This year in particular, my extended family is being ravaged by an addiction to a certain drug. Drug addictions break families apart. The resulting conflicts, suspicion, avoidance, and bitterness take a deep toll.
The drug I am talking about is the 24/7/365 cable news coverage of our national politics, with all the social media in orbit around it.
Image credit: llee_wu / Flickr
I call it anger/fear meth because of the science of addiction that the news industry uses to keep the audience hooked on negative emotions: anger, fear, outrage, tribalism, and scorn for anyone on the other side. I have seen alcohol and other substances impact families up close, and I’m not exaggerating when I say the news media’s impact on my extended family is right up there.
The lefties among us take the MSNBC version of the drug; the righties take the Fox version. As a result, I have witnessed arguments that have all the nuance of a hatchet fight in a dark alley. I have seen beloved people allow thirty years of trust to go down the drain in a matter of weeks. People nurse their wounds and grievances at home instead of attending family events. They speak about one another primarily with negativity. They unfriend each other on Facebook. Just yesterday I heard about another fight among two family members who cannot speak to each other now.
It has been a devastating year for us. I am grappling with what my role can be in building peace while this addiction and its toxic impact continue unabated.
One of the great blessings of a democracy is a free press to inform the citizens and hold those in power accountable for their actions. But there is a huge difference between responsible, balanced journalism and the polemical, fear-based style of media today that has ravaging effects, including stress, anxiety, and depression. The old news adage, “If it bleeds it leads,” has been replaced with “appeal to fear and show anything bleeding one thousand times in a continuous loop.”
Over the past twenty-five years, I have moved toward receiving the vast majority of my news by reading only well researched journalism from non-ideologically driven sources. I do this in order to maintain a heart that has hope in God, a heart able to empathize with and listen to those I disagree with.
We can be informed citizens by reading, in half the time and one-eighth the adrenaline hit, what we get through sensationalistic, addictive visual media sources.
As followers of Jesus, we are invited to live with robust faith in a living God, a Father who can make all things new through Christ—even a Roman Empire that tortured and killed his own son. Jesus and the apostles guide us to treasure the positive heart states of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control.”
Many people I know and love feel it is their duty to watch addictive, anxiety-inducing media so they can be change agents for good. The irony is that research shows that people who keep their minds and emotions in positive states are not merely happier, but also more effective in life, including bringing positive change. The saints and wisdom figures of the Christian church emphasized how vulnerable our souls are to what we see and experience, and how vital it is that we fill our senses with things that are good, true, and beautiful.
I just returned from several weeks among Jesus’ people in Ethiopia, where I saw this dynamic at work. I was impressed that, despite their poverty and lack of information, even about their own country’s current political turmoil, people were living the worshipful, prayerful, affectionate, community-centered pattern of life that creates Christ-like character and deep joy. Despite, or even because of,overt persecution, people were prepared to suffer and love their opponents in ways that can only be described as miraculous.
Returning to America, I have felt moved to love my family members and pray that we could be freed from addiction to divisive media and political arguments. Here are some of the experiments I’m trying: When I listen to my friends’ and family’s deep fears about the country, I ask them, “Where do you see God or any evidence of light in your life?” and, “Where can we build trust and positive bridges with those we fear?” I ask people to consider how they feel after an hour-long infusion of the media drug. I invite them on hikes, to cook dinner together, to read Scripture and pray together, to try some centering prayer or yoga with me.
In addition, I keep my own prayer and contemplation practices strong so that I don’t slip into despair. Instead I want to live in the shadow of the resurrection, in which anything, even the reconciliation of media-addicted and politically divided family members, is possible.
Mark Phifer-Houseman has been married to his best friend and hero, Gayll, for thirty-two years. He has been enthralled by Jesus since sophomore year in college. That pursuit led to twenty-four years of ministry to college students and eight years as The River’s staff director. He currently serves as a leadership trainer and coach, primarily among under-resourced leaders in the Global South.
Notable accomplishments include: clinging to Jesus while disabled for fourteen years with chronic neuropathy and following Gayll’s leadership in adopting their four children from Ethiopia in 2003. He loves to see young people come alive to God and boldly follow their calling, communities living out the radical love of God, and families and churches thriving (including his own). He's a podcast addict: This American Life, Snap Judgement, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Radiolab are a few faves. He's certain that food in the age to come will be mainly Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, and Mexican (not necessarily in that order). He has been led astray by dark chocolate.