Convenience, Spheres, and the Problem With Movements - Part 1
CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President
I need to roll away the stone. Allow me to explain.
My new kitchen countertops were installed this week, and I’m a little embarrassed about it. For anyone who has done a kitchen remodel lately, you know that the process of selecting, measuring, procuring, custom crafting, and installing a countertop can be onerous. So I was really pleased with my first encounter with the company doing our work who not only scheduled a timely visit for measuring, but also set a date for installation at the same time. Problems arose, however, when a third party involved in the order failed to mention to the company that we needed a single-well sink rather than a standard double. Thus, the drawings were slightly delayed, and by the time everything was approved the product we had selected was on backorder.
That call came on a Monday morning and, though I didn’t berate or belittle the representative, my displeasure certainly came through. The call couldn’t have lasted longer than 30 seconds but when I got off the phone, I realized that throughout the encounter my goal was to make her feel bad about something which she and the company had no control over; the product simply wasn’t available. I’m sure she wasn’t looking forward to making that call, and I didn’t help matters. Instead, my passive-aggressive behavior set the tone for her work week by taking a small chip out of her humanity. I exacted a cost. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to apologize when she called the following week to reschedule the installation, but that got me thinking of all the other insignificant events that I allow to enter into my consciousness and stew. A “next-day” delivery that takes two days. Standing in a line of more than four at a checkout counter. Being placed on hold when calling customer service. Traffic. I have become so accustomed to modern conveniences, I am actually annoyed by inconvenience. And I don’t think I’m alone.
While there have been numerous groundbreaking scientific achievements over the past quarter century that will benefit mankind immensely, many of the technological advancements influencing society most greatly center around one thing - convenience. In many instances, we’ve overengineered things to the point of making our actions and activities nearly meaningless. How many regrettable late-night purchases would be foiled if we had to take the time to fill in our delivery address and credit card information rather than simply pressing “Buy Now”? Do we really need shelf-scanning refrigerators that alert us when we are low on milk? Do cars really need to store driver profiles to automatically adjust seat positions based on who’s behind the wheel?
We’ve reduced the cost of most transactions - human and other - to a point just north of zero. Our goal each day is weightlessness: to experience the least physical, cognitive, and emotional friction possible so when our heads hit the pillow at night we feel like a feather being added to down.
The problem is, despite our best efforts, weightlessness isn't ever really possible. The realities of the world weigh us down with conflict, uncertainty, and regret. Most of us want to do what’s right, but the issues we face within our sphere of influence are complex. Add to that the myriad of larger social issues, and things seem overwhelming. How do we resolve and/or reconcile things conveniently so our sleep is restful? Enter the balms of social media and 24-hour news - the penultimate convenience breakthroughs. Here we are able to quickly and effectively survey the latest events, associate accordingly, and feel empowered by liking/sharing/retweeting. Sometimes, we might text a four-digit number to donate $10 to an urgent cause. Other times we might choose to “make our voices heard” by adding our name to an online petition. Once we’ve done these civic duties, weightlessness returns. It is time for bed.
On its face, there is nothing wrong with the above scenario. In fact, in many ways, we are adapting to current times the same way humankind has always adapted. Toward efficiency. Toward things that make us feel safe and in control.
Recently, though, I think we may have crossed a threshold that needs to be recognized. It is now perfectly possible to be a “good person” while leading a life devoid of human intimacy. And many of us are ok with that.
This thought struck me during the Easter homily. The priest was recounting the scene of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, establishing a beautiful image of the stone having been rolled away to allow light to enter. Then the priest reflected on how he often prefers to remain sealed shut, the stone firmly in place, safe and secure. I recognized the same in myself.
Rolling the stone away leaves us vulnerable. Others can peer inside, and perhaps even enter. They can judge and even reject. Still, moving the stone is the only way for light to penetrate, and without light we cannot see and understand. We cannot find comfort in a familiar view, be awed by beauty, or experience warmth from a shared smile. Rolling the stone away illuminates our purpose, showing the way. Joy is found in the light.
The problem is that we cannot remain weightless and expect to move the stone. This is the incongruence of our modern life and one of the reasons, I believe, that so many people are suffering, depressed, and anxious.
This is normally the point in my CrossCurrents posts where I attempt to tie everything together and establish a connection to Catholic schools. But, alas, the treatment needed to do so requires substantially more space and I fear I have already exceeded the limits of your generosity and attention. Thus, I hope you will entertain Part 2 of this post which I will send next week. The primary topic will be on one of the great gifts of Catholic Social Teaching, the principle of subsidiarity.
vol 4 issue 9