Post 43

Zoom Zoom Beep Beep:
Reflections on a Restless Culture

Modern life is characterized by a lot of rushing around.

The car and the transport systems of the big city have made it possible for us to move around very easily, and so we do. It’s normal for us to cover many kilometers getting to work, to school and to essential places like the grocery store or the doctor’s office. The layout of most North American cities presupposes the use of a car, and I once saw an interesting documentary which said that the automotive industry played a pivotal role in the typical layout of the modern city; sprawling suburbs are good for the industry.

And when we’re not commuting to school or the workplace, we’re still on the move. We have evening and weekend activities which are also car-dependent and we drive here, there and everywhere.

This is normal life in a big city. We live a mobile sort of existence, and we fill it with wireless technology that will move with us, giving us the sensation of connection when we don’t have physical nearness. And we have drive-through food, drive-through coffee and drive-through banking. The home isn’t much more than a place to sleep, store our possessions (I sure like the photo book Material World: A Global Family Portrait) and recharge our phone.

And when this normal cycle of go-go-go is broken by the long-awaited vacation days, it’s rather amusing that one of the first things that we do is hop on a plane and go!

If they had feelings, surely our homes would feel quite rejected!

Leaving so soon?

Remember when you used to commonly see a little decorative plaque on the wall or a cross-stitch design that spelled out the words, “Home Sweet Home”? The sentiment seems almost out-of-date now, and you’ll rarely see it for sale in the stores anymore. Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz said, “There’s no place like home,” and she meant it as a compliment, but nowadays we seem to have mixed views about home – it’s not praised as uniformly anymore, as you can see from the attitude towards women who are ‘stay-at-home mothers.’ Staying at home – whether it’s what you do instead of working downtown, or what you’re planning to do over the long weekend – always sounds like a lesser choice; it’s safe, it’s boring, it’s non-threatening and narrow. The ‘real world,’ by contrast, is ‘out there.’ In a home (goes the thinking) you’re insulated from the difficult and exciting stuff.

So now instead of “Home Sweet Home” you’ll see a photo on the wall from that trip a few years ago, back when we used to get our photos printed out. (Nowadays we whip out our phone, “Just hang on; I have it right here – scroll, scroll – I thought it was – scroll, scroll – oh, here it is – it’s a video actually – we went zip lining – just watch this.”)

And even though not everyone travels, it’s usually a case of not being able to, instead of not wanting to. People admire the lifestyles of the famous, who are frequently ‘on tour’ promoting their music or their books. If you gave out free airplane tickets, then truly the suburbs would be entirely deserted during the summer. These days I get recorded phone messages telling me I’ve been “randomly selected” by Air Canada or West Jet for travel. It’s an attention-getting message because people like the idea of being able to travel more frequently or more affordably. Air Miles and similar programs are popular for the same reason. A woman complained that whenever there’s an Air Miles promotion, her husband buys more cereal than they can eat just so he can collect the points.

You often hear people say they wish they could travel the way others do – they mention the double-income-household-sister-in-law who goes so many places so often that you can’t keep track, let alone keep up. I understand the sentiment; how can you blame them? When everyone and their dog is going everywhere, and when talking about big trips is like talking about the weather (“How was your summer? Did you go anywhere?” “How was your winter? Did you get away?”), it’s no fun to feel like you’re the only one who didn’t go. Staying home is out of fashion, and has been for some time, if the words of Chesterton are any indication: “It is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives.” (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”)

And so the “typically modern” person considers different destinations, and the perception is that certain types of people go to certain places. One of the biggest ways that advertisers sell things is to convince you that you are ‘expressing yourself‘ by purchasing their product. There’s something similar with a person’s ‘travel resume,’ so to speak – if you go to beaches or Vegas, you’re fun and spontaneous. If you go trekking in some mountain-range somewhere, you’re fun and fit. If you go to Europe, you’re cultured. If you go to Chile or India, you’re cultured and open-minded.

