Candidates understand this, which is why people running for office play the role of prophet and not just politician. They predict the direst consequences and apocalyptic scenarios should their opponent win.
In a fear-based environment, facts matter less than feelings. The objective truth doesn’t matter so much as our subjective impressions. And candidates from both sides of the aisle exploit the anxieties and fears of their constituency in order to present their leadership as the answer.
TV pundits and journalists don’t help. It’s the nature of news to show us the bad and not the good—to dwell on what is sensational, not what is standard.
We always hear about the plane that crashes, but to our ancestors, the more startling news would be that thousands of planes traverse the skies every day, without incident. Our local newspaper informs us about a person who has died, but we never consider the miracle that this person ever lived.
News magnifies the abnormal, not the normal. And over time, we worry that the uncommon is common, and our fears leave us anxious and restless.
When we are greeted with news of tragedy and mayhem every day, it is easy to do one of two things.
1. Get Distracted
The first response is to retreat to devices of distraction. In the words of Neil Postman, we “amuse ourselves to death.” We turn off the news, and turn on Netflix. You tune out the bad news of the world by escaping into our phone—a personally tailored device of endless distraction.
2. Get Distressed
The second response is to be perpetually distressed. We believe we should feel with every fiber of our being every tragedy, every injustice, and every attack. Yet even though we know empathy, compassion, and righteous anger are proper responses to the bad news of our world, we find it impossible to fully process and ponder the horror of every bad situation. It distresses us that we’re not distressed enough. And because we feel so inadequate at fully entering into the depths of a victim’s pain, we scold our distracted friends and family members and cultivate a sense of self-righteous superiority over those who haven’t managed to even feel as deeply as we do.
Why Getting Distracted or Distressed Will Fail
Neither of these responses is appropriate for the Christian. Both narrow the horizon to the present moment and fail to embody Christian hope.
In the first case, the desire to get distracted concentrates on the pleasure of the moment. Friedrich Nietzsche in his book, On the Uses and Liabilities of History, described his generation this way:
“Observe the herd as it grazes past you: it cannot distinguish yesterday from today, leaps about, eats, sleeps, digests, leaps some more, and carries on like this from morning to night and from day to day tethered by the short leash of its pleasures and displeasures.”
Nietzsche saw how many of the people in his day were unable to think beyond the present moment. Tethered by the “short leash of its pleasures,” the herd has no collective memory and no hope for the future. The characteristic of a distracted generation is that we graze from field to field looking for something to munch in the moment.
In the second case, the desire to be in a constant state of distress also fails to lift our eyes from the woes of our present moment. Scripture does tell us to “weep with those who weep,” but this admonition was given to believers in a local church. Were we to weep with every grieving person in the world, we would never stop crying. Furthermore, the same Scripture tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, and the juxtaposition of these two commands should keep us from putting on a superficial smile or issuing a never-ending wail over the state of the world.
Can We Hope Again?
The Church has something else to offer: hope. It’s a virtue that transcends despair and distraction. Hope lifts our eyes above the horizon of the present and reorients us to the great story of this world, as told by God the Author.
Christian hope cuts against the twin temptations of distraction and despair by grounding us in another time and place.
Take, for example, Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. These letters show how the gospel of hope can enable us to live as an alternative society, a contrasting community that stands out by living according to the values grounded in God’s work of redemption. Christian hope lifts our eyes, not as an excuse for passivity or fatalistic resignation, but rather as an exhortation toward pursuing the day when the Lord will come. Christian hope helps us fight evil without the fear of ultimate failure.
Oliver O’Donovan describes hope as a willingness to wait attentively “. . . attending wholly and with concentration focused on what is not yet happening, so that whatever is happening is handled with a mind supremely bent on something else.”
I like that last line. “A mind supremely bent on something else.”
Hope does not distance us from the world’s pain, nor distract us from the injustices we perceive. Hope attunes our hearts and minds to a faithful God who has shown His goodness in the past and promises to do so again.
Don’t let the fears of the present blind you from God’s faithfulness in the past or His promise in the future. Our story transcends this present darkness and gives us “strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow.”