Distrust of the media is up, conspiracy theories are in, but giving up on wresting meaning from the news isn’t the answer.

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Finding a quiet mental space may help us to construct our meaning. Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

In normal times, before COVID put the kibosh on casual conversations at the gym, a public event or an eatery, I’d be approached by people, not to give me the business about teaching journalism for a living (“Aha, one of those news fakers!”), but to voice a bewildered plea:

So much information flooding in, so many outlets to choose from, they’d say. How am I supposed to make sense of the news?

COVID isolation has only added to the angst, it seems, by confining us to our digital foxholes. As such, I get the sense that politically left, right or center, many of us yearn to tame the tsunami of random information and outright propaganda roaring at us through our smartphones, laptops and tablets, even if we disagree on how to go about it. …


An extraordinary new documentary called ‘My Octopus Teacher’ taught me to turn the tables on an old family story.

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Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

I confess I never warmed to our friend the octopus. I like to think I’m as animal-friendly as the next person, but for this cephalopod I’ve reserved the categories of enemy and dinner.

My uncharitable attitude turned on an old family tale. When I was 6 or 7, my grandmother told me the eye-popping story of a trip to the beach in the early 1920s when she said a giant octopus crawled from the North Pacific with an eye to pulling my toddler mother into the surf for a meal. …


Better listening by journalists could help heal a divided nation.

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Photo by Jason Zeis on Unsplash

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

It’s no secret the incoming Biden administration faces long odds in taming the partisan antagonisms and ill will roiling America and eclipsing its health and promise. The news media have an important role to play, but they need to do a better job of listening.

In the aftermath of the Nov. 3 election, Axios’ Jim VandeHei didn’t mince words: “All of us — and the media, in particular — need some clear-eyed, humble self-reflection as the dust settles.” Why? …


Regard for science and rational thinking has eroded in the U.S. in recent years. Why it needs to make a comeback.

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Photo by CDC on Unsplash

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

Looking for evidence of what made America great? A good place to start is our genius for scientific envelope-pushing. Since World War II, it’s brought forth one game-changer after another, in cars and planes, computers and phones — you name it. American innovation has led the world as medical breakthroughs made workers and their families healthier and longer-lived.

That’s what makes President Donald Trump’s war on science so gobsmackingly perverse. In mid-July, with COVID-19 infections hitting distressing levels in the Sun Belt, the president and his advisers chose to diss their own doctors, most notably infectious disease guru Dr. …


What a gentle, rigorous high school social studies teacher tried to help us see in 1968 remains all too timely today.

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Photo by Sean Lee on Unsplash

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

The fervor for justice that engulfed America’s streets after the killing of George Floyd generated new hope for a change of heart in how white America sees Black America. Yet despite the understandable optimism, there are ample reasons for caution.

As New York Times columnist Charles Blow suggested, converting good intentions into actions that thwart systemic racism begs a kind of empathetic vision white America has typically found in short supply. …


Are we closer to stepping on the cosmic banana peel than we think?

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

This column originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.

If there was ever an unfunnier time in America, it’s hard to remember. Of course, COVID-19 isolation makes it hard enough to keep track of what day it is. Yet you can’t ignore the uproar over whether to reopen, half-open or stay shut and warnings of brewing civil unrest, as the coronavirus continues its dark romp through our cities and towns.

Time to chill just a bit? Enjoy some of that rollicking wit for which Americans are famous?

Good luck. Our vaunted sense of humor, as showcased by Stephen Colbert and other late-night comics, or what passes for laughs on talk radio, has become as poisonous as our right-left politics. …


We weren’t spending enough time in deep, face-to-face conversation even before coronavirus.

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Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

This piece was originally written for and published in The Dallas Morning News.

There I was feeling good about myself for adapting so quickly to the Zoom boom. Like many college profs, I pivoted to teaching classes via videoconferencing this spring with trepidation. Seeing my quarantine-scattered students all lined up and smiling on my laptop screen, however, made Zoom seem like an unqualified blessing.

I then read a piece in The New York Times entitled “Why Zoom Is Terrible.” As Kate Murphy reported, experts seem to agree “the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making you feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (or more than you were already).” …


Will our future selves pause a streaming video long enough to ask: How much ‘bucket work’ did we do in the teeth of the coronavirus? How much did we put into service to improve our society?

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Photo by Steven Wright on Unsplash

This article was orignally written for The Dallas Morning News. As the editors explained, it “is part of our ongoing opinion commentary on faith, called Living Our Faith. Find this week’s reader question and get weekly roundups of the project in your email inbox by signing up for the Living Our Faith newsletter”.

Maybe you’ve seen the meme making the rounds on social media: “If you can’t go outside,” it says, “go inside.” Sage advice for our COVID-cloistered times. Yet it’s easier said than done in a society as ill-equipped for soulful contemplation as ours.

Americans are spiritually inclined. Millions routinely seek guidance in our churches, mosques and synagogues. We practice meditation, yoga and mindfulness. Unless calamity punches us in the gut, however, in the form of addiction, bankruptcy, divorce, deadly illness or chronic isolation, our daily hustles leave little time to engage in the kind of spiritual spelunking the poet Robert Bly has called “bucket work.”


Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday reminds us keeping our spirits up is essential in distressed, distracted times.

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Walt Whitman by Mathew Brady. Courtesy of National Archives. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3518386

This essay originally appeared on History News Network.

As the news cycle churns on with impeachment coverage, pundits and politicians are quick to remind that the Constitution is all that stands between us and the whims and dangers of authoritarian rule. It’s a good point, but incomplete. America is a country of law and legend and our founding document, essential as it is, won’t save us if we don’t also buy into a binding story about the point and purpose of our democracy.

That’s a tall order in today’s world. To author Lee Siegel, hacking America’s dour realities is like scaling a rock face. In his recent essay “Why Is America So Depressed?” he suggests we reach for the metaphorical pitons — after “the iron spikes mountain climbers drive into rock to ascend, sometimes hand over hand” — to get a humanistic grip amid our “bitter social antagonisms” and the problems of gun violence, climate crisis and social inequities that have contributed to an alarming rise in rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. …


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Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

This essay originally appeared on History News Network.

No sooner did candidate and self-help guru Marianne Williamson engineer her breakout moment in the Democrat’s presidential debate on July 31 in Detroit than she found herself panned for half-baked views on depression and mental health. But Williamson’s quixotic campaign has highlighted one salutary theme: America had better learn to up its game in cultivating civic empathy lest the “dark psychic force of collectivized hatred” of which she spoke tear us apart.

Mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton over the Aug. 3 weekend, in which hate-filled gunmen killed 31 people and wounded dozens more, brutally underscore the point. White supremacists and weaponized haters represent the antithesis of civic empathy, and by now we know good intentions alone won’t fix the curse of gun violence in America; we need consensus and action on sane gun-control measures. …

About

Tracy Dahlby

Career journalist. Former foreign correspondent. Professor, University of Texas at Austin.

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