Indeed, travelling to a different part of the world can be taken almost as an intellectual and even spiritual accomplishment, even though the main components are a passive plane ride and the ability to choose good footwear. To what extent are you really broadening your intellectual horizons? It’s not as though there’s really such a place as the Land of New Ideas and New Thought, to be contrasted with home, the land of Stagnant Thought and Old Ideas.

The connection between physical movement and intellectual or spiritual movement is misunderstood – the one is given credit for causing the other.

I’m not saying that new ideas don’t come to you when you travel – of course they do – but they’ll also come to you when you don’t. Arguably, they’ll come to especially when you don’t. And one person who has argued this is Chesterton.

Travel is not ‘better‘ than staying home, in the sense of being a higher good, or a superior choice, even though our modern language really suggests this (someone who is ‘going places’ is someone with a future and someone who is ‘a mover and shaker’ is someone who accomplishes a lot and influences people and events, but someone who is ‘provincial’ or ‘tied down’ is someone to be laughed at or pitied).

As a matter of fact, Chesterton says that travel is, in many ways, an inferior choice and less of an experience! It’s an interesting perspective.

For starters, he reminds us that so much of this movement is an escape from reality, not a greater appreciation of reality. Even when a trip involves physical hardship, it’s still usually a deliberately-chosen diversion, a running-away from, and not just a running towards.

Sure, travelling means a different daily routine, and more life hours spent figuring out where to eat and sleep and get your clothes clean, but on the other hand, you will be left untroubled in important ways.

You’ll be untroubled by anybody who wants to really challenge you on things that matter. You’ll be untroubled, for the most part, by serious conversations about your life and your choices. Nobody will care enough about you to raise an eyebrow or question you. Your superficial interactions will be brief and fairly pleasant. You’ll play the part of a paying customer and you’ll be treated like one. It’s not a difficult script to follow.

If you want to be really challenged and pushed out of your comfort zone, stay at home! If you want to have some genuinely alarming and get-under-your-skin conversations, stay at home! Look to your left and look to your right – there are a lot of people all around you who are ready to clash with you about all manner of things. Home is where you’ll be dealing with people in a more in-depth way. And if it’s approached properly, these interactions will help you figure out how to be a better person. Here’s St. Josemaria Escriva talking about people not being marshmallows:

You clash with the character of one person or another. It has to be that way – you are not a dollar bill to be liked by everyone.
Besides, without those clashes which arise in dealing with your neighbors, how could you ever lose the sharp corners, the edges – imperfections and defects of your character – and acquire the order, the smoothness and the firm mildness of charity, of perfection?
If your character and that of those around you were soft and sweet like marshmallows, you would never become a saint.

– The Way, No. 20

In that quotation, St. Josemaria Escriva refers to our neighbours. The key thing about the neighbours is that we don’t choose them: “We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour,” says Chesterton (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”). He praises the fact that scripture doesn’t talk about humanity in general (who is that?) but about the person who is right in our face – flesh and blood – our neighbour:

That is why the old religions and the old scriptural language showed so sharp a wisdom when they spoke, not of one’s duty towards humanity, but one’s duty towards one’s neighbour.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

The vibrant unpredictability of the actual people in our lives is what makes regular home life as exciting and interesting as it is. We can’t control it. We don’t get to choose who is in our family or our neighbourhood and we don’t get to choose how they treat us.

Everyone is a wild card.

We think it’s the others who are odd. Meanwhile, they think they’re normal and we’re the odd ones. It’s quite funny when you think about it.

A good priest once said to me that if we were to visit an institution for the mentally ill, we wouldn’t be surprised to see that everyone was acting very strangely. He said that the truth is, there’s something wrong with everybody, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see how everyone acts.

Life’s test is: how well can you deal with the real people who are in your space?

The best way a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born.

