I hereby proudly present my first guest-post. My good friend Shawn shares some of his thoughts from his first year as a member of the LDS Church.
The Soft Apathy of Low Expectations
For over a year, Karl Stefanovic wore the same sports jacket every day that he co-hosted the show, “Today” on Australian’s Nine Network. For a year, no one noticed or otherwise called out that he wore the same blue blazer everyday on-air; not his staff, not his co-host, not even a single viewer. Mr. Stefanovic had a thesis that he wanted to illustrate by wearing the same jacket every day; that in today’s world, people often miss the simple things that are glaringly and repeatedly in front of them—things that would normally be obvious but are not because of the distractions that we choose to surround ourselves with. While mundane, not noticing Mr. Stefanovic’s coat is hardly a transgression, but his point and his example are symbolic—analogous to many spiritual situations that members encounter in society today and the topic I wish to address: the soft apathy of low expectations.
Too many distractions act as barriers between us and the relationship with the Spirit we should have and between us and our willingness to help others. As Saints, these distractions are often the secular ancillary activities that are increasingly damaging—and for some consuming—our spiritual relationships with ourselves and others. Our social media accounts, the movies and television shows we watch and our constant need of consumption (or otherwise idolatry) of these things are suffocating our spiritual wellness and impeding our potential to achieve the higher standards we should all strive for.
Lately, I have been fascinated considering the way technology, social media and the entertainment that we inundate ourselves with might be destroying the spiritual beauty in our lives without us knowing it. Most unfortunate, is that this spiritual harm is being inflicted largely without our conscious awareness and yet, with our willful and eager consent. Why is it that the things that seemingly distract us away from the Spirit the most are the things that truly matter the least? What should otherwise be obvious is obfuscated by the rote manner of worldly habits—where instead of meeting our responsibilities of serving spiritual nourishment to others, we accidentally abandon it out of an unconscious, self-focused apathy.
We live in what academics and commentators call the ‘postmodern’ world where the ideal of its inhabitants is to constantly seek a constructed reality better than reality itself. Essentially, this idea means that rather than deal with the world as we know it around us, we are increasingly allured to the world of make-believe. Our attraction to the world of make-believe removes us from the world God created for us and places us in a world we create for ourselves. It distracts us from establishing the kingdom of God on earth, from bringing others to the Spirit, from being in touch with the Holy Ghost. This is perhaps on no better display than our relationship—if not obsessive, than addictive—between contemporary films and television and the soaring popularity of social media. But the ideal realities of make-believe that postmodernity presents—and the one we too often immerse ourselves in—is a worse reality than no reality at all. More importantly—this kind of mindset is in direct opposition to Jesus, his teachings, his broader message and everything else we read in scripture. On this topic, Jesus and the words of our prophets are very plainly spoken.
“And he said unto them, ‘With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God,’ says Jesus in Luke 22:15-16. Far from the kingdom of God, the most popular television shows and movies today idealize a dystopian world where suffering and death are as indiscriminate as they are crude and nonsensical, where sex is always about power and manipulation; where the terrible ends always justify the horrific means; and where vulgarity is done for vulgarity’s sake without any rhyme or reason. Nudity and sex has always been pervasive in our media but the tone and direction these popular shows has taken in recent years have somehow presented itself as more acceptable to watch. The degradation of human life is not the message of Christ and should not be something we regularly entertain ourselves with.
In the first letter of John 3:16-18, we read, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.” Ratings get even higher when the next season of a show promises more deaths, gore and violence by zombies. This year’s highest grossing movie was all to quick to give us the satisfaction of having the bad guys get eaten by dinosaurs and a few innocent people too because, why not? “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Shows on HBO glorify revenge and torture as do Netflix originals, especially if you want to be President.
These are not the shows and movies on some of the time or even most of the time. Ever more gradually, these are the topics and the direction of our entertainment on all of the time and the ones we choose to watch. It does seem that the coarseness of our media is accidentally and increasingly resolving to be the attitude we adopt towards ourselves and others.
