Thursday, July 12, 2007

Time Off from the World of Things I Can't Do Anything About

"I'm in awe of the news junkies who can watch three screens at once and maintain their up-to-the-minute data without plunging into despair or cynicism. But I have a different sort of brain. For me, knowing does not replace doing. I find I sometimes need time off from the world of things I can't do anything about so I may be granted (as the famous prayer says) the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

--Barbara Kingsolver, "The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don't Let Him In" in Small Wonder

It was a few years ago now I was talking to one of my friends about the information age and the guilt (and, as Kingsolver here adds, the despair) it can so easily bring about. A world of instant communication means that it can easily feel like we should be up-t0-date on everything all the time because we can be. That up-to-date-ness can, in the wrong circumstances, become a sort of passive despair, in which we spend much of our lives hearing about other lives, many of which are sad ones we can do very little about.

A world of instant communication, as Kingsolver implies, also means that we must narrow down our attention to those things that matter most. Of course, the challenge is to keep that latter part--things that matter most--and not shift it into "things I'm most comfortable with." The danger is to narrow down only to the things and the people we like, not allowing ourselves to be challenged by serendipitous chance encounters or by the things and people that we're uncomfortable with.

The challenge, therefore, is to stay aware of the world, but to balance that awareness with action, with our own contributions and participations where we can. A key to this, I think, is to fight back against the constant input, taking back moments for reflection on the things we're absorbing. The best actions often begin with stillness--something that despite all the noise around us can be remarkably easy to take back when one gives an effort.

On the whole, as Kingsolver suggests, the serenity prayer is more important than ever in our information age. And her suggestion that knowing should not replace doing is a good reminder to me, not just as an information consumer, but also as an avid reader and an academic who spends much of my time absorbing information and stories in the worlds of books.

It's a good reminder to me to join the conversation as much as I listen in, to take time not just to ponder, but also to talk to people, to write down and polish my thoughts and then to seek to get them out there in the world. (Of course, it also reminds me that there are other, even more physical actions I can take, and that I should occasionally get out in the world and take them.)