In his newest book of essays, David Sedaris tells a lovely story called “And then there were 5.” In this short piece, Sedaris tells of going to a spinning class with his dad. Running in the background of the class was the cable news with the volume turned off. It is what Sedaris calls a low level hum to let us know that things are wrong in the world.
What is your low level hum?
In a piece in The Guardian, the novelist Ellena Ferrante writes:
A growing interest in politics, which erupted when I was around 20, inspired me to amass information. It seemed to me that until then I’d lived in a state of distraction, and I was afraid I’d go through life without even being aware of the disasters, the horrors around me. I feared I would become a superficial person, unconsciously complicit. So I forced myself to read the newspapers, and then since that didn’t seem sufficient, moved on to books of contemporary history, sociology, philosophy. There was a period when, against my nature, I even stopped reading novels: it seemed like time stolen from the need to live in my own era with eyes wide open.
But I didn’t make great progress: I always felt as if I’d entered a theatre where the movie had already started and I was struggling to get oriented. Where was the good, where was the evil? Who was the just, who the unjust? Who was interpreting facts, and who twisting them to create propaganda?
This struggle isn’t over. In fact, it seems to me more difficult today than in the past to try to understand how the world is going, in order not to have to discover, in the end, that in our distraction we have been complicit with the dregs of the human race. The uninterrupted rain of news doesn’t help, books don’t help, the constantly new sociological terms that brilliantly simplify reality don’t help. Rather, I have the impression that today’s network of information, in both its print and digital manifestations, forces citizens into a sort of chaos, a condition in which the more informed you are, the more confused you are. For me, the problem is not, therefore, to stay well informed but to track within the mass of pointlessly amplified news that which will help me to distinguish, over time, the true and the false, the best and the worst: this is an extremely difficult task.
Moving from a goal of awareness to one of interpretation is indeed as much a worth goal as it is difficult. It does, however, require turning down the background hum a bit learning to sit in silence.