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Those born in the US right after the Second World War arguably have had the easiest life of any humans ever living on the planet. This statement does not apply to people who served, suffered, and died in the Korean, Vietnam, and Middle East Wars or experienced natural disasters during that same era. But otherwise, let’s be honest: the ride for my generation has been easy, fueled by confidence in the American Dream and decorated by every comfort known to man.
Raised when the values and virtues defining our nation were taught to each child, I have been able to spend significant time in actively Communist countries and those previously devastated by Communism. How often I thought: “Ah, my homeland could never experience horrors like indiscriminate censorship, character assassination by legislative or political policy, or the tragic reduction of an individual’s life and legacy to the status of ‘non-person’ (regular features of life under Communism).” I wore my confidence like a badge of honor!
Yet, great minds have long warned us how naïve such confidence is. “Freedom stands only one generation away from disappearing.” Have we not heard this statement? Or, “When we cease teaching our foundational principles, they will disappear or be dismantled.” But I never believed it. Until now, as we watch a tsunami of events slamming into the underpinnings of our Constitution.
So where do we turn? What do we do? These questions are flooding conversations across this land, both in-person and online. The first answer, of course, is to return to and strengthen the roots and practice of our religious faith. That is always the first imperative, and in many ways, the last answer we need.
But as humans, we want tools to help us in our interface with the machinations of the world around us. One thing on my mind right now is the treasure-trove of maxims and proverbs that once were fastidiously taught to children in schools. Perhaps you have volumes of such sayings that guide moral choices and shape character, including those collected by George Washington. Similar gems were authored and published by other Founding Fathers like Benjamin Franklin. These words are golden and still 100% applicable in our lives.
Along this line, the effective practice of keeping a “copybook” wherein such pearls of wisdom can be recorded in the best-possible cursive is returning for both children and adults, enshrined even in certain curricula popular with this audience (Memoria Press, for example, offers a series of copybooks). And while the disintegration of our national foundations has not been caused merely by the loss of such wisdom, its loss has pierced deep chinks in those walls.
A sense of helplessness is rarely helpful. We humans were endowed with endless industry and ingenuity by our Creator, something our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents knew and relied on to survive the slings and arrows of their times. Maybe now we are coming to realize why they did their best to convey, through vivid stories, an understanding of the tumultuous decades of the First and Second World Wars and the Depression.
And here’s the real truth: dismal times are nothing new in the human experience. Humans will never stop hurting one another. The childish “Kumbaya” idea that we are all going to get along or improve by slapping new labels on A, B, and C is just that: childish. Childish ideas are meant to be outgrown:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. —I Corinthians 13:11
Most importantly, history delivers a message that even the worst times are survivable, even though many will suffer along the way. The human spirit has always, eventually, risen like the Phoenix to renew and restore. I believe that sincerely and take comfort in it.
Yet there is a troublesome new factor: technology. Technology has always been a mixed blessing. I love that moment in Downton Abbey when someone (was it Daisy?) greeted the news that a nearby family had installed electricity in the manor house’s kitchen with words like “Whatever for?” And then she pegged the downsides of this new technology. We chuckle at such a scene now. But the potential for fires and electrocution with the installation of the new technology of electricity was real.
But if generally a blessing, what are the curses of technology? Well, let’s consider several examples: technology has progressively weakened our independence and industry in nearly every endeavor. Player-piano rolls and gramophone cylinders dampened the need for us to acquire skills in order to make music. Radio may have enhanced our exposure to the world, but it took away our need to connect with each other insofar as information and entertainment. Film, starting with the “talkies,” limited the appeal and importance of that marvelous endeavor rooted in the brilliance of the Ancient Greeks: theater. Broadcast TV left far too many of us content to watch sports, rather than pursue them.
All of that pales with what computers and the internet have done to change the tenor of our daily lives. If ever there were an example of the proverbial “double-edged sword,” computer technology is it.
Who has not been blessed by, or dependent upon, this technology? Yet, as it progresses, its wonder fades. Do you remember when sending an email seemed astounding? I remember the day I first booted my computer to light up a color monitor. The shift from black & white to color in The Wizard of Oz was not nearly as dramatic!
May we never cease to be astonished every time we click to rent and play a film over the internet. Or visit with family members or take a class on Zoom. Yet these glories of man’s technological creativity have been so tainted by waves of mindless, ill-spirited, evil chatter and clatter. True, the historical record of dissimulating, grabbing power, and imposing servitude is the oldest story recorded. So is silencing freedom of thought and expression.
But these horrors used to require human actions as their agents. Soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire had to sail across the Adriatic to put down an early 16th-century revolt of Slovene peasants seeking relief from persecuting overlords. Jeeps and trucks stuffed with Gestapo had to drive to a Jewish watchmaker’s shop in order to drag him and his family into a truck and onto a railway car bound for Auschwitz.
Now, the nearly instant destruction of people, their livelihoods, their families, and their legacies, comes from a click on a piece of plastic. What could be easier, cleaner, quicker, or harder to repair?