 – G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

And as you can see from this quotation, Chesterton puts family members in the same category as neighbours in this way; in both cases, we don’t have any say about who gets ‘invited.’ Every family is a very inadvisable mix of personality types, the kind that no event planner would recommend. “What? And you’re going to bring all those people together during Christmas? With liquor? What are you thinking?”

And every time a child marries, the combination becomes even more unruly – that family of three daughters changes enormously when each daughter finds a spouse. And as if that’s not interesting enough, these new spouses bring with them siblings and parents and hairless cats. It gets less and less predictable with each addition. When children are born, the complexities are magnified again.

But Chesterton says this is the whole point. Differences of personality is what humanity is about, and the best place to find ourselves thrown together with a cross-section of humanity is by being in a family. He’s right. When you consider the members of your family, are they the type of people that you would have sought out as companions? And are you the type of person that they would have selected? I’ve spoken to so many parents who are just flabbergasted at the differences in personality between their children, no matter how many they have.

Chesterton says you can’t defend the institution of the family by saying it’s so ‘nice’ or so ‘congenial.’ The dictionary says congenial means 1) having the same tastes, habits or temperament, sympathetic, 2) suited to ones needs, agreeable. No! He defends it as being a group where you specifically won’t find everything suited to your tastes and needs. It’s something like the St. Josemaria Escriva quotation about people not being soft and sweet like marshmallows. But the good in all of this is that you can defend the institution of the family because it’s all about getting to know and love people for who they really are, not who you wish they were:

Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

It’s about loving people without having ‘good reasons’ to love them. It’s about loving people even when they don’t ‘deserve’ it, or when they don’t satisfy your needs. Somewhere else he said that when you admire someone, you have reasons to admire them, but when you love them, you love without reasons.

And he goes on, providing the following hypothetical, which amused me:

It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant, that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth. It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity.

That quotation is so accurate – you can picture the chaos of different interests and levels of interest and disinterest. Everyone is thrown together and the mix is so unpredictable – and that’s before anybody really says much of anything (a look can be worth a thousand words). But if you want to stir the pot, you know which conversational topics will do it! Perhaps nowadays you don’t dare go there. Add to this the carelessness with which family members sometimes treat each other, and Chesterton is so right to say a family is “like a little kingdom, and, like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy.” (Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”)

In a family, the people are not just a blur of faces that you see from the outside. You can’t fast-forward past all these people! They’re sitting across the table from you today, and they’ll probably be there tomorrow too! And so you realize the complexities and mystery of people. You are reminded daily that people are so immensely complicated, because even the people that you thought you knew so well are continually shocking or surprising you and catching you off-guard. Seeing real people up close is a valuable education, and this makes your world and your life bigger and richer:

If we were to-morrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

He likes small towns for the same reason:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

(And because ‘diversity’ is a loaded word these days, we should say – and Chesterton would say – that diversity has obvious limits in the context of a club or religion. The title of his book is Heretics, after all. A member of a group who wants to actively work against the stated and settled aims of that group should leave. You don’t serve bacon at a vegetarian potluck and still call yourself a vegetarian and you don’t serve soya bean “hot dogs” at a Paleo potluck. In the same way, a person who actively opposes the Catholic Church’s teaching and encourages others to do so – no matter the reason – should stop calling himself Catholic. You shouldn’t wear the jersey of Team A while cheering for Team B.)

So to return to the notion of travel, Chesterton says you’re stepping out of a bigger, more challenging and unpredictable world while you travel. You’re not having nearly as many of those raw and real interactions that are part of life at home. It’s not that you can’t connect with people, but it’s necessarily more fleeting. You enter a world where your human interactions are more likely to reduce people to that blur. You won’t get to know them; you’ll consider them just from the outside. You’ve made your world more simple, smooth, predictable and small. It’s an escape.

He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians . . . He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at . . .

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Institution of the Family”

And another aspect of Chesterton’s criticism of travel has to do with the idea of place. In the same way that people become a blur when you don’t spend much time with them or get to know them, places become a blur when you don’t approach them properly. You must be slow, patient and loyal about a place before you will really understand it.

