What you will rarely encounter in the digital world of today is a sense of tradition.
The change-over from daylight-saving time this weekend reminds me of a long-ago conversation with a business colleague from India. He found the notion of our biannual time shift both novel and disturbing.
“You can’t do that,” he said. He felt that this arbitrary manipulation of time runs counter to nature, which is surely true. “How do we know that we are here now, and not an hour ago?”
“Now” is a slippery business, an ever-moving sliver of time sandwiched between what has just happened and the not-yet. The past represents an infinite series of nows endlessly arriving and departing, gliding past their sell-by date with nary a backward glance. The future is forever heading this way, alighting for a moment to become now, and then retire into the past.
The current, salutary vogue for mindfulness bids us to focus on the moment, rather than have our thoughts kidnapped by ruminations on the past or concerns about the future. Mindfulness allows an individual access to a personal, subjective now, a portable personal sanctuary from the polyrhythmic drumbeat of change. Someday I shall try it.
Then there is the now of mindlessness. This altogether noisy now—the digital Babylon of the new, novel, momentous, scandalous, and sensational—endlessly colonizes our attention via the Internet, Twitter , TV, radio, news, popular entertainment, and advertising. Clicking and flicking, we are sucked willy-nilly into a swirling vortex of data, opinion and personalities, a psychic maelstrom devoid of perspective and reflection.
Mass media—and we, their faithful masses—provide a surrogate reality we engage with cognitively and emotionally. Information, which should teach, enlighten and inspire us, has, as social critic Neil Postman noted, “turned into a deluge of chaos” and “information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.”
We live in a quandary of fight-or-flight hyper-arousal, stressing our bodies and minds, narrowing our vision and producing “auditory exclusion,” so our hearing is reduced to our inner screams. What you will rarely encounter in our media’s iCloud of Unknowing is the past or a sense of tradition.
Albert Einstein called this the “modernist’s snobbery,” observing, “Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best the books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely nearsighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.”
Since now is the moment when we are most fully alive, do you really want to spend it in the company of pixels?
We discover something surprising once we step away from the carny fairway of mass media, and meander through the great works of the past. Whether we are listening to Mozart, gazing at a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, pondering Confucius, or reading the “Odyssey,” we are struck by the newness and nowness of the experience.
As G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”
This article appeared in the October 31, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal.