Air travel is not generally a respite. But the morning after election day, settling into a window seat and turning off my phone, I was grateful for one of the few places left in modern life where news doesn’t intrude.
We shuddered down a rain-soaked runway, past the Clinton-Kaine and Trump-Pence planes parked side-by-side along the tarmac, and watched New York slip beneath dreary clouds. The exhausting noise of this election seemed to fade with the skyline.
There has been much dismay in recent weeks about the scourge of “fake news” in our politics — unsourced rumors and outright lies that get passed around as gospel. But our struggle is not only with the quality of information flowing across our screens. It’s the quantity and tempo.
Our itch for novelty, commentary, and outrage has become a destructive tremor in the body politic.
Even if your web browsing is confined to reputable sources, even if you never cast a credulous eye on clickbait, anxious snacking on information is a vice. There is no virtue in skimming news a half-dozen times a day. Checking polling averages every hour is not an act of dutiful citizenship. And Facebook wars with distant relatives are not a form of civic engagement.
Patient thought is the wellspring of a healthy culture and a meaningful life. But we seem determined to engineer it out of existence.
On the flight, I opened an old paperback of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals. From the spring of 1800 to the summer of 1802, Dorothy kept a record of her days in the English Lake District, where she spent time with her brother William and his fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She went on long walks, worked in the garden, and talked with neighbors over tea.
She also pined for the mail. Almost every day, especially when William was traveling, she hoped for a letter or a newspaper — some fresh word from the outside world. And on many days, none came. “No letters! No papers,” she lamented on the 20th of May, after walking all the way to town to intercept the mail.
People have always craved communication, always been impatient for news. But Dorothy had a simple and immovable check on that natural appetite. The postman made his daily rounds, delivering elation or disappointment, and that was the end of it. The tyranny of anticipation was lifted, and the rest of the day left free for visiting, mending, writing, and thinking. Communication arrived (or didn’t), and then life resumed.
Today, with news and messages always arriving, the restless twinge of anticipation is always with us. The postman’s footsteps are ever upon the path, so life becomes an unsettled limbo.
It leaves us feeling that the world spins faster, that the human pace has quickened. But time plods with the same indifference it always has. Only our frantic desire to fill it has spun out of control, aided by technologies that have outrun discipline.
As the plane descended toward Raleigh-Durham that Wednesday morning, a woman in the back row stretched her legs and looked toward the flight attendant. “Do we have to land?” she asked, only half-joking. “Can’t we stay up here a bit longer?”
I’m not sure how to be a thoughtful, engaged citizen in a democracy with 320 million distinct voices. I don’t know what it means to be well-informed in a networked world, when our decisions as voters and consumers echo across lives and distances that would stagger our ancestors.
But we’re not going to find the answer by checking messages first thing in the morning, or glancing at late headlines just before we close our eyes at night. Today’s fleeting outrage is not going to make us better advocates tomorrow.
There’s no going back to Wordsworth’s day, when a walk ‘round the lake made for a full afternoon. But we can choose to spend a little more time mending and repairing, a little more time growing and tending, a little more time visiting and thinking. Our thoughts can spend time aloft, even when we can’t.
Eric Johnson works at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.