Friday, April 11, 2014

One Week to a More Meaningful Life: A Meditation on Depth

There is irony even in blogging this topic, because the screen in front of me as I type this is an early 2009 24" iMac (still going strong). We purchased it kind of early in the advent of our now-ubiquitious flat screens. The iMac spreads out in front of my eyes offering Rothko-like breadth, encompassing a majority of my visual space if I look straight ahead.

Nevertheless, there's no depth. If I stand up and look behind the iMac, there's just about an inch of computer embedded there behind the screen, nothing more, and behind that screen is a wall, with about four inches of air between the computer and the wall.

Presumably if you are reading this post on an iPhone or laptop computer, you also are reading on a device that offers the illusion of depth while physically enacting the lack of it. Many of us quite a lot of the time are now peering out into the world by staring at thin strips of almost nothing.

We are confronted with the paradox that the very device that seems to offer greater physical extension into the world than ever before itself narrows that extension to a physical sliver.

As antidote to this, I have been attempting this past week to experience the world through the eyes of my son. He naturally discovers a depth to the universe I overlook. Earlier this week, we walked the watershed next to our church. Whereas I have seen the watershed primarily as a small barrier between our parking lot and the property adjacent, he discovered worlds in it--living creatures, abandoned mattresses, sharp glass and gurgling stream.

Today, this time at a real park, he heard the distant shrill of a train, and decided to walk to wherever the tracks might be. Forget about wifi. To see a train you have to find the tracks. You can't google it. While chasing a train, you might get distracted by an ant. At three, you're still that close to the ground.

When we are at a park, there is a screen in my back pocket. Increasingly, I avoid using it. It gives me the illusion I am extended to a wider public, a wider world, but when I attend to it, I stop perceiving the actual depth of world and relationship right in front of me.

I lift these observations not as a neo-Luddite commentary on technology, but rather as a call to balance in my own life and the lives of others. Screens do offer extensions of ourselves into all kinds of worlds, many of them beautiful. But they are best used as extensions rather than distractions.

I have been experiencing something similar as we prepare for Holy Week. It occurs to me that most of us keep time differently than we used to. A calendar based on holy days has become foreign and strange to us. Our new calendars are booked, always, busy to the point of breaking. Practice is every Thursday, without exception. There are no special Thursdays. Even Sundays as worship, or Saturdays as rest, have stolen themselves away and been replaced by an eternal Now! a demanding Go! and a tiresome Strive!

What might it mean to give a whole week over to God, to worship, to prayer? In a world with no depth, in times with no pause, prayer becomes a waste of time. Monks are neither wrong or ridiculous. They're simply beyond our ken.

I spent part of last week reading Terry Eagleton's remarkable Culture and the Death of God. Here's a passage from it screen-captured from Google books:
Excerpted from Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God, 2014
Eagleton believes the postmodern condition is best defined, at least in part, as a loss of depth. This is a loss of every kind of depth. Postmodernism shifts away from the metaphysical depths of pre-modernity not through the death of God, but rather through the experience of no depth at all. Similarly, the depth of subjectivity and interiority are lost, part of a "clapped-out metaphysics."

Eagleton makes these observations not to dismiss postmodernism or modernism per se--we are all, after all, inextricably caught up in modernist and postmodernist movements even when we would like to think we transcend them. The more you criticize postmodernism, the more you are postmodernist.

Instead, Eagleton's goal is to illustrate how the rise of culture as a category and the death of God proclaimed theologically in the mid-20th century and again in new ways now, are part and parcel one of the other.

This is why so many postmodern people are completely perplexed why a person might experience a call to join a monastery that devotes itself to the life of prayer. It isn't that they don't believe in God, exactly. It's more like they don't even know there are inner places one could go to which you can only travel through the depth of prayer.

Similarly, those who give up material comforts, divest themselves of aspirational careers, spend their energy going lower, lesser, into a self-less self that makes meaning along measures the measurelessness of postmodernism cannot imagine. What are they up to? They aren't wrong, exactly. They're simply incomprehensible, off the horizon into some foolhardy zone, another country.

I think the greatest danger of staring at this screen is precisely this. I will type this blog, and submit it to the world, and hang my existential hopes on the possibility that many of you will read it (how many is enough?), and I will get my meaning, my sense of purpose, through the illusion of depth that is actually no depth at all. In the meantime, just on the other side of the wall, behind my screen, another world awaits. It's one all of us will be prone to romanticize, now that I've raised our awareness. Some of us will drift off to gardening catalogs, or try to listen to the birds better, or go out and look at the stars tonight instead of browsing Facebook status updates. And that might not be a bad thing.

But that still won't be depth. We are inescapably in the position of thinking, because our technologies have permanently changed our apperceptions, that the night sky is actually an app on our iPhone and if we just squint we'll see the outlines and labels for the constellations; that the party we attend this evening is almost like a movie; that this one flower I saw today would look best through an Instagram filter.

There's no going back, in other words. A flat world is all we have left. It will take a miracle to re-discover depth on the other side of the flat screen that is now our world. But miracles do happen. We walk with Christ towards one this Holy Week. Even time is flat now, so we'll have to see what Christ does with that.

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