Likewise, our almost constant addiction to social media and the distraction it poses does not often augment our relationship with others—spiritual or not—it hinders it. In today's age, there is hardly a time, situation or event when checking our Facebook feed, opening our Snapchat account or viewing the latest picture uploads on Instagram is not inappropriate or somehow justified. Perhaps even right this very moment. Never underestimate a human’s capacity to defend itself from an addictive behavior.
A study was recently completed that asked several individuals who are smokers, drinkers and social media users to give up all three for a week. To study the effects of addictiveness, after seven days the individuals were given the option to have one of their habits back. Unanimously, everyone asked for their phones back so they could check their Facebook accounts, forgoing cigarettes and alcohol. If we cannot help ourselves from stopping to do something, then we have become addicted, and that is hardly ever a good thing. Just because the Words of Wisdom does not proscribe an act, that does not mean that the action is any less mitigated if we do it. Perhaps as Saints we have become too entrenched by the repetitiveness and limited set of issues that we constantly focus on that make us believe we are being good Mormons, that we lower our expectations and lose sight of the bigger picture of what it really means to be a Christian. Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts or processes.
More and more, social media makes us fail to rise to the better angels of our nature and skews us to sink in the pit of shallowness of ‘swipe left’ or ‘swipe right.’ Rather than judging others on the content of their character, we deem worthiness on the perceived physical appearance of others. While intending to bring us closer together, social media has become all too impersonal, often silly and unproductive. Relationships are built on trust. With no trust, we have no relationships and social media often exposes our insecurities to the world.
Following the news feed of others does not give us a true sense of how someone is doing, it gives us a constructed one, making us all too apathetic. It gives us a false sense that we are actually reaching out into the lives of others- simulating a better reality that we find appealing. Recently, researchers found that those who used social media exclusively or even as the primary means to track or follow up with their friends knew less than those who used no social media at all. The realities that are projected on social media are repeatedly the ones we want others to think and to know. Conversely, we have been all too willing to rely on the outsourced management of what used to be some of the most intimate and personal of relationships to algorithms crafted by engineers in Silicon Valley who give us the updates we want to have and share the things we want to know. When did we become so distracted that we are willing to delegate our relationships to math equations? I do not know, but we do.
Prayer is direct, personal and confidential with God. So too should our communications be with each other. We alienate the Holy Ghost through our constant trivial distractions and miss cues and opportunities to help others when they need it the most. It takes effort to keep in tune. When we do, there’s room to hear more subtle things—that is when our intuition starts to blossom and we are able to see things more clearly and be in the present. Our minds slow down and we see so much more than what we could see before.
As a convert, the most significant milestone in my spiritual life has been meeting with missionaries. It is not a coincidence that missionaries are not allowed to watch movies or television or use social media. It does keep them more connected with the Spirit than they otherwise would be—focused in on the task at hand. Maybe we all should strive to be more like missionaries so we can more readily engage these profound relationships with members and non-members alike.
I do not mean to suggest that we should not go to the movies or use the Internet or to tell anyone what to do. We get enough of that already. Social media has its purpose as does our means of entertainment. After all, Jesus led a secular life for 30 years before his ministry. However, the constructed and make-believe realities of television and movies should never be confused with anything other than fiction—to say nothing of ideal. Moreover, social media should never interfere with our own spiritual development or get in the way with us bringing others closer to Christ or helping another in need. Too often it does just that.
Is this likely to stop? Right now, the reality of the situation indicates no, probably not. Our consumption and usage of social media and entertainment controls us, we do not control it. As bad as it is now, it is only going to get worse over time and with each new generation. Despite addressing this topic, we are likely to again revert to our old habits. We will continue our obsession with the television shows we probably should not watch and go to the same lengths to make sure we watch them—even if that means breaking the law to download them. Always doing it, cannot stop doing it, breaking the law to do it; the true sign of addiction. We will continue to view our world in terms of how many 'likes' we can get and use dating apps for...whatever reason it is again that we use them. Again, my goal here is not to tell anyone what to do. I could not change anyone's behavior on this topic even if I wanted to. My goal is to change the way we think. The first stop of solving of problem is recognizing there is one.
We always should try to hold ourselves and others to a higher standard, to have higher expectations. When we do, our apathy that results from our distractions fades away. We again start to see what is right in front of us and more appropriately act in a manner that spreads and fulfills Christ’s message.