I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of my phone. Email is fine, and phone calls from people I know are always welcome. But I’m in the habit of checking the news pretty much every time I pick up the phone. The habit is ingrained, so hard to break. Right now, reading the news feels like swallowing shards of glass. I keep clicking, and keep swallowing. My throat is sore.
The fact is, I’ve been reading news for far too long to stop. For at least 35 years, I’ve followed the stories around me, both domestic and international. I feel connected to the ongoing stories, and moved by sudden and surprising events — typically natural and human-made disasters. Some stories are both, and so I feel both shock and connection.
I’m on leave this year, writing the book manuscript for the Four Question Method. I took the month of September off to go hiking with a friend in Sequoia National Forest in California. He and I have been backpacking together for as long as I’ve been reading the news. This time, the news caught up with us. We were three days into the forest when the smoke blew in from the southwest. We woke in the morning to a spectacular alpine basin covered in ash, the air thick, heavy, and aggressive. We wore masks for the next two days as we made our way out of the forest, part of a steady stream of hikers. If it hadn’t been for the disaster of pandemic, the disaster of wildfires would have scorched our lungs.
One of the great things about wilderness camping is getting off the grid. No phones, no messages, no news. The break is always refreshing. This time, the news caught up with us. We knew about the California wildfires, but didn’t know they’d get so close to us, or us to them.
There are two stories about those fires, actually. One is a story of natural disaster and its immediate consequences. Our interrupted trip is the least of it. People have been killed. Many homes have been destroyed. People are breathing air filled with hazardous particulates all up and down the coast. And Sequoia and the High Sierras: large parts of that stunning landscape have been ravaged.
The second story is longer and slower. The wildfire season, predictable enough — a regular pattern — is much worse this year, and in recent years, too. Something’s changed: the climate is hotter and drier, more extreme. Hundred-year fires, like floods and hurricanes, need new names: “ten-year,” or “frequent.” That story isn’t about lightning and house construction in wooded areas. That story is about the consequences of petroleum-based industrialization, and our political incapacity to address those consequences.
The climate-change story is not a happier story than the wildfires-are-burning story. Both are true and important, and both are upsetting. But the reality is, right now, that the climate-change story is the perspective I need in order to be able to click through to the news sites on my phone. Climate change, global warming, is about changes in conditions. It’s a Question Three topic, in 4QM terms.
Climate change is a game changer. But it’s one we still have time to address. The future of that story is still unwritten, which means we still have the opportunity to try to write it.
Same with the daily news of the Trump Era. The President, who mocked mask-wearing and lockdowns, is, as I write, in the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. I’m an educated person living in Massachusetts. The odds that I’d find Donald Trump a credible reporter on news of the day are low, and in fact I don’t. But I know Trump supporters, even at this late date. I find it profoundly unedifying to debate news of the day with them. We have startlingly misaligned sensibilities about who we can trust and what we can believe.
But I can talk to my political adversaries in a time of great and deep polarization because I can track Question Two. As I told a neighbor, we’re not trying to persuade one another. We’re trying to understand one another. That, right now, will be the best we can do.
So: if the news is important to you — if following the ongoing stories in the news is important to your sense of the story of your life — some advice: now is a time for Questions Two and Three. You need to know what’s happening. That’s what daily news is all about. But that alone will drive you to distraction. And you need to judge. Question Four is the point of knowing and thinking, after all. But Questions Two and Three, the true inquiry questions, are where I need to be right now, and I recommend them to you as well.
In a time of polarization, redouble your efforts to understand. You need not agree, or even judge. Question Two: What are you thinking? That question is enough. Take it seriously enough to gather the evidence that will get you a convincing answer. Working out an answer will build empathy and agency.
And Question Three: Why here and now? What’s happening now, I’m willing to wager, is epochal. The ground is shifting beneath our feet. Our republic is on trial; our society is fractured; our country is burning. We answer Question Three with “factors, not actors.” There are lots of factors to consider about our political predicament: the shape of contemporary media; the systematic rewards and failures of our economy; the pace of cultural and demographic change. In any case, it is, as always, the questions that matter most.
Now is a time to interpret and explain, to ask and try to answer Questions Two and Three. And, if you get a chance, I strongly encourage you to get off the grid for a while. My friend and I ended up in New Mexico in the Santa Fe National Forest. Ten days when our boots hit the trail and our phones did not function. Every day, the news of the day was auspicious.