How should an Orthodox Christian respond to the overabundance of information which bombards us on a minute-by-minute basis — through our computers, televisions, and especially our phones? While such sensory overload is certainly worse than ever before, we must realize that the struggle to attain true knowledge and wisdom is nothing new.
This article first appeared in Orthodox Life Vol. 67.1. It will be republished online in several parts.
According to the American College Health Association (ACHA) the suicide rate among young adults, ages 15–24, has tripled since the 1950s. Suicide is currently the second most common cause of death among college students. The statistics among other age groups in Western countries are not better. Further, the socio-economic background of one who takes his life does not seem to matter. Very often the person taking his own life seems to have everything necessary for a comfortable existence: finances, personal achievements, fortune… More often than not, the person, by all accounts, has no mental illness. Naturally the question arises: what would force an individual to take his own life? Whatever the reason, it is clear that in our society today, suicide, primarily among teenagers, is reaching epidemic proportions. Why?
On the surface it may seem that there is a multitude of complicated reasons for this. Yet, in what now is definitely a “post Christian era,” if we honestly analyze the situation we will see that the root cause is basically always the same. Simply speaking, we were all created by God to live in full communion with our Creator and share in His Divine Glory. When God is taken out of our lives, a spiritual vacuum is formed. We attempt to fill this vacuum by various distractions, but no matter how hard we try, nothing can truly satisfy our longing. If we do not find our way back to God (and in Orthodox terminology we call this process repentance), despair and despondency set in, which often lead to suicide. In other words, when one is spiritually dead, it seems only logical to attain the same state physically.
We are all familiar with the ways contemporary man attempts to fill the spiritual emptiness that reigns in his heart as a result of his withdrawal from God. Some turn to alcohol, some to drugs, others to an obsession with physical pleasures and debauchery; still others become preoccupied with the pursuit of material goods. It is said that the average American “goes shopping at the mall or on line” to raise his spirits. Many deal with their depression by overloading themselves with work, becoming so called “workaholics.” All of these are things that people do to deaden that empty feeling that gnaws from within, that feeling that perhaps they do not even realize is a longing to be with God—God Who created them, loves them, yet about Whom they know very little, if anything.
In the past two decades a new distraction has appeared, a new method of deadening one’s spiritual faculties. This phenomenon is feasibly the most dangerous to come along, because on the surface it seems innocent, and even healthy at first, and has achieved such universal acceptance. This phenomenon is the obsessive preoccupation with the acquisition of knowledge and information. Let us call this phenomenon “Informational Sensory Overload.”
Informational Sensory Overload
To illustrate what we mean by Informational Sensory Overload let us look at a hypothetical, typical day in the life of the average Joe Smith of our day:
Joe wakes up in the morning to the sound of his alarm clock which is pre-set to an all-news radio station. Even before he is fully awake, he is bombarded with information, some useful but mostly useless. When he finally gets himself out of bed and into the kitchen for breakfast, his attention is split between his computer tablet and the small television in the corner of the kitchen. He checks for any emails that may have come in during the night as well as the various “social media apps” so as to keep up with the exploits of his friends. His attention may be even more fragmented if he has a remote control device and is able to “surf” between morning programs on the television.
When he finishes his morning preparations, he gets in his car, where along with the ignition, the radio is activated. He can listen to the morning news reports or be soothed by the pounding music of his choice. If he is anywhere but on the lowest rungs of the social ladder, he will have a smartphone, through which he can join the arguments on the radio talk show, get the latest stock quotes, or return phone calls which have accumulated on his voice mail list – all while going nearly 70 miles per hour down the highway on the way to work. Once at work, the information influx does not cease. Besides the information needed to actually do his work, there is the office radio that is constantly on in the background playing so called “Muzak.” At coffee break, Joe is free to browse the Net during brief conversations with co-workers. During lunch hour, Joe has taken to jogging in a near-by park. This is done again with the accompaniment of his smartphone. He either listens to music, some podcast lecture, or makes phone calls. He is oblivious to the chirping of the birds in the park, the earphones block out all natural sounds. After another half day at work and a ride home listening to the radio Joe is back home. He sits in his car in the garage until the in-depth news story on the public radio station runs its course.