‘See you in September” is almost upon us, and you may find yourself with that common mid-August/Sunday night/Christmas Eve/birthday question: Where did the time go?
The most recent issue of Fast Company is being positively retro or ironic or, if you really were to run with it, countercultural, in suggesting, in Twitter-ese, that we “#UNPLUG.” The cover declares: “My life was crazy. So I disconnected for 25 days. You should too.”
I myself, while Tim Gray was speaking at the recent Napa Institute conference, spent the entire 45 minutes or so on Twitter (@kathrynlopez). I was listening to every word he said, mind you — even taking notes on my iPad — as I “live tweeted” his advice. There was no question Gray was being countercultural. At the first day of this gathering of Catholic leaders — bishops, priests, religious sisters, and laity in many walks of life, businessmen as well as people working at expressly Catholic endeavors — the theme was work. And Gray, a biblical scholar and professor at the Augustine Institute in Denver, told those gathered to quit it, already. That is, he offered an extended and challenging meditation on our overconnectedness and the necessity of respecting the Sabbath.
The conference itself, at which I also spoke, was on “The Next America,” hitting on fundamental questions we’re grappling with as a society. But we’ll never have any deep or enduring success — or semblance of peace — unless we do tackle the fundamentals of life. When our lives are disarrayed and disordered, we shouldn’t be surprised that our politics and policy and culture are too.
The Augustine Institute probably didn’t gather to live-tweet the recent Teen Choice Awards on Fox — it was shown, after all, on a Sunday. But I couldn’t help but hear Gray’s talk replaying as Ashton Kutcher, at 35 the old guy in the group — he joked that the Ultimate Choice Award he was receiving was “the grandpa award” — offered serious advice about getting the most out of life to an arena full of screaming girls. Their emotionally off-key reactions were even more distressing than what seemed emblematic of the death of real art and creativity: the “photobombing” theme of the evening.
At 10 o’clock on Sunday night, the photobombing seemed the pinnacle of our worst reality-TV, self-centered trends. That is, until Kutcher tried to explain the value of the intellectual life. As you may have seen by now on one of myriad Internet sites, his use of the word “sexy” — meant, no doubt, to draw the girls into his argument — only elicited crowd calls for him to “take it off.” His message about working hard and using your intelligence seemed to have gotten lost.
Kutcher was trying to use his celebrity to humanize the hype, even as the screaming droned on and the iPhones stayed up. (Is there any event any more when we don’t simply see a sea of mooted presence as we all catch images for our digital posterity, in the process missing the actual graduation or concert or Supreme Court swearing-in at the White House?) “Success” requires work and even sacrifice, the star of Dude, Where’s My Car? and now of the new movie about Steve Jobs told teens whose hearts seemed to be beating to a different drum, especially as he implored them to be generous and “thoughtful.” (Faint cheers in response. Maybe they were deep in contemplation?)
He told them, “Opportunity looks a lot like hard work. I’ve never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job, and I never quit my job until I had my next job. And so opportunities look a lot like work.”
He urged them to be aware of their own inherent dignity, and to know they can “build their own things” but that they must build for others as well. “You can build your own life that other people can live in. So build a life. Don’t live one, build one.” His message wasn’t one of radical individualism but rather of humanity and decency, with an unstated but evident awareness of the misery that can plague our hearts — a bit of a spiritual depression Americans are living in, even as the cars keep driving on the roads and movies are made and children are born.
I heard Tim Gray in the background at the Teen Choice Awards because his plea that we refuse to allow schedules and demands to take away from needed contemplation is the key element for the kind of fruitfulness Kutcher invited those kids into. The Sabbath observance that Gray urged helps reorient us toward God. Our rest is in Him, Gray reminded us, as He renews our hope, giving us meaning and purpose beyond ourselves and what’s weighing on us. This is key for our souls, but also for the soul of a nation and a culture. “If we lose the ability to gaze with wonder on the gifts of God,” Gray reflected, “we will have no good life to share.” We’ll cease to create things that inspire people to that which is good and beautiful. We’ll be stuck in photobombing.
The Sabbath is a time for teaching, for worship, and for remembering, Gray said. Rooting his argument in the ancients, he cited the Greek insight that “Memory is the mother of the muses,” essential to the arts and the life of the mind and essential for shaping identity. The Sabbath is a “sanctuary in time.”
Don’t let the omnipresence of the digital distance us from others and even from our own deepest thoughts and desires. Kutcher reintroduced the idea of man as a social being to a “social media” generation looking at the world through the eyes of their iPads, hearing only what is programmed on their iPods. Don’t despair of missing summer rest — instead, remember that our dedicated day of rest is never more than six days away. We ought not be depressed about our prospects, but dedicated to renewal. It’s worth Sundays’ effort.