As I continue to reflect on my personal retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, I was thinking the other day about a short passage I read in a booklet at the retreat house. The Cistercian Life is a short book written by Thomas Merton (PS, If you are ever curious about how deep the spiritual life can actually go, I’d encourage you to read some Merton. A great place to start is New Seeds of Contemplation.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. ;)).
Anyway, there was a free copy in my room at the retreat house, and so I picked it up to
read during my stay. It was a really great, concise examination of the monastic life, but one statement in particular has remained with me.
The truly silent monk is not totally unconcerned with others, for that, too, would be a kind of illness. But he is not worried about being left out of things. He knows what is necessary will be communicated to him. If there is news in the world that he ought to know, God and his superiors will make sure that he knows it. He does not have to go seeking information and communicating his own ideas to others except in so far as this may be demanded by necessity (Emphasis mine).
My tensions with the pervasiveness of social media are fairly well-documented, and I am continually trying to grow in the way I use media (in particular, I try to make sure that there’s a balance between how I use social media and how media uses me). Personally, my governing word is “thoughtfulness”: I try to take a moment or two before I mindlessly engage in any technology and ask myself, “Is this the tool I need for what I’m trying to accomplish?”
I love good design, and in particular I like objects that are well-designed for specific uses. However, it seems as if sometimes our culture seems pre-occupied with turning one tool (most often our cell phones) into a “one-size-fits-all” device for consuming media, connecting with friends and family, staying engaged with the world around us…
… and occasionally making a phone call.
Instead of this approach, I am trying to learn to consider what will help me most in accomplishing my goal at the time:
- is it reading? (“turn off cell phone and computer notifications)
- is it a serious work project? (same as above)
- is it songwriting? (notebook, pen and guitar, no notifications)
- is it writing exercises? (computer, no notifications)
- is it prayer and meditation? (no lights, no electronics)
… You get the picture. I love my (always Apple) computers. But they are not a Leatherman multi-tool. I look at them as specialized devices for doing specific activities that they happen to be really good at (recording ideas, typing, finding out obscure information quickly, etc.)
But obviously this quote gets an even deeper strand of thinking, namely, what do I truly need to know about the world?
As a good friend has told me recently, “FOMO” (“Fear-Of-Missing-Out”) is a thing, and in our hyper-connected (and decidedly UN monastic) existence, FOMO becomes an almost 24-hour-a-day possibility, whether it’s being aware of a party 800 miles away, or a news event 8,000 miles away.
But Merton’s statement is a challenge to FOMO. For me, I sat with that quote for a while, asking, “Why is it so important for me to know, well, everything? What is it inside me that demands that I’m up-to-date on issues that debatedly have absolutely no relevance to my day-to-day existence?”
When I think about it, most of the information I take in has much more potential to cause anxiety than to produce anything positive or spiritual in my life.
In fact, the issue can go much, much deeper. Theology Professor Marva J. Dawn’s book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time had a profound impact on my approach to worship and the church (though I ardently disagreed with a few of her statements). In it, she examines the influence of Neil Postman’s concept of “Impact-Action-Ratio” in the worship of the church. “Impact-Action-Ratio” is a ratio of how much the impact of an image or images affects our ability to act.
Essentially, Dawn suggests that as the church relies more and more on (often de-contextualized) images in worship, whether through pictures of poverty or evocative images over lyrics in songs, we are actually training ourselves to a mode of inaction.
No matter how powerfully or emotionally an image may strike us, most of the time we are unable to actively address or remedy that situation. Over time, we get “used to” the idea of not responding.
And so we get inoculated against tragedy and suffering, even as we are exposed to it now more than ever.
All of this goes to say that I try to think twice about how “plugged in” I am to the pervasive, 24-hour news cycle. I don’t want to be inoculated against suffering, and more than that where I encounter suffering, I want to be able to do something about it.
I am not a monk. I do not have a “superior” who will tell me the things I need to know about the world. But I do have trusted friends, and people who are more engaged than I am. More and more, I seek to trust them with what I need to know, and concentrate more diligently on my life of prayer, meditation, teaching and trying to reduce the suffering of the world around me.