I’m on a diet, and like all diets, this one’s not going so well. Every evening I go to bed vowing to limit myself to a single source of information on the Coronavirus, and to limit my intake to 15 minutes. I drift off to sleep feeling firmly committed to my righteous regimen.
I wake the next morning, and before my feet hit the floor I’m mindlessly tuning in to WNYC. As I brush my teeth, I figure there’s no harm in a quick check of what the Daily podcast is covering today. Over coffee, I read the New York Times and scan the wall-to-wall Coronavirus headlines, but by now I’ve lost my appetite, because I already know what they’re about. I congratulate myself on resisting the urge to know more. It was a rocky start, but I think this is going to be a good day.
I look up from my computer and see that it’s noon. Wait. That’s the time of Governor Cuomo’s daily briefing. Listening in is really just a fundamental act of citizenship. He’s adorable, but I don’t get much from this that I didn’t already know.
Later in the afternoon, while I’m on hold for 15 minutes to complete my grocery delivery, my phone notifies me of a new interview with Bill Gates on his recommended plan for re-entry. It’s only responsible to check that out. It’s CNN breaking news, for God’s sake. I learn nothing.
I’m very good the rest of the day.
My turn to cook dinner. This recipe calls for caramelizing three large onions over low heat, which takes an ungodly amount of time and constant stirring at the stove. Obviously, it makes sense to watch the President’s press briefing just for the entertainment value of squinting my eyes and imagining a grown man in a giant onesie. Ninety minutes of nothing later, I feel a little queasy.
At 9pm, I remember that Rachel Maddow is going to feature stories told by first responders all over America. It would be unpatriotic not to tune into that. The result is that I feel like a self-indulgent sow compared to these selfless warriors.
If knowledge is power, why do I feel even more powerless at the end of every day?
By bedtime, I’m fully disgusted with myself. I made zero headway on my Coronavirus diet. I feel bloated by 3.5 hours of empty calories. I’m full, but also hungry. I lie in my bed and press the heels of my palms into my eye sockets. What’s going on here? If knowledge is power, why do I feel even more powerless at the end of every day?
I’ll tell you why: because information isn’t the same as knowledge. The “news” is just narrating our current condition; it isn’t helping me make sense of it. I’m ingesting facts without function. That overwhelms me, it does not empower me.
If it’s not information that I’m craving, then why fetishize the news?? I believe my fixation on news about the Coronavirus is what’s known in zoology circles as “displacement behavior.” When animals are torn between two conflicting drives—like fear and aggression— they’ll often display unrelated coping behaviors, like drinking (yes), eating (yes), scratching (not yet), or self-grooming (I wish). Clearly, my displacement activity is news-binging.
By around midnight, I finally see the answer: if nobody knows shit about where this is heading, then the knowledge to be gleaned lies not in what I get from outside sources, but from what I myself am intuiting, imagining, testing, succeeding or failing at, building and re-building. The only thing I need to hear from “out there” is advice from medical experts on how to keep myself and my community safe. That information doesn’t change day to day or even week to week. The rest isn’t really my business. It just distracts me from doing what is mine to do right now. Like getting a good night’s sleep, staying focused on the heavy lift of pivoting my business in the weeks ahead, loving my beloveds, and re-watching the final episode of Ozark, because…whaaaatttt?
That’s it. I’m getting serious about my diet starting tomorrow.