Those Crazy Jesuits

Anyone who looks at the history of my posts can see that I’ve slowed down. Part of this is because I really want to have original, thoughtful, meaningful content. I follow at least one mental health/social science blog which is relentless in its postings, but not always interesting. I also see blogs which are more conduits than sources. This can be good, actually. So here’s something I ran across that struck me.
Adolfo Nicolás S.J., the current Superior General of the Society of Jesus, recently delivered an address entitled Depth, Universality, and Learned Ministry: Challenges to Jesuit Higher Education Today. He challenged students in Jesuit institutions to pursue depth in an online world.
Fr. Nicolás addresses SI students in 2009However, I think that all of you have experienced what I am calling the globalization of superficiality and how it affects so profoundly the thousands of young people entrusted to us in our institutions. When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one’s blogs or micro-blogs; when the latest opinion column from the New York Times or El Pais, or the newest viral video can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perceptions and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.

One can “cut-and-paste” without the need to think critically or write accurately or come to one’s own careful conclusions. When beautiful images from the merchants of consumer dreams flood one’s computer screens, or when the ugly or unpleasant sounds of the world can be shut out by one’s MP3 music player, then one’s vision, one’s perception of reality, one’s desiring can also remain shallow. When one can become “friends” so quickly and so painlessly with mere acquaintances or total strangers on one’s social networks – and if one can so easily “unfriend” another without the hard work of encounter or, if need be, confrontation and then reconciliation – then relationships can also become superficial.

When one is overwhelmed with such a dizzying pluralism of choices and values and beliefs and visions of life, then one can so easily slip into the lazy superficiality of relativism or mere tolerance of others and their views, rather than engaging in the hard work of forming communities of dialogue in the search of truth and understanding. It is easier to do as one is told than to study, to pray, to risk, or to discern a choice.

One doesn’t have to be Christian, or even religious to perceive the justice of some of these remarks. On the other hand, the phrase “mere tolerance of others and their views” suggests to me that the Superior General needs to get out and  mix it up more, as he suggests others do. My experience in the real world is that tolerance of others and their views is hard work and comes at a personal cost.
At the same time I have to say that I’ve seen almost the opposite of the phenomenon he decries– I’ve known people to have online relationships which were at first engrossing and later heartbreaking, all with the certain knowledge that the people involved would almost certainly never be in the same city. Still, plenty of food for thought there.
One morsel, for me, is the point that while we are confronted with a multiplicity of choices, we are frequently confronted with choices which are, for the most part, meaningless. Let me use my favorite example. If you’re an American, walk down the cereal aisle in a grocery store. What do you see? A multitude of choices, right? But start reading labels with attention to detail, and it basically boils down to oats, wheat, rice, corn, hot or cold, and how much sugar was added. The rest is packaging. The apparent wealth of choices is  really meaningless. I think this is a source of psychic frustration and anger for us all. There are huge industries geared toward making us feel that certain choices are very important, when they’re actually of minor importance. And I think the online world exacerbates the problem.
Time to go re-read Frankl’s book,  Man’s Search for Meaning.

About jamesmatter

Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT) in private practice in San Francisco. I work with adults, adolescents, and couples, with focus on substance use and abuse and co-occurring disorders (having both a mental illness and an addiction).
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