“These southbounders are all the same. They hype everything up. And it’s never as bad or good as they say.” So said one of my hiking buddies, Hungry Brett, after months of walking the Appalachian Trail.

We were going north, from Georgia to Maine. When we’d come upon a southbound hiker, we’d instinctively ask about the trail ahead. More often than not they’d reply with some exaggerated warning, such as, “It’s wicked steep.” Or, “There are so many roots, you can barely walk.” And, “You’ve got at least an hour to the campsite, and there’s poison ivy all along the way.”

Before long I wised up to this peculiar aspect of human nature. Since we tend to hype everything, especially our own accomplishments and hardships, I came to understand these pesky southbounders were exaggerating their descriptions of the trail behind them and ahead of me. As a result, their tales of woe affected me less each time I heard them.

But, like it or not, hype is all around us. People thrive on it. Some folks even make a living off it. If it weren’t for hype, half the media would be out of a job. Politics would be boring. Sports dull. Can you imagine the Super Bowl without hype? Only a very few things actually live up to their billing. (My list would include the Beijing Olympics, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.) Everything else, as my hiking buddy Hungry Brett would say, is hype.

All hype is not created equal, however. Some hype is bad, like last year’s non-stop talk about the economy. In January of last year, everything started to unravel as campaigns for the presidency and the media shifted into higher gear. In their effort to show how they would fix things, the candidates ended up breaking what was already a fragile economy. That was most certainly bad hype, and we all fell into the mire. As a result, we collectively lost trillions of our retirement funds. These hypesters got us in a tizzy and perpetuated a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of avalanche proportions, out of which we’ll be digging for years.

Then there’s good hype, which can heal. The best recent example of this is Barack Obama. He ran as the president who would bring “change we can believe in.” It wasn’t much of a slogan, but it had a lot of hype appeal. Now, his mission is to change the hype into hope.

But it’s not a battle he can fight alone. All of us will help bring the country back. It’s not necessarily Obama’s leadership that will turn things around, but Americans’ belief in Obama’s leadership that will save the day. And that’s a product of hype. If we believe Obama is capable of changing America’s economy and our relationships with the world community, it’ll happen, only because we buy into it.

Obama’s not the only example of good hype. With the state of the American car industry, hype is what the recent Detroit Auto Show was all about, trying to convince us to buy American. Based on the pictures I saw of the Chevy Volt, maybe all that hype is worth it.

It’s amazing that the mere things people say and believe can change the world. As someone who doesn’t want to have his emotions played with, I loath hype. But I do recognize the need for hype. Sure, hype is what deep-sixed our economy, but hype surrounding the new administration, whether it’s deserved or not, can help bring us out of the depths.

We’ve never before been in the situation where the media so effectively creates and destroys our perceptions. There’s more information out there than ever – political blogs, Web sites, TV news channels, radio, newspapers. It can take a toll on your psyche, especially when you have personal stake, as most of us did when it came to 2008’s major news story, the economy.

The key is to let the hype roll right off. Like my experience on the Appalachian Trail, we need to recognize when we are being hyped. We need to have the long view in mind. If we don’t, we’ll certainly go nuts from worrying about all the bad things that possibly lie ahead, most of them just figments of the hypesters’ imaginations.

John Balentine lives in Windham. He is a former editor of the Lakes Region Weekly.


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