I was talking with a friend this morning about the frenetic pace of our lives and, maybe more disturbingly, our minds. He lamented the crazy trajectory our country is on (*cough* Donald Trump *cough*) and connected it to the way we process and engage information. He isn’t wrong, I don’t think. How much of what we see playing out in front of us politically and culturally is shaped by the fact that people seem more and more incapable of engaging long form argumentation? Do we really know what our political candidates think or are we more familiar with how effectively they belittle their opponents? So much of our media is visceral and perfunctory that long meditation on serious issues is increasingly something for a very, very rare breed of person.
I was struck ,as we talked, about how bizarre it is that we are perhaps more textual than we were 15 years ago. Text messaging is the preferred means of telephone communication these days. If someone calls me, I assume they are mortally wounded or they are a sociopath. Why would you call me in any other circumstance? Yes, I’m exaggerating. Mostly. But most people I know say that prefer to receive a text message over a call or an email. And yet most people I know these days, people who love text messaging, don’t read books. I’ll ask my students how much they read and they’ll look at me blankly, wondering if I’m asking if they’ve done their homework. And look, I get that college students don’t feel that they have time to read books right now. But that is a habit that was formed before college and often remains. People love text messaging but hate books.
Similarly, people will read things on the Internet all day. But they won’t read sustained argumentation. People habitually skim and our brain gets trained to expect to read that way. For instance, I know that, right now, if you see this sentence, you probably haven’t read every word that I’ve written. Yes, yes, that could be my fault as a writer. I get that. But do you know what’s one of the most frequent pieces of feedback I get back about my blog? Well, besides, “Wait, you have a blog?” It’s usually something along the lines of, “You write really long posts. I usually don’t finish them.” My point here is not that I’m verbose (fair enough) or that I really wish people would read the entirety of a post. My point is that most people end up on my blog because they personally know me (Hi Mom and Dad!). They may even actually like me. But the Internet has so trained us to skim that even the complete blog of a friend is too much to ask. We’ll skip most of the piece. I’m not saying this as an accusation, I’m saying this as a confession.
But more than the way we process information and do or don’t think about important things, how much of this pace and lack of depth is finding its way into the habits of our lives? How many of us are infected this perpetual fear of boredom? As my wise friend points out, when you take away the stimuli, how many of us are horrified by what we see and feel within ourselves? We ache to distract us from ourselves.
This is a beautiful thing about Lent, for me. Every year for the past several years, I’ve tried to take a break from social media. I stay away from my Twitter feed, from Facebook. And every year, I’m struck by the adjustment that my brain must make. I’m alarmed by my need to input at every minute of the day. I’m horrified by how much I want to put my voice out there and get feedback, likes or those stupid heart things on Twitter (WHY DID THEY GET RID OF THE STARS?!). I realize that my brain has started naturally constructing soundbites that are Tweet-able or likable on Facebook. I think this way without even trying. The medium has formed me. And when I strip those things away from myself, I’m amazed by how cut off I feel from that positive feedback. Or just feedback in general.
Our lives are consumed by meaningless noise. We invest meaning in so many things that really don’t, on their own, carry much meaning at all. Lent is a speed bump in my year to reconsider the brevity of my life and my deep need for God to provide ultimate meaning and goodness. I really don’t need the relentless pace of input and garbage that my phone can provide me at a moment’s notice. As Zack Eswine writes in a book I’m reading, we need to be reminded that being alone with God, quiet with God, is not a mundane or unimportant thing. Those are moments filled with meaning.
Look, I’m not anti-Internet. We can do amazing things with the Internet. We can arrange our own travel and see new worlds and ship out education for a fraction of the cost. But we cannot view the Internet in our pockets as an unadulterated good. The medium itself becomes a message that we constantly receive: Have a lot. Have it now. Stay very shallow. We hear this message again and again with every flick of our finger over our timelines. That is a formative experience that we should be wary of and should try to counter-form. Our lives are brief. Our lives are not enriched in an ultimate sense by screen-life. Humans were meant to live and breathe in rooms together, sharing food and space and time and texture. We cannot run from our lonely selves forever. Or maybe we could. Maybe we could distract ourselves until we die.
But wouldn’t we better off to find the space, the quiet, to be alone with God? Wouldn’t we better off to put away our phones for a long meal and remember how to be friends who are not in a rush to go be distracted somewhere else? The world we live in now is amazing and full of possibility. But we are screaming towards danger if we do not recognize the peril of the world we live in. In a world of mile wide, inch deep, we need more and more people to insist, even momentarily, on being an inch wide and a mile deep. We need rebels in this world who will not perpetually live on the cutting edge, but choose to live in the center of their lives with friends.
I do a poor job of this. I confess. But, in the spirit of this Lenten season, confession is a good place to start. It’s not meaningless to start there. Healing is not far away from confession. Maybe, one step at a time, one season at a time, we can reclaim our lives from the tyranny of the Instantaneous and build lives together that are rich and deep and, mercifully, sometimes very slow.