I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains. – Anne Frank
We live in an age of seemingly endless connectivity. We are all “one” though the benevolence of wireless technology. Never before has more information been available at our fingertips (or Google glasses). Information can be found for just about any subject, replete with images or links to relevant information. Opinions are expressed with a string of comments or we grant our approval with a “like”. An endless array of Tweets, Timeline updates, pinned images attempt to sate our thirsts for involvement. The media fills hour after hour of air time with empty rhetoric debating with and interviewing itself about the issues it deems important enough to mention, while sweeping stories that do not fit into its monolithic narrative under the rug. For if it is not mentioned on the Internet it never happened.
We snicker and we snort at the stereotypical “people of Wal-Mart”. We “hate” celebrities like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, two people whom I am fairly certain we’ll never knew one-on-one, for things that they do or are alleged to do by a media that has no one’s interest at heart but their own. Human beings and their stories are marginalized to the point where we do not understand that every unkind, uncharitable and inhumane comment we make through our electronic eye-rolls and sarcasm strips our very neighbors and fellow human beings of their dignity. People like Ronald Davis of Chicago.
We fancy that we know everything and as such are the gods and goddesses of our domains. We are nothing of the sort. We are broken. But the array of endless imagery and soundbites keeps us distracted from our brokenness and focused on the faults and trials of others in an impersonal way. Ignoring our brokenness we feast upon the pain of others. We possess a contagious selfishness, and even Wired.com notes that the new Facebook Home is “transforming vice into virtue”:
Critics have already commented on how the ads exploit our weakness for escapist fantasy so we can feel good about avoiding conversation and losing touch with our physical surroundings. And they’ve called out Zuckerberg’s hypocrisy: “Isn’t the whole point of Facebook supposed to be that it’s a place to keep up with, you know, family members? So much for all that high-minded talk about connecting people.”
However, the dismissive reviews miss an even deeper and more consequential point about the messages conveyed by the ads: that to be cool, worthy of admiration and emulation, we need to be egocentric. We need to care more about our own happiness than our responsibilities towards others.
If the victims happen to look a little like us or exist in circumstances we can relate to (a person who is a parent like us. Or wears glasses like us. Or drives a car like us. Or has kids like us.) we pause a little longer and cluck our tongues in pity and thank (who, exactly? Ourselves?) our lucky stars that it wasn’t us. There is a twinge of…not pain exactly…but something that makes us slightly uncomfortable about that person’s misfortune and so we pause a few extra moments before clicking on the next piece of theater, that something we felt quickly forgotten. Desperate for heroes, we laud a man for doing the right thing by helping women held prisoner in a Cleveland house on Seymour Avenue for a decade and entertain ourselves by watching the obligatory auto tune treatment on YouTube, and within 24 hours read a headline that says the “hero” was a domestic abuser in his past. “Kick ‘em when they’re up. Kick ‘em when they’re down” as Don Henley sang in his song Dirty Laundry over thirty years ago. Heroes rise and fall within a 24-hour news cycle.
And our search for more heroes goes on.
I see good people taught to hate. The Two Minutes Hate from Orwell’s 1984 was a daily period in which Party members of the society of Oceania must watch a film depicting the Party’s enemies and express their hatred for them. In chapter one of his book it is described thusly:
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.
Don’t think it’s that bad out on the Internet? A few minutes on Twitter or in the comments of almost any YouTube video or news site will make your head spin.
Yesterday I happened to read an astute summary of our media by Rod Dreher that touches on this very subject. A few evenings each week I will turn on FOX News, MSNBC or CNN for a few minutes to see what each talking head and screaming “panel” is “debating”. Sean Hannity gives me heartburn and Rachel Maddow makes me want to drive an ice pick into my temple. What group or groups are they blaming for our woes? To whom are we to direct our Two Minutes Hate on that day? As Dreher says in his column “How Will We Know Whom to Hate If the Media Don’t Tell Us?”:
I went to get lunch, and afterward ran into another friend. Because I was downtown, not far from the Capitol, we talked about politics. He’s a liberal Democrat, and knows I’m a conservative Independent who writes for a conservative magazine; neither of us care about politics enough to let it come between friendship, ours or with anybody else. He mentioned that he had been over at a pal’s house the other day, and spent an hour or two watching MSNBC with him.
“Good grief, you ever do anything like that?” he asked. No, I told him, I don’t watch TV news.
“Don’t,” he said. “After a couple of hours of that stuff, you either hate everybody or hate yourself. It’s poison. I can’t imagine what filling your head with that stuff does to the way you see the world.”
Read it all, if you can, especially the section on the late David Foster Wallace’s 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College. In the end Wallace (and Dreher) point out that we still have a choice as to what we take in to our minds.
The world isn’t getting worse. It only seems to be because like never before every horror, tragedy and disaster is broadcast onto our screens within moments of their happening. Our media thrives on getting it first (notice I didn’t say “right”) and we lap it up in a manner that would make Pavlov proud. And if it isn’t the news media emphasizing the base and the banal, it’s our tv shows and movies. We seem to revel in the mud like pigs.
But I have the answer on how to make it feel like a better world and in turn make it a better world. You have the answer, too, right in front of you. Or next to you. Across the street or across the cube farm in which you work. It’s that individual right over there.
Heather King got me to thinking of all this while reading her blog this morning. She was writing about a retreat she had just returned from leading for women recovering from alcoholism. She was writing of the individual. Of involvement.
And let me tell you something: if you have never gotten that close to the beating heart of the world, you are missing out. If you have never looked into the eyes of a human being who has suffered physical, sexual, and emotional abuse as a child that would have felled a lesser person–and who is telling you, “I have to get better. Because I’m worth something“–you have not entirely lived.
When I am actively involved in the lives of my family, my children, neighbors and friends, I am most alive and fulfilled. When I am most absorbed in the screen held in the palm of my hand, on the tv stand or on my desk I can tell myself I’m connected with my fellow man all I want but it isn’t true. That’s when I feel most empty and helpless. That’s when we begin to lose our sense of empathy for our fellow humanity and degenerate into apathy. That’s when the knives come out.
I quoted Anne Frank at the beginning of this blog. I have always imagined she’s talking of the misery and beauty in the world. Today I considered for the first time that she could also have meant the misery and beauty inherent in each individual. I think it applies either way.
Involvement. Individual. Let them be our pair of “eyes” going forward.
I have read Christ in Dachau by Fr. John Lenz and am currently reading With God in Russia by Fr. Walter Ciszek. I am well-versed in the story of St. Maximilian Kolbe and his time at Auschwitz before and during the events leading to his death.
- Fr. Lenz at Dachau during WW2 in a camp that held over 2400 Catholic priests from over two dozen countries. Over one third of them were killed, the survivors tortured as “the scum of the camp.”
- Fr. Ciszek a prisoner for twenty-three years in the Russian prison camps of Siberia.
Along with Kolbe in Auschwitz I see commonalities in their stories: Faith and Trust in God, and Involvement with Individuals. They recognized themselves as broken, living in a broken world, and involved themselves with broken individuals. It gave them a purpose. Those who didn’t connect in that individual way lost their purpose and eventually their will to live. They didn’t survive.
Are we not fortunate? We do not need to journey into a concentration camp to find our purpose. It is all around us, waiting for us to engage.
All my favorite people are broken
My heart should know
Some prayers are better left unspoken
I just wanna hold you
And let the rest go
All my friends are part saint and part sinner
We lean on each other
Try to rise above
We’re not afraid to admit we’re all still beginners
We’re all late bloomers
When it comes to love
God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume. – Vance Havner