Apart from occasionally going to a sports bar to watch my favourite English soccer team, the only time I ever watch television is in hotel rooms or at the gym. Almost every time I do so I am reminded of the great blessing of not having one of these palantiri in my home. Occasionally, however, I see something that is actually worth watching. Such was the case recently when, at the gym, I saw neuropsychologist, Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a guest on the Dr. Oz Show, explaining the damage done to our brains from our addiction to social media. She detailed how a young man was tested before and after a 24-hour period in which he was denied access to all electronic gadgets. The improvement after this techno-fast was nothing less than startling. The young man showed major improvement in memory retention, mental alertness and problem-solving skills. Furthermore, the brain scans, before and after the day-long neuro-detoxification, demonstrated a significant improvement in healthy brain activity. Dr. Hafeez then proceeded to document the connection between increasing addiction to social media and the rise in attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
Such clinical confirmation of the psychological damage that techno-addiction does to our brains is most welcome. It is, however, merely stating the obvious. Techno-addiction lulls the mind into a comfort zone of banality, narcissistically self-centred and self-gratifying, disconnecting us from the reality that surrounds us. At the same time, even as it lulls us from reality, it agitates us into a state of restlessness, which is one of the defining traits of addiction. Thus we find ourselves in a state of soporific agitation, unable to awaken ourselves from virtual reality to veritable reality and yet unable to find any rest in our narcissistic escapism.
In order to understand the deadliness of this distraction from reality, we should look to one of the greatest psychologists of all time, a psychologist far more qualified to understand the mind than even the greatest neurologist or neuropsychologist. I refer to the great angelic doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas. Once we understand what Aquinas says about our engagement with reality, we will understand the root cause of our disengagement from it.
In essence, St. Thomas shows us that humility is the beginning of wisdom because it is the necessary prerequisite for our eyes being opened to reality. One who has humility will have a sense of gratitude for his own existence and for the existence of all that he sees. This gratitude enables him to see with the eyes of wonder. The eyes that see with wonder will be moved to contemplation on the goodness, truth and beauty of the reality they see. Such contemplation leads to the greatest fruit of perception, which is what St. Thomas calls dilatatio, the dilation of the mind. It is this dilation, this opening of the mind to the depths of reality, which enables a person to live in communion with the fullness of goodness, truth and beauty.
Let us summarize: Humility leads to gratitude which sees with wonder, prompting the contemplation that leads to the dilation of the mind.
Our modern obsession with social media might be seen as an infernal inversion of this true order of perception. If humility opens our eyes to reality, pride shuts them, blinding and binding us with the arrogance of our own ignorance. Pride, or narcissism, sees only itself or, more correctly, it sees everything in the light or darkness of its own self-centredness. It is myopic. It cannot see beyond its own self-centre of gravity. It lacks gratitude. Such ingratitude leads to the cynicism which cannot experience wonder nor see the beauty inherent in reality. The lack of wonder makes contemplation on the goodness, truth, and beauty of reality impossible and therefore makes dilatatio unattainable.
Once again, let us summarize: Pride leads to ingratitude which lacks wonder, preventing contemplation and therefore closing instead of opening the mind.
Another way of saying the same thing is to say that humility takes time while pride merely wastes it.
Truly humble souls, filled with gratitude and wonder, take the time to stop in the midst of a busy day to sit in the presence of beauty. They open their eyes to the glories of God’s Creation and to the reflected and refracted glories of man’s sub-creation in art and literature, or else they close their eyes from all distraction so that they can listen to the singing of birds or the singing of choirs. Such time taken is the most joyful part of the day, a time when the mind communes with the reality of which it is a part.
Prideful souls, lacking both gratitude and wonder, waste their time with mindless distraction after mindless distraction, filling the vacuum that their mindlessness has created with whatever trash and trivia that their fingers or thumbs can deliver on the gadgets to which they are chained. For such people, these gadgets have become godgets, pathetic and petty gods which command their attention and rule and ruin their lives. Such people spend much more time with their godgets than with their God.
If we wish to have minds open to the presence of God we need to take time and not waste it. We need to take time in the silence of prayer or the silence of poetry. We need more time with trees and less time with trash and trivia. A tree, or a flower, or a sunset are priceless gifts for which a lack of gratitude is a sin of omission. We cannot ever be wasting time when we are taking it in wonder-filled contemplation.
To be or not to be. That is the question. To be alive to the goodness, truth and beauty which surrounds us, or not to be alive to it. To delight in the presence of Creation so that we might dilate into the presence of the Creator or to distract ourselves to death.
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