previous week or so living without the burden of the implications of current events. The withdrawals had begun to wane, and I hadn’t even realized it. My mind was a little more open to creativity and introspection.
My 20-minute walks to the coffee shop were a bit more reflective. Three weeks in, I prepared chicken tacos with pico de gallo and fresh corn, not even recognizing that it was the first thing I had cooked outside of the same four meals in my dinner rotation in three months. I handwrote a script for a short film in mini-breaks from other projects. I tried to teach myself the ukulele—to my neighbors’ chagrin.
The truth is I didn’t actually have more free time on my hands, allowing me to do these things. I just had more head space for them.
When the month ended, unlike Neville, I chose to go back to reading the news, but I was careful not to chase it or let it be the backdrop of everything else. I also came to terms with a tiny bit of my own self-righteousness.
The excuse of social responsibility was perhaps a bit of a façade on my part, a justification to keep doing things exactly how I had become accustomed to doing them. Thoreau, for example, lived quietly, spurning society’s news cycle, but history proved him to be a man with his fingers on the pulse of injustice. Thoreau was one of the 19th century’s most prominent abolitionists and an outspoken figure in the debate over the Fugitive Slave Act. He was an active citizen of the world more than he was a consumer of the news.
I spent the better part of a month treating the news like a drug I couldn’t live without, but I found out that it’s actually a lot like the weather. You can’t reasonably avoid every aspect of it. Some of it will directly affect you. But every morning you have a day’s worth of life to live, even if it’s raining.
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This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.