Wallace Baine: Managing the media maelstrom for the sake of mental health
No one of conscience can afford to turn off the news of the world, Wallace Baine writes, but for our own good, we must step away from the fire hose of the doomscroll in favor of the books, movies or whatever represents our emotional homeland to keep ourselves in balance.
As the two-year anniversary of the pandemic shutdown approaches, and the chattering media classes prepare their “how far we’ve come” retrospectives, I’m reading Mel Brooks.
It’s a strategic move on my part, to read the great director’s memoir on his amazing career as a comedian and filmmaker, titled with a dash of mock narcissism “All About Me!”
Is it a surrender to escapism amid all the bulletins and bad news about Ukraine, inflation, Putin, drought, Jan. 6, gas prices, and the baseball lockout? You could characterize it that way, I suppose. But the predominant lesson that has stayed with me from the madness of the past two years is the degree to which each of us has our own individual and often highly eccentric relationship with information, and disinformation. Reading anecdotes on the making of “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” is my way to restore a bit of balance in my own psychological conception of the world I live in.
Long before the pandemic, in the realm of media, we had all already grown accustomed to the world of bingeing and doomscrolling, indiscriminate and technology-enabled intake of ideas and imagery, like a whale sucking in krill. But the pandemic turbocharged the always-on engines of news and opinion, and created enormous funnel clouds of rage, fear, despair and anxiety. And our collective mental health has paid — continues to pay — a steep price.
I was reminded of the paradox of how the glut of information has made us all blinkered and blinded last week by a story published by the BBC. The piece talked to people on the ground in Ukraine under the barrage of the Russian army’s shelling of Ukrainian cities. These same folks had relatives back in Russia who did not believe their first-hand, eyewitness accounts of what was happening in Ukraine because they were so deeply invested in the Russian government’s official narrative on the war and who is to blame for it.
Sure, it’s easy to tut-tut those benighted souls bamboozled by Vladimir Putin’s crude, Soviet-style propaganda. But haven’t we all constructed our own individualized worldviews in service to deeply held value systems that may or may not conform entirely with cold, hard reality (whatever that is)?
Years ago, before the social media revolution, I clung to a specific metaphor when it came to media consumption. Media, like food, was to be regulated as a diet. Sports, tabloids, “Austin Powers” movies, all that stuff was junk food and candy, an indulgence to be consumed only in moderation. National Geographic documentaries, 7,000-word pieces in the New Yorker, movies with subtitles, that stuff was nourishment, the eat-your-veggies diet that led to being healthy or, specific to media intake, “informed.”
In the age of curated social media feeds and bottomless Facebook or Reddit scrolls, the diet analogy doesn’t hold together anymore. Information these days is less like food and more like drugs. I can design a media diet of only top-quality credible sources of serious, fair-minded, non-partisan journalism. But does that necessarily make me “healthy”? Or does it just create a cascade of highly emotional thoughts and images from which my limited psychological makeup has little defense? Have you ever tried to shampoo your hair in a Yosemite waterfall?
Some day soon — maybe that day is already here — mental health professionals will have a term for the uniquely potent threat that the endless news cycle contributes to depression, anxiety, or any number of related neurotic conditions.
To get a sense of how best to maintain a functional and healthy mental state, I reached out not to a doctor, but to a student of Zen Buddhism. JD Doyle is the Guiding Teacher, the community leader, at Insight Santa Cruz, a downtown organization that leads people in meditation techniques based on Buddhist principles.
Doyle told me that meditation is a vital tool for contemporary living, that Americans did not traditionally always have a critical need for taking time out: “I say to people all the time, ‘Did you really need to sit down and meditate when you were milking the cow every morning?’ That whole way of living we once had ways to cope: stopping, pausing, recognizing our connection to the Earth, recognizing our connection to each other.”
It’s a shame that the term “mindfulness” has been somewhat diminished by overuse in marketing (a phenomenon sometimes called “McMindfulness”). But the principle — understanding how your mind works to transcend “bad” thoughts and behaviors — is still very much relevant in how to cope with the demands of social media and relentless news feeds.
So what does all this have to do with Mel Brooks? From the climate crisis to the political crisis to the public health crisis, to the return of the Cold War, we are all facing potential cataclysmic changes in the years ahead, and recognizing that can do a number on one’s mental health.
“Booth” is not primarily a story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, but of his family as a whole — and it’s out Tuesday, the...
The question of media consumption is no longer about engagement versus escapism. Like many people, I have often found myself trapped in a late-night Reddit doomscroll from which I felt weirdly powerless to escape. The result after “informing” myself on the state of the world was that I was exhausted and fried, freaked out and outraged. If I’m going to contribute to solutions to these problems, that’s not a state from which I can operate very well.
Mel Brooks and his charming and goofy stories about Hollywood take the temperature down. But it also accomplishes something more important: It evokes the culture that I know and love, my mental and emotional homeland, and it reminds me that those connections are life-giving and are worth defending.
No one of conscience these days can afford to drop out and turn off the news of the world. There’s simply too much at stake. But the eat-your-veggies media diet doesn’t work anymore. Mix in some sweets. Find your own Mel Brooks. It’ll make everything go down a bit easier.