Friday, November 8, 2013

The Internet: Are We Addicted, or Do We Just Use It Too Much?

You're online a lot. Probably much more that you would like to admit on any survey. Lets face it: you worry sometimes that you might be "addicted" to the Internet.

(Of course I'm just using the editorial "you" in this post. I'm not implying that you, personally, dear reader, have any kind of problem like this.)

Okay, first of all, I certainly recognize that this can be a real problem. The Internet is powerful, stimulating, and easily accessible. I expect that it can trigger or exacerbate various mental disorders, chemical imbalances, or other neurodysfunctions.

It can also shorten people's attention spans, make them more gullible, more argumentative, and more scattered and distracted in their hearts. The Internet is an almost inexhaustible resource for people to get themselves into all sorts of trouble and preoccupations about things that they can't change and therefore shouldn't worry about because, really, this stuff is none of their business.

The medium lends itself to being misused in these ways. There is also easy access to information and images that can positively fracture the human personality. That's another topic. I have nothing to do with that (nor, as far as I know, do any of the other five people who actually read this blog). But I know all about how the Internet can be distracting.

Of course, I use the Internet for good reasons! I use it for "research," and writing, and to encourage people, and to communicate edifying things, and to learn about important events, and to be a presence on this "digital continent" (as Benedict XVI called it). I want to be in the vanguard of the NEW EVANGELIZATION!

Clearly I have a well-ordered, balanced, virtuous, unselfish approach to using the Internet. Right?

HA! Not even close. I'm hooked just like everybody else.

I am trying to use it well. Some days I do better than others. I'm convinced that its good to be online, and so -- inspired by that great battle cry of G. K. Chesterton, "If a thing is worth doing, its worth doing badly!" -- I march forward on the digital continent. I must learn and grow, here... just like everywhere else. Meanwhile, I pray that the Lord will "write straight" with my rather crooked lines.

All of this is fine, as far as it goes. I know that I'm not a person who is called to give up all electronic devices and go live on an Amish farm. Even there, I think I would probably develop an "inordinate," self-centered attachment to my plow, or my patch of ground, or even my sense of having kept myself pure from the lures of the modern world. I don't need the Internet to be distracted. I can distract myself very well just with my own mind.
Truly, I mean no disparagement here to Amish farmers, nor to agrarians in general. I love agrarians. I have many agrarian friends. I love to read agrarian blogs (heh!) -- We are all given different gifts by the Lord. We can all help and learn from one another.
And I appreciate their gifts... especially when they are gifts of FOOD. Milk from grazing cows. Eggs from ... chickens! I mean straight from the chicken -- eggs that have not been subjected to the approval of 15 different bureaucratic agencies after traveling two thousand miles in a refrigerated truck. Squash, cucumbers, spinach in all of their glorious genetic originality, in all their various shapes and sizes and even with marks where real bugs (!) chewed on them. Bring on the food!
Its great. But I'm not a farmer. I'm a nerd.

Okay, some folks would say I'm an "intellectual" (frankly, I think I prefer the term "nerd"). I'm a thinker, and (I hope) a knower. I want to learn about reality and help others to learn, to see how fascinating everything is, and how many facets of reality there are to consider.

I'm a teacher.

I'm a nerdy teacher. My wife can come to the office at the John XXIII Center and ask me to give a "short introduction" to "the Middle Ages" for 9-12 year old kids. When? In a few minutes.

I told her I would need a large map of Europe and the Mediterranean. And then I went out and started talking to the kids. No notes. No prep. And it was interesting.

I can do the same thing in writing, though not as quickly as when I was younger. And its not easy, although it appears easy (to others and, unfortunately, often to me also... until its too late). It takes a ton of energy, and yet I love it in a way that verges on compulsive. Nevertheless, in the present circumstances of life all of this means that I have the capacity to do some good on the Internet. I think....

But there's more to it. There are more fundamental reasons why I feel called to write and to teach and to just be a human being using the New Media, even with their dangers and distractions. Its about the fact that, in all our efforts to communicate through whatever medium and in whatever context, we are persons living in relationship with other persons. Communication is always personal. If it is not a gift of self, it becomes sterile.

The Internet can easily distract us from the fact that we are persons who are called to be gifts to one another, called to give and receive love. Here, just like everywhere else, the person is on the line.

And I see that this is true. I see the possibility of giving myself and appreciating others in this land of symbols and images and words, this "digital continent" that is so revealing and obscuring, so full of lights and sounds and colors and pathways and signs that play upon (or strengthen and deepen) our longing to see in full the face that looks upon us with love.