I would guess that if you are the type of person who reads a blog, you are also the type of person who uses email. And if you use email, then it is a healthy bet that you have sometimes found yourself checking your email quite frequently, perhaps every hour or every ten minutes. For me, it got to a point in college where it seemed like I was checking my email every three minutes. If you think about it, most of our email is quite banal: another mass mailing list has decided to express its commercial affection towards you, another friend has decided to send you a video of a talking dog, or you have received notice that your library books are overdue. What is it about using email that breeds this sort of habit? If we were to engage in any other activity so frequently, we would probably be labeled obsessive compulsive. Imagine going to your mailbox down by the street every hour! Perhaps you have always been a temperate email-checker or have an in-built disdain for email that has prevented you from checking it more than twice a day. If so, more power to you, but please indulge my use of this image.
The social media craze seems to, at least in part, be fueled by obsessive email checking. When the email inbox is empty and we feel a corresponding emptiness in our consciousness, we turn to Facebook. When we are low on personal messages from friends we turn to impersonal announcements from friends about what they are doing every five minutes. And when our friends are not stimulating enough, we turn to Twitter, which gives us the artificial thrill of being texted by movie stars, politicians, and popes.
What is at bottom in the frequent email and social media checking? I think that part of it is the daunting task of having to order our life. When the question “what should I be doing right now?” arises, it is much easier to turn to a simple reactionary activity where we can assume a passive role. Why think about what you should actually do, when you can easily check your email and taste a little bit of artificial efficiency and self-importance? Now it might seem like the proper remedy required for this sickness is a serious dose of moral exhortation of the style offered by famous self-helpers: “Be Proactive! Take life by the horns! Believe in yourself!” But no matter how enthusiastically one receives these exhortations at the outset, they rarely succeed in changing anyone’s behavior.
Personally, I like the prospect of being able to frequently assume a disposition of utter passivity throughout the day, and I don’t think it is a bad instinct. What matters is who or what we are passive or responsive towards. The desert fathers spoke of cultivating a fundamental purity of heart whereby one uninterruptedly focuses on God throughout the day. Spiritual authors also speak of a similar concept called the practice of the presence of God. I think that bound up with these practices is a definite passivity towards the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. When a Christian living in God’s grace asks, “What should I be doing right now?” he should not be surprised to sometimes receive a rather direct answer in the form of an inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This may take the form of a subtle tug on the heart to do this or that, to speak to this friend, to read this book, or to go for a walk etc. What we need are not more frequent email checks, but a periodic and habitual openness to an interior movement from God.
Life is daunting, and we may acutely feel the burden of having to lay out our activity according to a reasonable procedure complete with to-do lists and color-coded calendars. However, life is lacking something for one who does not periodically allow himself to be caught in the sway of the Holy Spirit whereby he begins to operate according to divine Reason. In this way he becomes an instrument of divine Providence, content to be part of a schedule he cannot fully understand.
Image: Barker at the Vermont State Fair (1941)