Friday, February 1, 2013

Conquering frivolity

Frivolity. American society is saturated and sick with it. For those of us who observe this with dismay, it seems there is little we can do to remedy it. The serious are always mocked by the frivolous, though not always without some justification. We will have long to wait, indeed, if we hope to see the benefit of our good example working in others– at those times when we are able to show a good example, that is, instead of being distracted or succumbing to the expedience of anti-social behavior to carry us through another weary day.

Distraction has stealthily become the sole attraction of survival, I think, for many Americans. For us, the routines of life, the things we spend the most time doing, and the places where we spend most of our time, have long since failed to inspire. In our jaded eyes, merited or not they take on the appearance of prisons, and every escape is welcome.

With few exceptions, it is difficult to find any place without distraction. Homes are filled with a constant inflow of all the noise, imagery, and information that computers, tablets, TVs, and radios provide. Even the gym has its tasteless pop music rolling while an array of flashing TV screens command unwary eyes. Advertising is as vile as it is ubiquitous. It is sometimes difficult to understand how any sensible person would subject himself to wasting 30 or 60 minutes watching a program, punctuated by commercials, which is in itself blatantly promoting some poorly thought-out attitude or lifestyle under a watery veneer of what passes for drama, humor, or romance. Noise in the car and in the shops, promotions on packaging, bags, and receipts, and everything in gaudier color, more distasteful lettering, and more obnoxious voice and appearance in order to be noticed above the rest of the din. Above all, let there be no simplicity, no rational thought.

Of course, we all say we're seeking peace, even if we do not use quite those words. Everyone is "just so busy," he could simply collapse with relief on the weekends if he had not even more demands on his time then than during the week. Still we long to get away from it all, think longingly of an extended vacation, mean to try yoga, mean to implement some new dietary advice, mean to "get organized" so that we can figure out how to extract any remaining drops of sanity to spend on the supposed improvement of our lives.

It would be grave folly to believe this way of life could be sustained, but I fear the great mass of people leading it cannot think past their immediate circle of primary distractions... money and bills, work, fuel, and social networking, to name a few. In fact we have joined that "mass of men [leading] lives of quiet desperation" so eloquently described by Thoreau.

Thoreau also wrote that he wanted "to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life..." Neither do any of us!

I will not attempt an exhausting amalgamation of the many self-help books and articles available as my own unique and branded path to fix everything wrong with the world. I may simply observe that without the essentials of a deliberate life, all advice is in vain. And what are the essentials of a deliberate life? Here are five.

1. Stillness and Quiet
We must demand some period of quiet reflection every day, even if it is only 10 minutes.

2. Prayer
Every day.

3. Reading
For pity's sake, turn away from the screen, put down the glossy magazine, and read a good, old, honest-to-goodness work of literature that will give your mind some meat. Be warned, however, that the consistency of meat is quite different from mashed peas.

4. Human Interaction
Meet people's eyes. Talk– and listen. Sometimes dare to imagine yourself as playing a supporting role in someone else's life. A community of bellyaching, belligerent, budding celebrities is no community at all.

5. The Outdoors
If you can't remember the last time you went outside for anything other than driving somewhere or catching a train, put the devices to sleep and go see what's out there. For all our admiration of the natural and organic, we may sometimes forget that people were made to live on this planet, breathe its fresh air, and feel its earth (or snow) underfoot.

"You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!” “Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

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