Your Own Personal Times Mirror

My local credit union provides an added service to its members. While we are waiting in line, inside or in the drive-up lanes, the latest news headlines flash on colorful screens to keep us informed. I guess.

This morning, the first headline I saw told me about a “skeletal body” found in a “rusty barrel” on the living premises of a paroled convict in Texas. The next was about nineteen people missing because their Chinese tour bus was wrecked in the typhoon in Taiwan. My short-term memory apparently overloaded because I can’t remember the details of the third one, something about a catastrophe that stranded a large group of people, maybe factory workers, somewhere else in the world.

After these helpful headlines, the screen flicked to sports scores.

Is this progress? Technology has made it possible for me in my car or house or clinic waiting room to look into another person’s car or house or waiting room practically anywhere else in the world. If my media sources deemed it important, they could show or tell me about a soft-skinned newborn baby peacefully nursing in her mother’s arms in Afghanistan; or a young student from Minneapolis who spent a summer in Nepal and saw the world open up to him in numerous ways; or an autumn afternoon bicycle ride and picnic that was the highlight of a disabled French woman’s year.

Situations like these are not news, precisely because they happen every day, everywhere. And just as certainly, people get hurt in small ways, every day, everywhere. These stories may not be “news,” but they are often little stops on the path to some “big” news story.

“Everything matters if anything matters at all,” wrote Pierce Pettis. What led up to the sensational story about the skeletal body in the rusty barrel? A million “small” details, I’m thinking. A cruel joke on a school playground . . . a child’s choice to reject a friendship . . . a growing volume of hateful voices inside a teenager’s head . . . a thousand little cruelties that grew into the habitual and hateful behavior of the self-loathing now-paroled convict.

Or not. I know that sometimes people do things for no observable reason; there is no painful childhood, no discernable pattern of small details leading up to the scene of the crime. I’ve given up the search for a handy universal explanation of everything. But I wonder if more of us paid attention to the smaller details of our own lives and the lives of those around us – our compulsive behaviors (why, I might ask myself, do I always laugh nervously when someone mentions “x”), the look of pain or numbness in the eyes of a coworker when she speaks (if I take the time to look her in the eyes) – maybe then we could work for change on the level where change most often happens – the embryonic one.

These days, news, like most things, feels like a product to be consumed. It is there to entertain us, to add to our intellectual stores of knowledge, to warn us against danger (and according to the news, danger is lurking everywhere, everywhere, dammit!), to show us something pretty and tender and sweet now and then to preserve our hope in the human spirit (so, yes, now and then we do hear about the French woman’s bike ride and such).

It’s still possible, though, to use news as a tool for information-gathering – not for the sake of simply storing that information and then yanking it out to write up a nifty blog post (hey, why am I laughing nervously right now?); but to ponder that information and its influence on the issues that affect me and my community – and then to act – responsibly – on that information. Reflection on the news can inspire people to live more wisely and compassionately as family members, friends, coworkers, and citizens of communities both local and global.

Am I suggesting everyone seek out solitude as much as I do? Nah. But now and then, it probably wouldn’t hurt to turn off the Blackberry, the TV, the radio, the computer; set aside the paper (or the iPad), and reflect on whatever new information you just took in (you do remember what it was, don’t you?).