Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Little time to really think
Vail, CO, Colorado
Pondering demands our time and effort. We’d rather digitally dart by checking e-mails, Facebook or Twitter. It’s easier to dash off a slew of text messages than to contemplate.
To ponder requires concentration. After reading books on devices such as tablets, computers, smartphones and open format readers, who has the energy to ponder? Scanning apps for Apple’s iPhone, iTouch and iPad and staying up to date with information on Android mobile devices deny chilling out of the information glut.
Words like cogitate, muse, ruminate and peruse sound quaintly odd, don’t they? We seldom inject them into our hurried speech because these words identity activities often avoided. We rarely dig deeply into a subject or bore into some intractable problem that defies easy explanation.
The Internet invites us to communicate instantly but not substantively. We retrieve tidbits from the Internet, but don’t glean telling insights. The price we pay for plugging in and rarely tuning out causes brain drain. This disease sneaks up on its victims, observes Nicholas Carr in his book “The Shallows.” This author notes how the Internet’s over-use robs us of mental agility to concentrate.
“When we go online,” warns Carr, “we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”
Carr points readers to playwright Richard Foreman’s name for this malady that makes our minds flit like butterflies. We are becoming the mental equivalent of Notre Dame’s hunchback, intellectually deformed to look like “pancake people spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” Deleted is the ability to ponder.
Amid commotion when shepherds visited baby Jesus, Mary didn’t let these noisy rustics destroy her moments of reflection. Avoiding the hubbub, she contemplated what the shepherds exclaimed when they saw her infant son. She “kept … pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Mary mulled over truths too big to be tweeted and too wondrous to be encoded in clipped e-mails.
Before home computers became common, I attended a preaching class at Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1970s. Each student in the class offered his or her first public sermon on campus in historic Miller Chapel. A preaching professor critiqued a classmate’s sermon that made holy ado about nothing.
“Your sermon touches on much but delves into little. It’s a sermon for all occasions,” the professor sarcastically judged.
Nothing much is pondered because, like Lite beer, there’s little substance.
Much digital communication is reduced to chatter, which isn’t conducive to contemplation. What dangers lurk when pondering can’t be squeezed into a schedule crammed with tweets and e-mails?
Stephanie Paulsell, who teaches ministry at Harvard Divinity School, wrote a commentary titled “Wired and Unwired.” She described how our brains are changing, becoming lethargic and allergic to pondering because of the Internet’s influence (Christian Century, August 10, 2010, p. 33).
“Clicking through Internet links,” Pausell warns, “multitasking in multiple media, interrupting our train of thought to check our e-mail-these activities have been steadily rewiring the neural pathways of our brains. Neuroscience has confirmed that we are losing our capacity for sustained attention, contemplative thought and deep engagement.
“We risk other losses. We could lose our ability to become absorbed in long, complex books. We could stanch the creativity that flows from contemplation. Our capacity for empathy, some fear, could weaken.”
Yearning for time to ponder, Thomas Jefferson used a melodramatic phrase to signal his retreat from Washington’s political infighting. Quitting as secretary of state in 1793, he wrote how “the motion of my blood no longer keeps time with the tumult of the world.”
Jefferson exchanged political hassle for Monticello’s haven where he thought widely and pondered deeply. How did he lower his blood pressure and ease the world’s tumult?
Such intent to ponder “leads to seek for happiness in the lap and love of family,” he wrote, “in the society of my neighbors and my books, in the wholesome occupations of my farm and my affairs, in an interest or affection for every bud that opens, in every breath that blows around me, in an entire freedom of rest or motion, of thought or incogitancy, owing account to myself alone of my hours and actions.”
Give yourself a Christmas gift. Turn off the cell phone. Take breaks from the computer. Get off the fast lane. Meander mentally. Treat yourself to moments when you ponder.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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