When I was new to the craft of professional writing, I fell in love with one particular word: “crucial”, meaning, “decisive or critical; of great importance.” I suppose I was smitten with that word because I imagined it brought gravitas to my writing. It was crucial to use ‘crucial’ as a crucial descriptor, to heighten the crucial nature of my story and reach that crucial reader.
It drove my editor absolutely crazy. “John: if everything is crucial then nothing is really crucial,” she warned me. “Use ‘crucial’ only if something is really crucial. Spare the hyperbole. Chill out.”
A good lesson for writing. A good lesson for life too.
If we are always crying wolf—THIS IS SO CRUCIAL--eventually no one will believe us. If we imagine every bump in the road is an emergency, we’ll scan for threats 24/7. If we perceive every twinge in our bodies as life threatening, we’ll obsessively check our various symptoms on webmd.com. (Not that I’d ever do that.)
No system can run at full throttle all the time, on the constant fuels of fear and worry and anxiety. Eventually it will seize up. Fry its circuits. Shut down. In small doses, adrenaline is life saving. It helps us respond to real danger. But in large doses, adrenaline exhausts the body and threatens burnout. That’s true for human bodies and spirits and true for our collective body politic too, for us as a nation, in our shared lives as citizens and neighbors.
That’s important to remember because right now, in this weird time in our history, everything, EVERYTHING, every news story, every news leak, every breaking issue, all the news, on the news: it seems to be so darn crucial. Right?
There’s no minor news any more, only major developments. There’s no slow news days, only full news days. The nation anxiously awaits the next terrible or tantrum-filled tweet from our Tweeter in Chief. I’ve been a joyful and engaged consumer of the news since my time as a newspaper boy, but these days I’m instead often consumed by the news, as are so, so many of my fellow citizens. What if I miss something? Did you hear the latest?! What did he say?!
And so what I need to tell myself more, what I have been telling the folks I serve as pastor, is this crucial spiritual advice. (No exaggeration.) What to do when life feels anxious. When all events seem so crucial, even if sometimes they are not.
Breathe. BREATHE. Step back. Take a break from the news, a fast, maybe a full day a week. It will still be there when you return. Put more of your restless energy into doing something (organize, volunteer, protest, donate, act) and less of your energy into just passively watching or reading the news. Return to the places in your life that feel true and can be trusted, no matter what is happening in the world. Start with your own house of worship or faith tradition. Pray. Give it up and over to God and the Universe. Take the nervous energy provoked by the news and then take it out: for a long walk, a vigorous run, a spirited swim, a fun bike ride, a hike in the hills and leave the phone off, or better yet, leave it at home.
Can everything really be so crucial?
Strange days. When our national life is so intense, like someone forgot to turn down the sound and the TV is always on. Strange days. When our media is both a very good friend of democracy and a warped lens through which life is shown in such a distorted way. Strange days: when those we trust to lead us are so much more devoted to self interest than the common good.
That’s the news today. Some of it crucial. Some not so much. Some good. Some bad. So breathe, America. Just breathe.