Whenever I travel, I’m struck by just how poorly most of modern America lives. I’m not talking financially—I’m talking about spiritual poverty. While it’s true that traveling is a wonderful way to enlarge one’s view of the world, discover new interests, and see new people and places, it also can expose you to evils you might normally avoid. Seeing a fellow passenger on a flight from Los Angeles to Denver watching semi-pornographic music videos for the duration of the flight reminded me how much grotesque and dehumanizing content people consume or are exposed to.
Even though I have no desire to watch erotic rap videos, I remain conscious of the dissipation caused even by browsing a good site with intelligent content, like Crisis. As my schedule gets fuller and fuller with the beginning of the school year, I’ve been thinking about my priorities and have wondered how to minimize the distraction caused even by the “good” media I use for work and education.
Taking a step back from a consideration of media as a tool for good work, I have also noticed other areas of life that could use noise reduction. At the end of the day, noise pollution in our lives mostly comes not from the highway but from our own habits. Putting that in the context of what most Americans experience, I’ve come up with five initial ways to stop modernity from ravaging your mind via the internet and the reality distortion that comes with it.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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1) Make time for phone-free exercise in nature
I’ve never owned a smartphone. Neither have my parents. I have multiple college classmates who purchased flip phones upon graduating from Wyoming Catholic College, inspired by the years of phone-free existence that college gave them. My flatmate just bought one made by CAT to replace his smartphone. I say this to prove that it can be done—please don’t let people tell you that it’s impossible to live without a smartphone. That is a lie.
Living without a smartphone will eliminate huge amounts of time wasting. It will increase your ability to focus on the task or person at hand. And it will free you up to do the things that really make you happy, relax you, and are meaningful in life. Even if you have a flip-phone, you’re still “on call.” Put it down. Go and take a walk with your spouse, child, friend, or just by yourself. Open your eyes to the wonders around you and truly relax.
2) Read real print books
Much could be said here, but what I have in mind feeds into what I said above. The relaxation and absence of distraction that accompanies reading a physical book rather than something off of a constantly pinging phone or tablet is forgotten and undervalued. Paper pages never remind you of meetings or alert you to the latest cat photo on Instagram. If it’s a book worth reading, you should devote your mind to it, giving it the attention it deserves.
Of course, this also brings up the topic of “ongoing education” and the fact that we should not let our minds atrophy. We should cultivate a healthy habit of curiosity and reflection supported and nourished by our reading habits. From science and philosophy to spiritual tracts or novels, books serve to keep our intellects supple, our imaginations fertile, and our faith informed. To continue building up treasure in our minds through various forms of literature is to ensure and strengthen ourselves against doubt, despair, and other hardships, as well as to remind us to be grateful, hopeful, and loving. If you don’t have a decent library, it’s never too late to start. Find a topic that interests you at an excellent Catholic publisher like Angelico Press, Os Justi, Sophia Institute, Arouca, or Ignatius.
3) Don’t listen to background music
Listening to music intentionally is an important aspect of immersing oneself in beauty. While background music can be helpful for certain tasks (some students find it very conducive to study, for example), it is important nonetheless to practice it with intention.
One example is music in the car. While I love listening to various genres (especially Irish folk and Baroque) during longer drives, I also try to discern whether or not a particular drive is rather a time for silent reflection or a brief respite for the mind between work and a social gathering. At the bottom line, it is a question of making sure there is silence in your life. As I’ve written before, silence is a fruitful thing not a sterile one.
4) Cook one meal per day
This might seem unexpected. But as with silence, cooking from scratch rather than putting something in the microwave or ordering from a restaurant can be an important “transition” time from work to leisure. It is ten or fifteen minutes where the dust of your mind can settle and you can reorder and orient your mind. Cooking is more than a negative “space” in which to catch your breath; it can be a recreational and creative activity. It can even be an opportunity to practice friendship.
Cooking can also be an important way to stay in touch with the realities we eat—what raw meat feels like, how quickly potatoes cook, how hard it is to peel a garlic clove. It is a time to remember that reality is not pre-packaged, not pre-seasoned, not ready to please. Cooking, then, is one more way to refuse to be swept along by the torrent of virtual rush facilitated by modernity.
5) Discern and limit the media outlets you follow
I write regularly for online websites, so it would be hard for me to tell everyone to stop reading sites like Crisis, which are so often full of insightful content on important topics. However, determining which sites are worth following is an important way to prevent wasting time. Checking and reading sites in a disciplined way can be extremely beneficial; random surfing tends to be enervating. One thing I like to do is print articles and read them on paper, keeping in mind the benefits described above from reading print books.
These five practices, while not necessarily the most intrinsically important, are nonetheless importance steps to take and reflect on if we truly desire to enjoy each other’s company or grow in the pursuit of manly or womanly activities.
Because so many forms of media and anti-reality vie with each other today for our attention, we must consciously not listen to music; we must consciously cook food; we must intentionally leave the phone behind or take a printed book in our hands. Ultimately, whether we are trying to follow the advice of God to “be still and know that I am God” or of the Delphic oracle to “know thyself,” such silent and slower practices are necessary for purity of body, mind, and soul.