Until the pandemic crisis hit us earlier this year, it was fashionable to mock the “24-hour news cycle,” the fact that people have such short attention spans that news stories can’t stay hot for more than 24 hours. The media dutifully led the way, serving up a continuous flow of hot breaking news to replace yesterday’s hot breaking news.
This year, however, in an extraordinary shift, the same breaking news story has stayed red hot day after day, month after month. The COVID-19 pandemic was the story that refused to go away, the story that cracked through our diminished attention spans and challenged us not to turn away.
Of the many unprecedented aspects of this pandemic year, let us not forget that one: Wherever we turned, wherever we looked, we were forced to confront an all-consuming crisis.
Wherever we turned, wherever we looked, we were forced to confront an all-consuming crisis.
It was a story with a million offshoots — fatalities, lockdowns, quarantine living, economic meltdowns, loneliness, social distancing, etc. — but at heart, it was one epic meta story. A story that grabbed us and never let go.
In that sense, the pandemic made me think of ancient history. All of these biblical stories we grew up with… weren’t they also meta stories that grabbed us and never let go?
Thousands of years later, we still gather around Seder tables and recount the story of our ancestors’ journey to freedom. We still light Hanukkah candles to recall the fight of the Maccabees. Indeed, every Jewish holiday commemorates an ancient “breaking news story” that never stopped breaking.
The clash between history and the news is a clash between the timeless and the timely. In recent years, with the exponential growth of technology and social media, the latter has crushed the former. When you’re checking your Twitter news feed every minute, who’s got time to contemplate the lessons of the past?
The COVID-19 pandemic gave us time to contemplate. It forced us to stay home. It forced us to slow down. Our restless minds didn’t suddenly morph into those of Greek philosophers, but unlike any year in recent memory, the never-ending pandemic gave our shrinking attention span a run for its money. It gave us a chance to go deeper and see what’s there.
You can feel it especially now, as the year comes to an end. People are looking back. Media companies are doing retrospectives. We’re all in a contemplative mode, reflecting on the one story that dominated all of humanity.
2020 will go down as the year when history caught up to the news, the year when the stunning power of the timeless entered our fragile lives.