Distracted by Trivia


“What Aldous Huxley [in Brave New World] 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 voyeuristic vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; a culture-death is a clear possibility.” ― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (c. 1985)

Last week my iPhone shattered. In an event that appeared to be a sign of providentially ironic divine humor, it happened on the first day of my vacation when I found myself cheating on a commitment I had made not to use my phone for anything other than calling and texting family, and then only in necessity. Literally, as I was sending pictures to someone not in my family (but, come on, it was a funny picture!) my phone fell out of my hands and the screen completely shattered and the screen displayed triple images. After a moment of frustration, I belly laughed for at least a minute. I have been without it since. Glorious.

So all this got me thinking throughout the week. Here’s what I scribbled in my journal. No lightning bolt insights, just my summary of a common conversation.

+ + +

Our culture, which I myself fully inhabit and struggle with, suffers from a deep and tragic addiction to technological superficiality, to being incessantly entertained and stimulated, constantly consuming and not communing with existence. Our attention is short, shallow and fragmented, and so our threshold of patience grows short. We have no more safe zones insulated from the world of endless noise and chatter; or in the words of William James, from the world of “the great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In such a culture things like prayer and inner silence erode, as well as the ability to sit and be with others. To listen closely or to suffer through the human necessity of feeling loneliness or boredom. All of which are part of prayer, part of love.

We stay in touch with everyone at the expense of the few who need and demand our touch the most. Precious time is devoured by trivialities. Watching the endless string of recommended videos on YouTube, we get sucked into a vortex. But we justify it. While on an iPhone we can swipe away or x-out things that fail to give us pleasure or attract our interest, but life is not that way. However, it too easily becomes that way. We check and use our phones compulsively, not freely. When we get a pause, a slack, a lull, a still moment in our day — or a dead silence at night — we feel the addict’s itch to reach for our phone. Dull the dull, anesthetize the pain and feed the screaming appetites we have conjured unwittingly. Since when did these things cross over from wants to needs?

We ceaselessly take pictures of everything to ‘capture the moment,’ to post for others, to get likes, but fail to encounter real life in real time without concern for others’ approval or interest. Reality inverts, as the virtual becomes real and the real becomes virtual. We live life away from home all the time, every conversation we have in person is intruded on by a third party. Life itself becomes tired and insipid, while life through the screen becomes our litmus of interest, our new heroine.

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). We Christians must enact a Pentecostal revolt against this zombie culture, this addict’s world. We must become masters of our technologies and not its slaves. Claim back our power of attention, which is our power to love others with attentiveness. We must cultivate an asceticism that ensures our freedom, that constantly critiques our use of social media, iPhones, gaming, all entertainment, and places all of it in service to virtue, to the ability to be present to the present moment, present to the raw, real, uncontrollable, sometimes unpleasant, boring and tedious aspects of life right in front of us — by divine design. We must radically and regularly confess our techno-abuses in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to access its liberating graces. We must show the world what it means to “put out into the deep,” not live as surface-skimming Christian dilettantes. We must be free — slaves to nothing or no one. We must flee escapism. I’ll end with Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen’s words about the spiritual life that apply so powerfully to this topic:

There can be so much escapism in our striving for a “spiritual life.” We often flee from the concrete, apparently banal reality that is filled with God’s presence to an artificial existence that corresponds with our own ideas of piety and holiness, but where God is not present. As long as we want to decide for ourselves where we will find God, we need not fear that we shall meet him! We will meet only ourselves, a touched-up version of ourselves. Genuine spirituality begins when we are prepared to die. Could there be a quicker way to die than to let God form our lives from moment to moment and continually to consent to his action in every present moment that comes our way, welcome or unwelcome?

5 comments on “Distracted by Trivia

  1. Nos. says:

    Every catholic school pre k thru college should have this as a mandatory class …it should also be taught in ccd classes the vatican should send this TED talk to every catholic household.I have to stop my rant for fear of imploding… just what I needed to start my day… I’m going out now to cut down a bunch of trees to do my part in adding to the globe’s temp. increase…then I’m going to well I’m just going to. that all. Thomas you had me laughing out loud you promise breaker..the kids are probably happy about the phone now you can upgrade to the new A.B.C.D.E.F.G.10,000 the one that cooks dinner for you and also takes care of all your bathroom needs ” I robot” here we come…P.B.W.Y.

