The field of economics points out that everything we do prevents us from at the same time doing something different: This law of life economics calls “opportunity costs.” If you do this, you can’t at the same time do that. Being here means you can’t at the same time be there. Despite what commercials tell you, you can’t have it all. You must “make your option, which of two.”
That very useful law occurred to me this morning in connection with the practice of following the news.
Most of the people I know are intelligent and college educated. (And by the way, if you think those two qualities are synonymous, you have another think coming). Most of them follow the news at least to the extent of listening to National Public Radio. When they learn that I rarely listen to radio news, or watch television “news” (TV news hardly deserves to be called news) and don’t read newspapers or newsmagazines – the little news I get, I read from the internet — they are often somewhat shocked. It seems to them (I suppose) that I am deliberately choosing ignorance over knowledge.
Not so. I’m heeding the law of opportunity costs. There are but 24 hours to a day, and every moment spent watching TV news about things that don’t really concern you are moments lost to whatever else you might have been doing. Announcements of how many people died in this or that airplane crash or earthquake or flood are very little removed from descriptions of celebrity scandals, and are no more useful. Nearly always, news reports concern the surface appearance of things, never the substance. If any of these stories really concern me, I know that I have to dig for information that any news broadcast or report is unlikely to provide. In the absence of such digging, “keeping up with the news” merely provides familiarity with names. So what use is it to read of the appearance of crises in finance or foreign policy or political horse-races?
It is useless and worse than useless, for it tends to mold your mind-set, subtly manipulating you day by day to see the world a certain way.
I don’t mean to imply that I always, or even usually, make the best use of my time that I can. Unfortunately, I don’t. But neither do I waste my time listening to things that result in my merely gaining familiarity with names and thinking that I know what’s going on in the world.
Every moment you gaze outward toward appearances is a moment that you cannot spend gazing inward toward realities. Every moment pinned to the present is one lost to the wider world of past and future. Every moment spent absorbing another person’s views is one lost to your forming views of your own.
“Read not the Times,” Henry Thoreau said long ago. “Read the eternities.”