Thursday, June 03, 2004


Invasion of the Killer Locusts! Terror Alerts on High! Deadly Virus Sweeping the Nation! Biggest News Story Ever!

Or until next week, when we'll really have the biggest news story ever. Except that will be minor compared to the biggest news story the week after. We have become a super-sized society. Everything is the biggest, the best, the greatest, the most amazing.

Trial of the Century! Wedding of the Decade! Greatest Hits Ever!

Just a few weeks ago, headlines along the East Coast blazed with dire warnings about the onslaught of the 17-year cicadas, nasty bugs that come out only every seventeen years and do some major damage to young trees. And that's about it. Despite all the Armageddon-like predictions, we seem to be surviving this latest 'disaster.' The cicadas came, and they are ugly and noisy and they make a terrible mess when they collide with your windshield (an icky splotch of greenish-yellowy goo), but they aren't much more bothersome than most summer bugs. Not many people remember the cicadas coming seventeen years ago, and I doubt many will remember them seventeen years from now. By then, we'll have been bombarded with hundreds of other 'very important' news stories. And we'll know the stories are 'very important' because our ever-helpful members of the media will tell us in urgent tones with many exclamation points just how big, important, urgent, and amazing these stories are.

What's with these over-hyped headlines? Most would blame a commercial-driven media that relies on eyeballs for its survival. If it bleeds, it leads. And if there isn't anything bleeding, make us think it will. Not many people other than farmers are going to read a story about an insect that shows up every seventeen years to chow down on some trees and crops. But a whole lot of people will buy papers if they think the insects will overrun cities and destroy life as we know it. Two generations of adults have now been raised on the high-voltage, heavily amped hype of MTV and its ilk. Getting our attention takes some work---and some creativity.

But it's more than that. I think we, more than ever, are aware of our place in history and our own mortality. And we're determined to overcome both by reassuring ourselves of the importance of every little thing we do. By using such adjectives as greatest, biggest, most, highest, we try to wedge ourselves into the history books. By giving such mundane events like a celebrity murder trial or a sex scandal overblown labels---Trial of the Century or Greatest Scandal in History---we try to out shout that nagging voice inside ourselves that tells us our lives are just a blip in this history books and our actions are mostly meaningless. Someday, the O.J. trial will be a trivia question; the impeachment of President Clinton will get a paragraph or two in textbooks; Monica Lewinsky will be lucky if she's even still a punch line in twenty years.

In the meantime, the truly important stories of our day get tucked into the B-pages of the newspaper, a few column inches with a lackluster headline and no colorful graphics. The ongoing massacres in Uganda, the Congo, and other Africa nations; the crucial advances in science and technology that quietly push our lives forward; the political dissenters who risk their freedom and their lives in such countries as China where the United States isn't so interested in promoting democracy. Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know what Bennifer refers to, but how many of us can name any of the Nobel Prize winners from this year? They didn't get big headlines or magazine covers, even though what they do matters much more than the box office take of this year's Biggest Adventure Movie Ever. And guess which stories will make it into the history books and which will become obsolete.

So we can overhype our lives all we want and try to make ourselves seem more significant than we are. But in the end, the people who live their lives and do their work without headlines or hype but with conviction and purpose are the history makers.