“In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry, and crowds. If he can keep us engaged in ‘muchness’ and ‘manyness,’ he will rest satisfied. Psychiatrist Carl Jung once remarked, ‘Hurry is not of the Devil; it is the Devil.’ ” — Richard J. Foster
Hurry. Noise. Crowds. Not Russian hacking or undocumented immigrants, North Korean missiles or North American trade pacts.
Richard J. Foster, author of “The Celebration of Discipline,” years ago described the more fundamental threat to our psyches, our souls and our society: Noise. Hurry. Crowds. We are in a rush to nowhere, keeping so busy, or so entertained, that we have no time to think.
Pope Francis recently told a group of Catholic journalists that, in our world, “the speed of information surpasses our capacity of reflection.”
This is most obvious in the dominance of the 24/7 news cycle. What was the scandal of last week? What was the death toll of the last school shooting? How long have our troops been in Afghanistan? We can’t remember.
The flood of “information” is more akin to waterboarding than reflection. The sensation of all this news and gossip rushing at us is one of drowning.
Although many people try, I don’t think this can all be blamed on President Donald Trump.
Comedienne Michelle Wolf was generally panned for her crude and rude routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but she did get in one zinger: “You guys are obsessed with Trump,” she told the press corps. “Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. … He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV.”
Obsession is part of the noise, and it is overwhelming.
So is the hurry. We chase after productivity and efficiency, and applaud ourselves for all we get done, although we can barely recall the tasks and accomplishments of one week when we are on to the next, chasing after new goals to cross off our lists. Everything is about speed, about the ETA, about multitasking.
And crowds? The irony is that even with all the evidence that we are plagued by loneliness, our lives are more crowded than ever — only the digital throng pushes away the real.
Of course, the freeways are packed, and the malls, and the theme parks, but the real crowd is bursting forth from our smartphones and iPads: the huge host of “friends” and “followers” on Facebook and Twitter.
Twitter is a rushing river of crowds, overflowing, tireless, constant. We are immersed in crowds even when we are sitting alone in our bedroom, scrolling. Always scrolling.
Foster, a Christian theologian by profession, foresaw decades ago that in all this bustle and distraction lurks a great danger.
In the Wim Wenders praiseworthy documentary, “Pope Francis — A Man of His Word,” the pope would seem to share Foster’s concern. He criticizes “the speed of the modern world” that “keeps us from listening well.”
“We live with the accelerator down from morning to night,” he says. Reminding us of the notion of the Sabbath, of slowing down for a day of prayer and family, he adds, “we are not machines.”
In 1985, Neil Postman published “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” It grew out of a lecture on George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” Postman felt that Aldous Huxley’s novel “Brave New World” more accurately captured what our world was becoming:
“What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.”
Postman’s apocalyptic vision is not one of stormtroopers and surveillance. It is of Xboxes and Netflix and networked gamers spanning continents and all the various forms of infotainment that constantly, incessantly distract us, few of which existed when Postman wrote his warning.
I am not sure how we stop all of this, but I think the resistance begins with silence. Real silence, not the ersatz kind that comes with looking at our phones. The silence of a monastery, a retreat, a solitary walk.
It means putting down the machines. It means unplugging. It means listening, really listening, to one another. It begins here.
Greg Erlandson is director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service.
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