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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.

St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas

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. 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.

Praying-hands-with-bibleIf 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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15 replies to this post
  1. “A few years ago I was walking one Sunday evening along a country road in a remote part of New England, and on passing a farmhouse saw through the window the members of the family around the lighted lamp, each one bending over a section of a “yellow” journal. I reflected that not many years before the Sunday reading of a family of this kind would have been the Bible. To progress from the Bible to the comic supplement would seem a progress from religious restraint to a mixture of anarchy and idiocy.” – Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College, 1908.

  2. I agree. In addition, it occurs to me that in the past people sought out amusements. Now, they remain stationary and amusements parade themselves before their eyes. This trend has become so ingrained that I have noticed for many people, anything for which they have to get up and leave the house is too much trouble. Why change clothes, jump in the car and go somewhere for amusement, when they can remain motionless and amusements vye for their attention. In addition, they can order takeout which relieves them of the necessity of even procuring or preparing a meal. I see more and more people, especially younger people, who spend less and less time actually leaving the house.

    I ran into this last night struggling with my 13 year old to leave the house for 6pm Palm Sunday mass. He was quite comfortable sitting amongst his entertainment. I pointed out to him that he counted on the fact that God would be there and make Himself available whenever my son needed to talk to Him or needed help, even though He was the most powerful being in the universe. And yet, he felt hard done by at the thought of being required to sacrifice an hour of his time to make himself available to God. Our pride and self absorption exceeds that of all former generations, or perhaps it only seems that way.

  3. Communication guru Marshall McLuhan was a follower of St. Thomas and mentioned his influence on much of his own communication theory, warning users of technology(medium) to remain vigilant to the effects of technology we use.
    McLuhan always believed that if you really listened, and saw and felt, you could perceive correctly.

  4. There is a great story about a family moving into a new home close to an Amish community. As they were unloading all their technological appliances, an Amish man came by in his horse and buggy. “Come and see me if any of those things break” offered the Amish man. The family was surprised and responded “You know how to fix all these things?” “No”, I can’t fix any of them” responded the Amish man. “But I can teach you how to live without them”.

    • I love this story. Thanks for sharing this. I have been an admirer of the Amish lifestyle for some time. I love the way their lifestyle is unaffected by our technology and materialism.

  5. Cheryl, I glad you enjoyed that story. While the Amish lifestyle clearly isn’t for everyone, there is so much we can learn from them in matters of faith community and interdependence. Have a blessed Holy Week.

  6. And the great contributions of the “Amish” to civilization and the advancement of man are…

    I am the sworn enemy of social media and have not owned a television in 15 years, but I find “technology” a glorious thing and something for which we should feel “humbled”, to use Mr. Pearce’s inspired word. The fact that I am on this screen writing my thoughts, will jump on a plane in short order to visit an ailing relative, and will wish Easter Greetings to other family members by phone as we cannot be together due to distance, is a great thing.

    The slackers who cannot get out of the house because they are on Facebook all day or Twitter or whatever-the-heck would, in an another era, other technologies, be good-for-nothing anyways. These things are a matter of personality.

  7. Marcia, as someone who has been homebound for several months due to illness, I certainly appreciate phones, computers and other blessings of technology. At the same time, I think there is much we can learn from the Amish on such subjects as forgiveness, simplicity, and community. It would also seem that the presence of the Amish , and Hasidic Jews, shows that a technologically rich life is not synonomous with a spiritually rich life. The Amish, Hasidic Jews, and other groups that eschew much of the electronic revolution may serve as a check on the atomization and self-absorption of our internet driven culture.

    It is true that excessive self involvement existed long before Facebook and Twitter. It would also seem true that Facebook and Twitter make self involvement that much easier.

  8. Thank you so much for this article! Although the only social media I engage in is an online homeschool group, I can see many days where I am very absorbed with the interaction there and am aware of my attachment and *need* to immediately join in every conversation. There is a great tendency to be *noticed* and *affirmed* no matter what media we are engaged in.

    I do take time for contemplation especially in nature but I would like to try an entire day with no technology to see if my agitation and restlessness would decrease. Maybe…just maybe…there would be less distraction amongst my prayer and contemplation.

    Excellent food for thought.

  9. I really like the connection you say St. Thomas made between humility, gratitude, wonder and contemplation. It makes Thomas sound very Chestertonian, or Chesterton very Thomistic. Would you be able to give a couple references in St. Thomas for the further exploration of these connection?

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