If ever there was a time to ponder, indeed pray about, the role of technology in our individual lives, this is it. The baubles of technology remind me of those candies that explode in your mouth with a ting and rush of flavor, but leave the mouth dissatisfied and dull, craving the next thrilling piece.
What we want to do is find ways to use technology to nourish, and not destroy. I won’t rage about the unspeakable horror of little children parked in front of screens, rather than being read to, taught, led, encouraged, coached in games and sports, or instructed in creating beauty through crafts, dance, music, and visual art. That rage I express plenty, and I suspect many of you share it.
Rather here I am right in the pool with the rest of you. I dare not think how many hours I spend on the internet. Now some of that time is very much for good, whether it’s crafting material for our courses and publications, teaching online, or working with colleagues across the past eleven months to maintain as many of the offerings ordinarily enjoyed in conferences and symposia. Then there are the many things Hank and I do for our own education and edification like courses (Anthony Esolen on The Divine Comedy anyone? Highly recommended!) and tutorials. Thank heavens for YouTube videos that show how to put a new control board in our stove. (Tell me, when did four years become an average life for appliance parts?)
But each of us knows and has experienced the darker side of daily life on the internet. You also know how easy it is to be caught up, disenchanted, disheartened, and dismayed by what we see particularly in the low-level, crass, crude, and vicious comments found virtually at every site, be it a political essay or a group of reviews for a lawnmower.
What in the world has happened? The basic answer is annoyingly simple: families and public schools ended the instruction of our children in virtue and ceased to instill discipline, dignity, and self-reliance. The loss of the traditional family and the critical role models from noble and dedicated fathers, mothers, and extended family made it worse. The toleration of public crudeness and reviling behavior sealed the deal. Think of how much in what I have just described would have been instantly corrected or never tolerated by previous generations.
So yes, we see the problems. And we also must celebrate the increasing efforts of a vast number of folks to fix these problems, child by child, family by family, church congregation by church congregation. Let us never forget the extraordinary innovations (some of which are made possible through technology) that are restoring, refreshing, and strengthening not just us, but our families and whole communities of people who yearn for that which is noble again to occupy our minds and souls.
Some of today’s best minds are writing piercingly about what lies ahead and how we can harness our individual and communal resources and efforts. If history is our guide (and it always is), the entrepreneurial creativity of mankind is waiting in the wings to explode with new possibilities again. So, though, are the usual things that plague humanity, starting with the threatening forces of enemy nations (yes there are enemy nations) and the insidious aspects any new technology will pose.
As the author of Invictus reminds us, we are the master of at least part of our fate. So right now, for me, that means re-examining my relationship with technology. All that is helpful in our work here at Professor Carol will be retained and enhanced. But certain things will be left behind, starting with a “service” that, when historians analyze our era, is likely to earn endless derision: “Twitter.” Really, seriously, why have we let this take over our lives? More importantly, how did the emanations from this agency come to simulate truth? Historians will not judge us kindly here.
Today, let me close this longer-than-usual essay by mentioning how Europeans approach the consumption of sweets. Unlike the omnipresent cookies, candy bars, doughnuts, snack cakes, and every other overly sugared sweets intruding upon our lives, Europeans treat the consumption of sweets with restraint and respect. Pastries and tortes tend to be freshly made. They are only lightly sweetened and made with quality ingredients. Most importantly, they are consumed at specific times, with a degree of ceremony, conscious appreciation, and emphasis on enjoyment and conviviality.
The German and Austrian tradition for sweets, called Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake), takes place most days between 3 and 4 p.m. Usually, the table is nicely set. Modest slices of Pflaumenkuchen (plum torte) Bienenstich (cream-based torte with honey and almonds), Strudel (fresh dough filled with cherries, poppy seeds, or apples), and other treats are placed with care on real plates, eaten with real silverware, and accompanied by fresh coffee, hot tea, juice, bubbly water. Seasonal table décor is often added.
The experience of living in the cycle of nearly daily Kaffee und Kuchen is wonderful: sweets do not overwhelm your body with a sugar rush or wreck it with tons of calories. Plenty of the day is still before people for work, study, walking, and generally living. Consequently, until a recent invasion of Western junk foods, it was rare to see obesity problems in that part of the world (or the explosion of associated problems like diabetes).
Could we not approach our dependence on technology as the Germans approach consuming sugar? Rather than being bombarded by a swirl of chaos, as one gorges on bags of cookies and then complains about the side effects, let us figure out what is good, healthy, useful, or at least does no harm. Find the writers and resources that inspire and contribute to the quest for the “R’s” so many have embarked upon: rediscovering, renewing, revitalizing, reconstituting, resurrecting, and restoring the principles and expressions of goodness, tradition, and things that are true and beautiful. Anything outside of that has the potential to drag our human spirits down and dishearteningly cloud our vision.
Let us pray as those in previous centuries have prayed, starting with the countless millions affected across the centuries by plagues, interminable wars, and famines. Let us aspire to clad ourselves in their strength and wisdom. We do need each other—and always have! As a clever statement I read the other day says, “the Internet used to be where we went to escape real life; now real life is the place to go to escape the internet.” Come escape with me, at least a little, and join hands to restore our humanity.Published in