It is inspiring without a doubt to whizz in a motor-car around the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”

To really understand a place, you must be still. You must be there for a long time, so that it stops feeling like ‘a place.’ When it becomes a part of who you are, then you will know its secrets.

It’s a common theme in his writing. He often presents the idea of focusing on a small thing in order to see the bigger picture. When you try to take in everything, you necessarily don’t go as deep, and so you feel like you understand it, but it’s all been quick and superficial. When you try to really understand something well, then you learn so much more about even the bigger picture. It’s the idea of quantity versus quality.

So when you really get to know one person well, you’ll come away with a better knowledge of humanity as a whole than you would if you got to know many people in just a surface way. If you get to know one place really well, then you’ll gain a better knowledge about places, cultures and homes than you would if you restlessly moved everywhere, like Rudyard Kipling did. Chesterton criticizes Kipling for his lack of loyalty to any one place. He never attaches whole-heartedly to a home; his reminiscences provoke Chesterton to call him a “philanderer of nations.”

The world-traveller who has, in theory, seen so much, has had time enough to notice only the differences in external appearance and behaviour. He “has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of all the things that divide men – diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons.” But all the seeing doesn’t cause better or bigger thinking. In his movement, this traveller hasn’t been able to digest as much.

And on this topic, haven’t you wondered what the ideal speed is for the human brain to absorb a place? We need time (2 minutes? 3 minutes?) to adjust to new surroundings, whether it’s an unfamiliar doctor’s office, a train station in a foreign city, or a grocery store with a different layout. So when we move from one place to the next, it seems like there’s some kind of an optimal speed to do that too, in terms of human well-being. It seems like it would be healthier if the speed of the change were to match the processing speed of the human brain, in the same way that we talk about ‘human-scale’ or ‘pedestrian- friendly’ buildings. Walking does seem about the right speed for taking in this kind of data. In the country-side, those four-legged walkers (donkeys, horses) are fine, but in the context of city streets, even a horse-drawn carriage goes way too fast. Sure, it’s fun, but it’s not quite what we’re wired for.

It’s a theme that Chesterton alluded to in his poem “A Fat Woman Speaks.” The woman who rushes by the fields while riding a train is appreciating the field so much less than the woman who walks through it.

In contrast, “the man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men – hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.” (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small.”)

And here we can picture a man who is living a slower-paced life and yet really considering the nature of all these things deeply. Look at what Chesterton says about such a person: “The man standing in his own kitchen garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas.” (G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, “On Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small.”)

Large ideas! Chesterton gives the credit for large ideas to the one who is staying still!

And he mentions the “kitchen garden.” In other words, not acres upon acres and fields upon fields, but something small and homely, like a tiny patch of earth, or, at best, a “cabbage field.” It’s simple, not glamorous.

It brings to mind what was written about St. Thérése of Lisieux’s living space. Her life was so externally limited, yet her spiritual ideas were huge, unlimited and revolutionary. Fr. Jacques Philippe had the opportunity to visit the convent and grounds of St. Thérése many years after her death, and he was stunned at how cramped and small her surroundings were:

I realized what a tiny world, in human terms, she inhabited: a little provincial Carmelite convent, not outstanding for its architecture, a miniscule garden . . . However, and this is the paradox that struck me, when you read Thérése’s writings you never get the impression of a life spent in a restricted world, but just the opposite . . . Thérése lives in very wide horizons, which are those of God’s infinite mercy and her unlimited desire to love him. She feels like a queen with the whole world at her feet, because she can travel to every point in the globe where a missionary needs her prayer and sacrifices!

 – Fr. Jacques Philippe, Interior Freedom, Chapter I

And this description confirms what we find repeatedly in the stories of those who led saintly lives, and for that matter, in the stories of many great scientists and artists. In so many cases, they brought forth their “large ideas” when they were enclosed in tiny and humble spaces.

