Andy Flannagan on confusing what is new for what is true

Andy Flannagan
Andy Flannagan

The author Nicholas Carr has written of "The Shallows" - the shallow world we inhabit when we accrue more and more DVDs, more and more mp3s, more and more friends on Facebook, yet fail to truly enjoy any of them, losing the delight of gift and the truth of people and places being precious. We cover more and more holiday locations - "Have you done Italy?" "Have you done Egypt?", ticking off our boxes. We flit around consuming, choosing from a thousand options, but never really digging deeper into one story, one song, one place. The constant stimulation of "the new"- the curse of novelty - keeps us from knowing our roots, or ourselves. "X factor" has such a pull on so many people because we crave the next big thing. It is marketed perfectly.

I have watched children gorge themselves on multiple birthday presents in a feast of functionality, working their way through ten or more presents in the space of mere minutes. Where is the awe that comes from stopping to appreciate? Where is the wonder? Where is the sense that life is a gift and not a right?

Nicholas Carr's research has shown that our brains are actually changing as a result of our internet and screen dependency. Whole areas once exercised are being left to atrophy like the long-forgotten muscles of those who used to play sport regularly, but now just can't find the time or energy.

I'm writing this in the car as my wife drives us to her parents' house. (No multi-tasking irony there then!) Every few moments I want to swap windows on my laptop because I have become so used to the distraction of the immediate. The new email. The new text. Sitting in the car without wi-fi means I can't succumb to this simple disaster, but the experience is making me aware of how "wired" I've become. On a normal day in the office or at home, I allow myself to be tripped up by any little new communication from email, texting, facebook, phone, rather than staying on course with the deeper creative thing I need to do that day. Novelty trumps meaning. This became painfully clear when I did a 48 hour sponsored silence (fasting from all connectivity) last year. I was forced to dig deep into reserves long since forgotten. I was forced to stop and think. I was even forced to pray.

I used to spend a lot of time highlighting to people that they need to watch and read the news with hypersensitive filters on their eyes and ears. I wanted to make clear that news corporations have a vested interest in printing what is tragic, salacious and scandalous, as they need to sell ads or papers to keep profits high. I wanted to remind people that what they were reading was far from the whole story. That they won't be reading too much good news, and they won't be reading about the wonderful but unremarkable acts of kindness and service that happen in communities up and down the country everyday. The net effect is that we all become more cynical, depressed and unable to believe that positive change can occur. I spent a lot of time encouraging folks to be involved in the media, to bring better standards of journalism and a desire to tell the whole truth.

Now those things I still believe to be true, but I think there is also something more fundamental going on. We have allowed "news" to become the default information source for our lives. In some ways the "news" can't help it. By its very definition it is made up of novelty. But novelty is a bit like carbohydrate. Very necessary, but if your diet consists only of it, then you are in big trouble. It is great for snacking, but will leave you hugely undernourished if it is not part of a more varied diet. That diet should include at least some ancient and deeper writing and art. It takes more effort and patience for sure, but there is huge reward in embracing what has stood the test of time, whether in the realm of music, philosophy or everywhere in between. We confuse what is new for what is true. If my frame of reference for what is important or significant is based (as it cannot fail to be) on a daily diet of the BBC news website (and it is much better than most!), then my plumbline is more like a pendulum.

May you be downwardly mobile, so the depth of your life may increase. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.