Remember that Bill McKibben essay in Esquire a few years back where he goes hiking alone in the woods and it takes days for the noises in his head to shut themselves off? He was riffing on a point he often makes: that the modern deluge of electronic information doesn’t hold a candle to the information yielded by the natural world. “There are other broadcasts, on wavelengths that do not appear on our cable boxes,” he said. The kicker from the essay has always stayed with me. Paraphrasing as best I remember it: “No one ever lay on their deathbed wishing they’d watched more episodes of Matlock.”
And yet there’s a risk of the smug, “I’m alright, Jack” syndrome in getting your own life to a point that allows time for nature walks and growing pesticide-free heirloom veggies, and then shutting off the uncomfortable noise of miserable lives lived elsewhere. I’m not especially proud of that day of carving pumpkins and ignoring the phone, even though it saved the newspaper the cost of an unnecessary plane fare. (I think it was that day that convinced me finally to quit daily journalism.)
Sometimes I catch myself having a little private contest with Dan Schorr when he does his end-of-week news analysis on NPR. Do I know as much as he does about OPEC’s oil production agreement or the NYPD guidelines for “tossing” suspects? But what good does my knowing do anyone? It’s a kind of false pride that equates “knowing” with “doing.”
A friend told me last week that she allows herself to closely follow the news of awful happenings only if she plans to do something about them. It can be a small something–a letter to Congress or even just discussing it with her friends. “But if I know I’m going to do absolutely nothing, I just can’t spare the worrying space.” Since this is a person who worries about a great many issues and does a good deal about several, I can’t really fault her winnowing strategy.
And now I think I’ll take a walk.