The other day, I spent some "quiet time" - itself a very revealing neologism - reading and re-reading Andrew Sullivan's powerfully poignant and challenging article "I Used to Be a Human Being" in the September 19 issue of New York Magazine. But I actually found and read it not in print but on line, which is, of course, part of the problem!
Sullivan starts by describing his experience at a meditation retreat at a former Catholic novitiate in central Massachusetts, part of his search for healing from his technology addiction. (At a meeting I attended two years ago, someone came up with the great phrase "abuse of electronic devices" to describe our harmful over-indulgence in smartphones and other such technology - and abuse not of the devices but of ourselves and one another.)
Sullivan describes his "addiction" and its effects in stark terms: I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. ...Every minute i was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.
All this has been made possible, of course, by the ubiquitous smartphone, which, Sullivan reminds us, didn't even exist 10 years ago: The device went from unknown to indispensable in less than a decade. However harmful finally to who we really are, this addiction, Sullivan suggests, is also deeply rooted in our human evolution: Since our earliest evolution, human have been unusually passionate about gossip. ...When provided a constant source of information and news and gossip about each other - routed through our social networks - we are close to helpless.
Sullivan's account of his retreat experience is reminiscent of the spiritual awakening that a traditional religious novitiate often facilitated through silent encounter with nature. I was especially taken with his beautiful but simple description of beginning to notice things while walking through the forest: I began to notice not just the quality of the autumnal light through the leaves but the splotchy multicolors of the newly fallen, the texture of the lichen on the bark, the way in which tree roots had come to entangle and overcome old stone walls. The immediate impulse — to grab my phone and photograph it — was foiled by an empty pocket. So I simply looked. At one point, I got lost and had to rely on my sense of direction to find my way back. I heard birdsong for the first time in years. Well, of course, I had always heard it, but it had been so long since I listened.
Listening, of course, is critical to social living - as social living is to authentic and fulfilling human life. You are where your attention is, Sullivan reflects. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.
In the process, Sullivan notes, the oldest human skills atrophy. For all its economic efficiency, our online and automated life denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.
From which Sullivan draws the relevant political conclusion (particularly pertinent in this present, particularly contentious political year): Indeed, the modest mastery of our practical lives is what fulfilled us for tens of thousands of years — until technology and capitalism decided it was entirely dispensable. If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.
Borrowing an insight from Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, Sullivan likewise links our technological transformation with our seemingly rapidly advancing secularism: Certain ideas and practices made others not so much false as less vibrant or relevant. And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.
Our modern abandonment of any sense or experience of Sabbath, Sullivan cites, as one very recent contribution to our contemporary crisis that is simultaneously religious and human: The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are.
Sullivan the Catholic also offers some practical advice to Christian churches on how they can counteract this loss: If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.
Sullivan concludes his essay with a description of his gradual re-immersion into technology in the year since his retreat, and ends with this warning: But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.
I read Sullivan's essay twice - itself a challenge in our hyper-distracted world. And it occurred to me that someone should try to fashion an explicitly Catholic religious retreat based upon it. For it raises the right questions, suggests some of the right answers, then leaves us with the dilemma posed by the destructive world we ourselves have invented. and challenges us whether we are still responsive to the outcry of whatever is left of our souls..