“Modernity is a form of confinement: a way of life wherein we are free to ‘express’ ourselves, so long as the differences between one person and the next are not considered of any account. Everyone is different, and the differences make no difference; everyone walks in the gaudy wear of his own whims, and therefore everyone is a prisoner of the fads of the passing moment.”Television
Television is probably the first destroyer of the imagination that people think of. It’s true that TV is full of “moronic sales pitches for toys and toothpaste and luxury cars, appealing to lust, vanity, greed, envy, pride and various other sins deadly and disheartening.” It’s true that staring at the screen is easy—it replaces the physical and mental exertion required by reading or riding a bike. But have you ever thought that “every hour spent in front of the television [is] an hour not spent doing something else?...For everybody has to have some time doing something pointless, like playing cards. But the television engages the imagination in a false and easy way, as playing cards does not.” It requires no effort and then, when effort is required, the lazy, glutted imagination will not be able to give it. “You’ll still be able to play cards, but you will find it hard to listen to Beethoven.” Roald Dahl’s “Song to Mike Teevee” comes to mind here.
The real problem with television is that it is full of noise. This kind of noise is more than just decibels; it is “a kind of mental and spiritual interference, like the blitz of tiny explosions in radio static.” And it’s not limited to the TV screen. Anonymous crowds, billboards, announcements, pretentious posters pushing political propaganda, useless information immediately available on handy portable devices, slogans about slogans.... Eyes will be “trained to jitter with the skips and blips of visual distraction,” ears will “jitter along with incoherent wailings,” and minds will not rest on the beauties of even an actual stretch of sea and sky, let alone an imaginary sea and sky.
A life lived in a community of other lives will be a rich one. Every other person has the potential to broaden the mind because each one has a different set of experiences. But it takes time to get to know them and humility, too, because one must listen instead of talk, receive instead of offer. Too often what we have instead of community is crowds: herds of people merely performing functions for each other. The cashier at the grocery store is not a person with character and a story, she is just a cog in the wheel of society. Even the family is being dismantled: parents are being replaced by professionals who do their job efficiently, not lovingly. Life is deadened by routine without order, affability without love, rebukes without anger.
Does anyone else think that Facebook (dare I bring it up?) lends to this problem? As Esolen says, “We use the word ‘friend’ to describe someone we hardly know because the real depths of friendship are inaccessible to us.” Facebook relationships tend to be both “shallow” and “unreal.” Do they distract from the kind of friendship that bares souls and gives all?
So what shall we then do about all this?
In many cases, nothing, says Esolen.
The imagination is a natural faculty in man. It can be drowned out in noisy clamor, it can be scheduled and managed into oblivion, it can be squashed as its heroes are flattened, it can be muffled up indoors, but don’t make the mistake of trying to foster it. It can be so powerful on its own that sometimes all it needs to thrive is a bit of peace and quiet, some time to think, and something noble to think about.
True creativity can be thought of as a kind of receptivity to something that comes to us from without. Tradition has the poet as hearer before he is crafter of verses. “The Muse comes to him.” Milton, the blind poet, appealed to his Heavenly Muse to dictate to him his unpremeditated verse; Einstein daydreamed in the hills of Tuscany wondering about light, listening to the light’s whisperings; Elijah witnessed all the “pyrotechnics nature has to offer”—the whirlwind, the earthquake, the fire from above—but the Lord was in the “still, small voice.”
“In the deep quiet of the heart we hear things. We hear that the world as we know it is passing away. We are passing away. Yet the world is beautiful and good is no illusion....We [can] crowd many years into a single instant, or we [can] recall an instant years later, as if it were present now in all its power and life.”As mothers we want to protect our children from the distractions of a garish world. We see them as so much putty in our hands, ready to be molded into something great. But maybe they are more like seeds which (as Toad had to learn) need simply to be planted, watered and then left alone to grow. No amount of playing music, providing light in the dark of night, or shouting “Now seeds, START GROWING!” would help them along. If our children are given silence, then—though they may be living in this world—it will be as if they know of an extra dimension or two invisible to most. They will be free: free to wander, free to love. They will be human, creatures against whom the empire of the masses will not stand.
“If our current empire is to survive, we must resist the temptations of the One whom Elijah heard in the still, small voice. For unlike the serpent in the garden, He really would make us be as gods and set us free. We prefer our bonds instead.”You can read my "Ode to Silence" inspired by this chapter.