You could name so many saints who went through a period of enclosure and solitude – St. John of the Cross, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Thomas Aquinas are a few that come to mind. They imitate Christ’s forty days in the desert and his early mornings of prayer in lonely places. The time of being a hidden seed, growing in solitude and stillness, yields a rich harvest. The documentary, Into Great Silence, gives a taste of the beauty and richness of the contemplative religious life.

Joseph Pearce has spoken about how the gift of inspiration, called a ‘muse’ by the pagans, or ‘grace’ by Christians, which comes to artists and others, is a pure gift which must pass through the human artist. If the artist himself is pure, then the art will be better. If the artist is more mixed-up, then the gift will be more deformed and distorted as a result.

This would explain, then, how the artist/thinker/scientist who is distracted by the rush of life cannot keep the space within himself pure enough to receive inspiration well. The budding ideas will be trampled by the rush of images and sounds. The signal will suffer interference, so to speak.

Charlotte Bronte’s words bring to mind something like a walled garden, when she says: “There would still be recesses in my mind which would be only mine, to which he never came; and sentiments growing there fresh and sheltered . . . “ (Jane Eyre, Chapter XXXIV)

In other words, there’s an interior place within us (our soul?) which needs quiet and stillness in order to receive and preserve the “large idea” which Chesterton refers to. If we have that, then we might have almost everything we need. You could be physically restricted in the cell of a convent or a jail cell, but the interior world is not closed to you, and in fact, is more accessible to you than ever before.

The idea of the person who ‘finds Jesus’ when he spends time in prison has become almost a laughable concept, but I believe the sincerity of it. I believe that the people in prison can be light-years ahead of the rest of us in terms of the amount of time they’ve spent thinking about big things.

By contrast, the ‘movers and shakers’ of the world perhaps are moving and shaking the good ideas out of their grasp, and could use more time spent in stillness. I note that people who write about time-management (usually for businessmen) will always emphasize the importance of carving out some quiet alone time in order to think carefully about what they’re trying to accomplish.

The saints advise the same thing. They all say that you need the time alone with God through daily prayer in order to make any progress at all. It’s a relationship, and with zero time invested in communication, it’ll fall apart. The relationship will be lost in all our movement and noise. There’s the Old Testament story where Elijah was told to wait for God:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold there came a voice to him. . .

– 1 Kings 19:11

The message here is that if you are looking for God, you have to listen for the “still, small voice.” God has good manners, and he’s not going to display himself in a way which is overpowering and irresistible, which takes away your power to decide. His way is very quiet and subtle, so that you can avoid or ignore him if you choose. Small voices, such as the one of our conscience, can be over-ridden.

And so if you wish to receive God or even one of his gifts, such as artistic inspiration or the “large idea,” then you need to stay in one place and wait receptively. And so when Christ spoke of prayer, he said that we are to go into a room and close the door. We’re putting a stop to the movement of the wind, the earthquake and the fire. We are making a decision to be anchored to one place. The word ‘still’ has two aspects: the idea of not moving and the idea of not making a sound.

In motionlessness and quietness, there is life, as Chesterton says. “The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about; dust is like this and the thistle-down . . . Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile.” And then he turns to the expression, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” He says, “The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.” (Heretics, “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small”)

In motionlessness and quietness, there is a space where God can visit us. So he asks us to be alone, but it’s not so that we can be alone in some sort of lonely Buddhist or nihilistic yoga way. He asks for this separateness so that he can have us to himself for a few moments. It’s a relationship, and so it has many of the same elements that a romance does. The man in love wants time alone with the woman he loves; is it any wonder that our God would want time alone with the human he loves? He asks that we cross the threshold with him, in the pattern of the newly married husband and wife.

What do you think? Shall we unbuckle ourselves from the car and the zip-line? Can we unbuckle ourselves? Perhaps we’ve forgotten how!

But we should try.

We should go into our room.

And we should close the door.

Be still and know that I am God.

– Psalm 46: 10