“Nobody wants to feel sad after they watch the news.”
“Yeah, you don’t wanna be depressed the rest of the night.”
These are some of the explanations offered after I asked a class of teenagers why the evening news in the United States always concludes with a feel-good story. As if Vanna White wasn’t enough to soothe our post-news angst, it’s now routine to top off each nightly reality update with a story of comfort. And it’s not just the evening news; plenty of the 24-hour news channels do this as well.
These feel-good news stories are not problematic in and of themselves. Indeed, positive stories capture what is good in the world and give us hope. The problem is the way we use such stories. They often become a kind of security blanket that inhibits us from entering into the reality of our broken world. In fact, I tend to believe that this trend dictates much of our culture.
I worry that the rhythmic comforting desensitizes us from suffering and allows us to accept reality without having to experience the psychological horror of it. And I’m not alone in worrying that this rhythm affects the church as well. In his book Insurrection, Peter Rollins contends that we are protected from the psychological experience of suffering “as long as the worship songs are full of light, the sermons lay bare all mysteries and the prayers treat God as an object there to tell us it’s all going to be OK.” Psychologist Ernest Becker once asserted that human beings put maximum effort into the denial of death, suffering and powerlessness.
What is fascinating, however, is that, despite our efforts to remain comforted, we do not seem like a very happy culture. The more we attempt to avoid grief and suffering, the sadder, angrier and more hopeless we feel. Psychologist Margaret Alter explains, “When we wish to draw away from human suffering, we are likely to set up a self-protective system that makes us psychologically ill.” The effort to avoid suffering is in vain because we are wired this way. Empathy is a natural feature of human biology: “We are all distressed by the suffering of other human beings, and probably that of animals and the ecosystem as well,” Alter notes. She reminds us that filling up on feel-good news doesn’t alleviate the effects that reality has on us.
Jesus, however, invites us to find comfort through mourning. He says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” In the upside-down kingdom of God, comfort is obtained not by avoiding grief, but by grieving. Again, modern psychology confirms, in Alter’s words, “that it is only those who grieve deaths and losses in their lives who will find comfort.” To be human, therefore, means to embrace the grief we feel when confronted with suffering. Jesus invites us to feel what it means to be human. And we must learn to mourn because mourning is a form of prayer.
But mourning is not the end; it is just the beginning. I think that Matthew presents the Beatitudes in an intentional order. Only when our hearts mourn with the world will we learn meekness, hunger and thirst for righteousness, show mercy, purify our heart and make peace. These practices are realized after we mourn.
So, how might this look when it comes to the nightly news? I’m not sure. I just know that we’re supposed to feel, we’re supposed to mourn. Perhaps you’ll write it down like Jeremiah or learn to make it your prayer. All I know is that comfort is promised to those who mourn.
What Do You Think?
- How is your worldview formed by televised newscasts?
- What perspectives should we bring to such viewings?
- How do fake, satirical news programs such as "The Daily Show" factor into this?