On the long, steep, rocky descent from Bake Oven Knob, a peak on the Appalachian Trail, my hiking buddy and I encountered a young man who asked if we needed water. His backpack bristled with plastic bottles. “Some people don’t carry enough,” he explained, “cuz they don’t know what they’re in for.” Satisfied our needs were met, he bounded past us in search of the truly thirsty.
In AT parlance, this is Trail Magic. I have been its beneficiary. Last May, on Mile Ten of a spring-less 16-mile stretch of Pennsylvania trail, my buddy and I came upon an unopened 12-pack of Poland Spring sitting on a rock. It was the milk of human kindness, more than the water, that sustained us on our journey that day.
I miss it. I thirst for it. And recently I’ve come to see why: I keep drinking from media’s polluted stream.
I know this because last month I did an inadvertent detox. I went on a hiking trip in the vast wilderness of southeastern Utah, where for a solid week we had no cell service, no internet, no television, no media of any kind. Cut off from these vital sources, we spent each day in the desert consumed with the task of getting from Point A to Point B and back again. We walked. We talked. We rested. And we refueled, in part by staring for hours at rock formations, rapt with wonder at the oceans of time required to carve them. Confronted with monumental evidence of humanity’s absolute insignificance, I returned to civilization brimming with goodwill toward mankind.
But then, of course, I plugged myself back into the steady drip of my newsfeeds. I drank deeply from the bottomless well of social media. With just a few mouse clicks, a few waves of the remote control, I poisoned my tank of good will.
And for what?
We kid ourselves, partaking of this toxic stream. We are not more responsible citizens as a result. Yes, a democracy demands an informed citizenry. But let’s not forget that media is just a delivery system for advertising. To grow advertising revenue, media must lace the information it delivers with a drug we cannot resist. And they’ve hit on it: pharmaceutical-grade provocation. Ten minutes of Fox News, CNBC, or even PBS Newshour delivers such a rush of righteous indignation, such a high of moral superiority, that none of us can go a day without a fix. Since hooking up to this drip feels like social connection, there is no mass outrage, no coordinated attempt to rip the needle from our veins. And so, pumped full of suspicion and contempt for people we’ve never met, we grow evermore desperate for real community . . . and evermore incapacitated to address the root cause of our exile.
Rehab isn’t easy. There’s a certain communion, after all, in our shared addiction. I’ve struggled for the last month to figure out how to stay connected without becoming poisoned. If you, too, are struggling, let’s talk. Let me know how you’re mediating your media exposure. Together, we could begin to restore our collective faith in humanity.
I could sure use a 12-pack of that.