  2. trudymm says:

    What did your post do for me?
    1️⃣ Your post led to putting on the reading leader board today, the perfect book for the eve of Pentecost. That book is: “THE HOLY SPIRIT, FIRE OF DIVINE LOVE”, by Fr.Wilfrid Stinissen,O.C.D.
    2️⃣ Next, when you wrote:
    🔥”Claim back our power of attention, which is our power to love others with attentiveness”,
    🔥”Our attention is short, shallow and fragmented, and so our threshold of patience grows short”,
    🔥and that: “…prayer and inner silence erode, as well as the ability to sit and be with others. To listen closely…”,

    all that reminded me of Simone Weil. The text mess sent out yesterday to the phones of people in that arm of GIG apostolate was a quote from her. Think you might like her quote, with your post on it’s heel:
    “Simone Weil (1909-1943) born on da eve of World War I and died in da midst of World War II. Even as a child she could not ignore da sufferings of others: She gave up sugar @ da age of 6 in solidarity wit da soldiers entrenched on da Western Front. As a young woman she temporarily left her teachin job 2work in an auto plant & become a labor activist. She fought in da Spanish Civil War on da Republican side. After her parents brought her 2 da United States during World War II, she voluntarily returned 2 Europe in da hope of working wit da resistance–a decision that led 2 her premature death @ da age of 34, largely due 2her refusal 2 eat mo than her ration. She declared:”It’s an eternal obligation 2ward da human being not 2let him suffer when one has da chance of coming2his assistance”(MyComments=Well, by da fruit produced from da way 1 lives, U’ll kno it’s da tru dwelling where God is in control.Let us do da task @hand, carryin da cross on our shoulders, & drinkin from da cups pressed 2our lips. Why?, because if man comes 2 da assistance of another man in need, will not our God do more than we can ask of imagine? Hold fast, Hold on, & Hold out)
    3️⃣ Lastly, a perfect trigger for reminding me to beg for more of the Holy Spirit, a great inspiration coming from an incident in the life of St. Philip Neri. Let us all be confident cause in scripture:
    📖Hebrews 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever”, means what was possible is still possible. Another scripture coming to mind is the one from:
    📖John 16:7 “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you”
    These scriptures assures us that all is possible. So glad you inspired me to read this episode again:
    🔥”In one of the grottoes along the Appian Way he had an experience which affected him profoundly. He was praying on the eve of Pentecost, 1544, when there appeared to him what seemed to be a globe of fire; it entered his mouth and afterwards he felt a dilation of the heart. Immediately he was filled with such paroxysms of divine love that he fell to the ground exclaiming, “Enough, enough, Lord, I can bear no morel ” When he had come to himself and risen up, he discovered a swelling over his heart, though neither then nor later did. it give him pain. From that day on, under stress of spiritual emotion, he was apt to be seized with palpitations; at such times he would ask God to mitigate His visitations lest he should die of love”. (Info from this site:http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/philip.htm)

    One last scripture is coming to mind:
    📖Mark 3:27″Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”.
    Using that as a loose reference to your statement: “We must be free — slaves to nothing or no one”. Well you have refreshed me spiritually for the rest of this day, thank you Dr.TJN.

    🏃🏽💃Find yourself going 2 the left, then going right
    Always up to taking any old path in sight
    That should be a cause for experiencing spiritual fright
    For the straight & narrow is the only way of the wise
    To foolishness, they have no regrets just goodbyes
    Being Holy Spirit led is to not even fall for the perfect disguise

    \ 😇/
    / \ http://gigapostolate.weebly.com tmm/PTL

  3. Deacon Jonathan Howell says:

    I was just catching up on your blog-which is a gift for me- and laughed along with you about your iPhone. I remember being really impressed watching you text your family on your basic phone during my time at IPF. The post was a much-needed reminder of how easy it is for me to spend too much time on my iPhone and waste precious time-which can never be recovered. Thanks, Dr. Neal.

  4. […] I had to conclude my thoughts on the topic with the thoughts of one wiser than I, so I would like to share with you an excerpt of a post written by my friend Tom Neal who I have quoted here on this blog before and will continue to quote many times from now into eternity (if you would like to read his whole post, you can do so here. […]

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