A survival guide for normal people

If you are reading this and your working hours are not consumed with politics, then you are a normal person, and this guide is largely meant for you. It will have some application for journalists, politicians, et cetera. But there will be some things that don’t and can’t apply to those whose job requires them to be immersed in the details of politics and governance.

The purpose of this guide is to offer a few thoughts on how to stay sane in the age of too much information and too much rage (or alternatively for those of you who think lots of rage is good, too much information and lots of rage).

I have just three principles which I offer up for your contemplation toward the living of a better life.

  1. The 24-hour rule: wait roughly a day before reacting to any piece of news with any strong reaction or opinion.
  2. Pick one thing and become an expert on that one issue or area.
  3. Make time for beauty.

The 24 Hour Rule

I owe that catchphrase to my friend Will Rahn. It’s something we’ve both been thinking about. We both work in media, and so we see a lot of headlines throughout every day. My attitude for years — but increasingly over the past few and especially over the last several months — has been to shrug at most headlines, especially the salacious ones, knowing that if they’re legit they will be enduring stories, and if they’re just hyped up headlines then they’ll fade away.

There are some who work in media whose job it is to be on top of the news cycle minute to minute, especially those who work in 24-hour cable TV news. It’s not the fault of those people that they do that. It is the fault of the media execs who decide that much of their programming should be ephemeral rather than substantive. That’s because it’s easier, and more importantly cheaper, to fill most of the day’s hours reacting to things rather than investing considerable resources on journalism that’s not as sexy but which actually delves in depth into matters that would serve to educate and inform. That programming, the thinking goes, would yield lower ad revenue because fewer people would watch it, and would cost way more money than simply having talking heads on much of the day. I tend to think people would watch, but I’m getting far afield from my main point.

If you’re a normal person, you shouldn’t worry about a lot of the stuff that’s out there screaming for your attention. A conservative web site, The Federalist, published a piece recently called “16 Fake News Stories Reporters Have Run Since Trump Won.” I read through the list and if I had seen the headlines on most of those stories, I hadn’t read most of them. They either weren’t relevant to whatever I was working on at the time, or I just thought it wasn’t worth my time, or I thought that if it was a serious problem affecting whatever the issue was, it would stay in the news. The article points out that part of the problem is that stories of questionable accuracy are published, get shared on social and then shape people’s thinking about an issue. That is a problem. But part of the solution lies with readers exercising more restraint and judgment. I think a big part of this solution lies in something like having a 24-hour rule for one’s self.

In other words, slow down. Or in my father’s words (which he got from the book of James), be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

Become An Expert On One Thing

I see, and sometimes participate in, a lot of counterproductive discourse on social media. That’s where a lot of us are expressing and forming our views these days.

This is more of a request than it is a piece of advice. If we want our online discourse to be part of the solution and not a big part of the problem, which I think it now is, it would help if people were more agnostic on more stuff.

By that I mean, if you haven’t spent considerable time researching an issue, challenging your own assumptions, trying to see the issue from multiple angles and points of view, and especially seeking to see the issue through the eyes of people with whom you disagree, then it’s probably better for you and others to be a student rather than a lecturer.

So pick one thing and become an expert. Do all the stuff I listed in the previous paragraph, and then try to make a positive impact around that issue, not only on social media but in real life. You might even become an activist.

But don’t become a scold. Don’t parade your expertise. No one is going to be convinced by a showoff or a shamer.

Make Time For Beauty

A healthy perspective on politics, and life in general, requires time away from politics.

Just as important, I think too much time spent in passive consumption of entertainment contributes to a sense of powerlessness.

Working on a book the last few years has transformed my view of how to spend spare time on weeknights, after the kids are asleep. When I was most disciplined, I would spend one to two hours each on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, and another two hours or so on Monday and Tuesday evenings working on the book. Doing this required me to be intentional with my entire weekly schedule, and to set aside time for just hanging out with my wife as well. Again, I’m getting off point talking about scheduling, but it’s also important.

The point is, it was a lot more fulfilling to spend spare time — as sparse as it was — creating rather than consuming.

That gets to the broader point about beauty. Creating is a big part of making room for beauty. But so is making time for enjoying and appreciating beauty, through art, nature, music, etc. For those of you with analytical minds, read some fiction.

Creating can take a variety of forms. You could decide that instead of watching TV most nights of the week, you’re going to spend one or two nights a week writing short stories, or painting, or wood-working. You could join a community group or association, or run for the PTA. That’s creating too.

A sense of wonder about the world is important. Among other things, it can help us cultivate epistemological humility. More simply put, it empowers us to resist the many forces pushing us to be at war with one another.

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