The Pope is clued into a huge culture crisis we are largely ignoring right now
Pope Francis: online media "can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously"
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here.
The latest zeitgeist commentary from that keen social observer and populist pundit, Pope Francis, has arrived like an Easter egg, hidden inside a larger basket of criticism focused on climate change. The Pope’s 192-page encyclical letter, mainly about global warming, also contains brief but scathing remarks on the digital filter we put on our human experience.
“When media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously,” he wrote in the letter.
This isn’t the first time Pope Francis has warned us of the dangers of a digital detritus he calls “mental pollution.” Last year, he instructed 50,000 German altar servers not to waste their precious time online, on phones and watching television.
Those activities “should simplify and improve the quality of life, but [instead] distract attention away from what is really important,” said Francis, who has a combined Twitter following of roughly 20 million souls across multiple languages.
It’s an important debate to have, and the leader of one of the world’s biggest religions is right to force it.
Taken as a whole, do our technological advances – news in real time, live global communication, access to more information and entertainment (and all the shades in between) than we could ever fully absorb – help or hurt the causes when those causes should be engaging with our lives to the fullest, and fostering peace, love and happiness?
There are legitimate rebuttals, especially around medical and diplomatic communication, that the Internet has led to many saved lives and much strife avoided (even if it was invented by the Pentagon).
The easier it is to communicate during a natural or health crises, the better. But I don’t think that’s what Pope Francis is really talking about when he complains about digital and media omnipresence. He means Tinder. Recruiting by ISIS. Cyberbullying. World of Warcraft. “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“Our life is made up of time, and time is a gift from God, so it is important that it be used in good and fruitful actions,” Pope Francis told the altar boys and girls.
You don’t have to believe in God to know that time is a gift and how we spend it is vital to our happiness and engagement with life. We should be perpetually asking ourselves the question put forth by the mindful Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The Pope is clued into a huge culture crisis we are largely ignoring right now. We are living only partially in reality, and probably too much virtually.
Intuitively we know this is true. That’s why we try to limit screen time for ourselves and our children. It’s why we give up Facebook for Lent. Why “off the grid” and “out of range” are synonymous with inner peace.
Like the universally popular doughnut, our digital distractions are sweet, addictive and neurologically tapped into pleasure receptors. But we also know they lack the essential nutrients we need, which is why we don’t eat them at every meal.
Cell phones, the research tells us, are the new cigarettes. Television violence leads to adult aggression. Texting while driving kills people. And in general, all the chatter is getting in the way of fully listening to our friends, co-workers and children.
“Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail,” Pope Francis said, is giving way to more fickle online relationships and “a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature.”
Think back on the happiest and most meaningful moments of your life.
You were fully present – mentally and corporeally – for them. These peak experiences (as defined by the brilliant psychologist Abraham Maslow) in which we are deeply engaged with the environment, or in a meaningful activity, or with other people, are not virtual by definition. Digital media not only lack those moments of engagement, but the Pope’s point is that they are an impediment to them.
Convinced? Here is all you need to start doing with this information: Be more aware of your relationship to media and digital interference. The more you are mindful of how often it prevents you from being present with what is real, the more you will want to lower the volume of its noise.
Start looking for happiness-making ways of replacing superfluous digital experiences. Forget fasting, just substitute some ingredients and see how it improves the taste of your one wild and precious life. Find your own ways to turn off, tune in and opt out of the mental pollution.
Nearly 20 years ago, in the beginning miles of the then-called “information superhighway,” I wrote a column titled Wisdom.not@cyberspace for my college newspaper (a less ironic medium for this topic than this digital essay), which argued mere information is empty and “wisdom comes from experience.” I quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson, as we all should more often, “Why covet a knowledge of new facts? Day and night, house and garden, a few books, a few actions, serve us as well as would all trades and all spectacles.”
Or as Pope Francis put it this week: “True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion.”
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I’m no Luddite. Most of my journalism career has been in a digital space, and as a health editor, I believe that information is also vital to making good personal decisions about our well-being and critical to dispersing the knowledge necessary to improve global health. “Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity,” Pope Francis wrote in his letter, and I think there are already some examples of that.
But at the same time, I also try to limit how much I’m on my phone when I talk to my daughters because I don’t want them to feel I value my relationship with email and Facebook more than them. And my wife and I monitor and guide their media consumption so that passive entertainment is just a small portion of their life. And as they get older, we will need to lead by example and help them navigate this issue so that they are mainly engaged by real world, not virtual, relationships with people and nature.
Everyone needs to find the right type and amount of digital media spectacles for themselves, and that ideal amount is probably less than it is right now.