The other day I was reading, and I came across a quote that made me do a double take.
“Nine-tenths of the news, as printed in the papers, is pseudo-news, manufactured events. Some days ten-tenths. The ritual morning trance, in which one scans columns of newsprint, creates a peculiar form of generalised pseudo-attention to a pseudo-reality. This experience is taken seriously. It is one’s daily immersion in ‘reality’. One’s orientation to the rest of the world. One’s way of reassuring himself that he has not fallen behind. That he is still there. That he still counts!
My own experience has been that renunciation of this self-hypnosis, of this participation in the unquiet universal trance, is no sacrifice of reality at all. To ‘fall behind’ in this sense is to get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly.”
– Thomas Merton, 1968
It was so resonant; so in tune with the feelings of information overload that have become the ubiquitous symptom of the digital age. Except that it was written nearly 50 years ago.
And then, as I reflected, I realised I had heard the same kind of sentiments from an even older source – one written more than a century and a half ago! (and from which this blog draws its name) –
“Hardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels… After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast. ‘Pray tell me anything new that has happened to a man any where on this globe,’ – and he reads it over his coffee and rolls, that a man has had his eyes gouged out this morning on the Wichita River; never dreaming the while that he lives in the dark unfathomed mammoth cave of this world, and has but the rudiment of an eye himself.”
– Henry David Thoreau, 1854
Apparently there is nothing new under the sun about this instinct to awaken and immerse ourselves in all the news and updates that have happened while we rested. It is simply that the digital mediums and tools of today have taken the long-standing instinct to be up-to-date and allowed us to indulge it at unprecedented speed and volume. Which makes it even harder to moderate this tendency, when there is SO MUCH INFORMATION we could be falling behind on! And so first thing, last thing, and every few minutes in between, we are asking to be updated on “anything new that has happened to a man any where on this globe”, as it were.
Except that so much of it, as Merton so eloquently puts it, is, in the final assessment, not very much more than a ‘big cloud of dust’. It’s not substantial, it’s not consequential, and it can sometimes make it difficult to get our head out from the swirling moment and see with perspective and clarity.
And, if that’s not the ideal state we want to live in all the time, we might have consider daring to fall behind.
The question should always be ‘What will help me live in a way that honours what I believe matters most?’
And if the big cloud of dust is making it harder to do that, whether by its effect on relationships, focus, your clarity or quality of thought, or anything else, then it’s possible that keeping up with the latest is keeping us behind in our potential for a deliberate life.
“to get out of the big cloud of dust that everybody is kicking up, to breathe and to see a little more clearly” – doesn’t that sounds appealing?
The good news is, just because something is an age-old instinct, doesn’t mean we are powerless to indulge it. Creating a life that honours what matters to you most, within the context and season you are living, is completely within your control! You get decide when to let in the swirl of information, in what manner, at what frequency, and to what end! You can use information to serve the landscape of life you want to create, rather than to shape it.