Friday, April 27, 2018

Wonko the Sane is taking a few days off from the asylum

“It seemed to me,' said Wonko the Sane, 'that any civilization that had so far lost its head as to need to include a set of detailed instructions for use in a package of toothpicks, was no longer a civilization in which I could live and stay sane.”
― Douglas Adams, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

I'm offline at home or a few days. I have limited monthly internet. I can use it up fast by binge-watching Netflix shows, but it means when it's done I have to wait 'til the ricarica date to get more. It's a good system, actually. Like a failsafe. Use it too much and it forces you to take a break. I'll be coming in once a day or so to check messages at the wifi cafe in the village, to see how the horror show is going, but the innernet's off at home, and thank God.

After even a short time away the difference is striking. Sticking your head into the internet all the time is like - as Kathy Shaidle memorably put it - shaking up a bag of feral cats then sticking your head in to see how they're doing. Already I can feel my brain defaulting to its original settings. I read three chapters yesterday of a book - an actual book! - by Christopher Dawson I've been meaning to get into for years.

Last week I had one of those days when you just want to run away from the innernet screaming. I had an encounter on Twitter with a woman who I'm sure thought of herself as a good and devout Catholic – clearly superior to me! – who thought it was just wonderful that Pope Francis had told a young boy that he, the pope, was “certain” the boy’s deceased atheist father was in heaven. I was scolded because I insisted that a child, like all human beings, has a right to the truth, and that only the Real counts. The pope had deprived this child of an opportunity to do the good and holy work of praying for the repose of his father's soul.

The woman, a total stranger, objected to my objections by telling me what a wicked, unfeeling, “rigid” person I was, addicted to doctrine... yadda yadda... Didn’t I know this was “just a child!?” and that one has to be “compassionate” to children… even to the point of telling them comforting falsehoods.

Truth, you see, doesn’t matter when there are feelings to be considered. And anyway, “Quid est veritas?”

For the record, here's what you say to a grieving relative of a deceased atheist:

"The first thing to remember is that God is love and His mercy is available to everyone in life, and He will seek any sign of a response from a person, up until the very last moment. These things are mysterious and we cannot make any kind of judgement on the discourse between the individual human soul and God. We have no power to determine in this life what happens in such cases. We know, because Jesus told us, that even if things are impossible for us, they are not impossible for Him. But we also know that He likes to work through human beings, so it is very important for you to pray every day for the repose of your father's soul. Even after his death this is important and useful, because
 God is the master of time and space and your prayers for your father are never going to be ineffective or 'wasted,' so you must pray for him and trust in the mercy and love of God, which is greater than any sin. And also remember that when you are in heaven, absolutely everything you need for your perfect happiness will be there; nothing will be missing."


After that we all got to spend a weekend watching as a young father in Liverpool, desperate to save the life of his two year old son, was overruled by a court and a hospital who want the child to die. And of course, again we were bombarded with commentators on TwittFace telling us what wicked, wicked, unfeeling, uncaring, religious extremists we are for opposing the hospital’s deeply compassionate and caring orders to see this child off to the next life, against the wishes of his parents.

The week before that – that is, a prehistoric time now lost in the murky depths of the internet-past – I vaguely recall being frightened that the US decision to bomb Syria was going to trigger World War III…

After staying up til two am on Monday night, following Alfie Evans’ extubation, witnessing his steadfast refusal to die, I finally went to bed and spent the night thrashing around revisiting my old Cold War nightmares about nuclear attacks.

So the reader will perhaps not be surprised to hear that yesterday, when the device that feeds the magical internet juice into my computer told me I was all out for the month, I was hardly weeping into my tea. A blessed and glowing vision came to me of a few days off, maybe me taking some walks, or me reading my long-neglected books, me finally planting out squash seedlings, perhaps me biking into the village to go check messages once a day with the café wifi...

And the sense of interior quiet – that comes when one ceases clicking back and forth between Facebook and Twitter, having pointless arguments, restively searching back and forth for The Answer – has reasserted itself and I am again left wondering, “What was all that about, anyway?”

Have you ever come away from a loud party or concert? The frenetic evening, the superficial conversations, and the immense, stupefying levels of noise leaving you a bit dazed, maybe a little sick? Then that feeling that silence is like a physical thing, pressing on your ears, making them ring?

Living with your head in the internet is like attending a very loud, overcrowded party where hardly anyone knows anyone else but we’re all on a first name basis, and at which about half the people present are in a shrieking rage, shouting insults, curses and obscenities at the other half, while a loudspeaker booms advertising jingles into the room that is lined from floor to ceiling with television screens playing a bizarre combination of cat videos, Fox News, pornography and Marvel superhero movie clips.

In a corner of one small room at this nightmarish party, a small clutch of traditional Catholics is desperately trying to ignore the horrific cacophany long enough to explain to anyone who will listen what the Social Reign of Christ is, mainly by standing on chairs and shouting as loudly as they can over the deafening noise.

In this room a group of conservative Catholics are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a tightly closed circle around a video screen showing Raymond Arroyo interviewing a never-ending parade of American conservatives shaking their heads in solemn, perplexed bewilderment at the latest papal outrages. Quite a few of them are weeping. Occasionally a conservative in a clerical collar turns away from the screen long enough to tell the Trads to shut up.

Suddenly being tossed out of the party, the door slammed behind you, you sit for a moment, a little dazed, on the damp lawn, and you realise that this is suddenly... abruptly... quiet. It is night, and there is a bird singing for all it’s worth in the trees. You can see the stars and you can just make out the shape of a bat flittering back and forth in the moonlight. You take a deep breath and realise there is the scent of flowers in the cool spring night air.

You suddenly remember that there was a time when it was normal to see this every day, to have quiet alone-time in the evenings after work when you didn’t need to be connected to the internet-party until bed time; you could just be by yourself and that was fine. You recall suddenly that you once went out to places outside the house and met with real-life friends and had conversations using your voice, instead of your fingers on a keyboard.

The internet is not mere distraction. It is racket. It is noise. It is a gigantic room full of... yes literally... billions of people, total strangers all shouting personal insults at each other. It’s the introvert’s worst nightmare. I can’t help but think of Screwtape’s description of Hell as “the kingdom of noise” in which silence is never heard. And I'm also reminded of a strange warning I read once by an exorcist who was asking questions of the demon as part of the procedure; it responded, “You idiot! There are no relationships in hell…” Is the internet actually, literally, hellish?

I keep wondering what the internet is doing to us. We hear that it is truncating our mental focal length, making us mentally myopic, even people who were adults – bookish adults – before it came to rule our lives. But what else is it doing? What is it doing to our ability to perceive reality, to tell the difference between the internet world and the real world?

And why is it so difficult to shut it off? To turn off your phone, to pull away from the screen and look around the room, at real life. Why are we so addicted to it? Because I think that’s the only word. The people who study these things have told us that we get a little zing of dopamine when someone “likes” a post or comments, and that this is the same mechanism of physical addictions to drugs. How did we get so terrified of silence and our own company, or the company of our families, that we must stick our heads in this thing every day? Are we lonely in the presence of others? Does it give us a sense of being connected that we can’t get from real life?

Or is it that it creates a safe distance from others that makes us prefer it to our realtime relationships? And we do seem to prefer it to everything else; to our hobbies, books, gardens, homework, spouses, friends, even careers… Do the real things we do seem less real when we don’t “share” them on Facebook?

Do we ever get the feeling that maybe we’re becoming the Borg, connected in a giant virtual hive-mind, but one that allows us at the same time to maintain a minimum safe distance, so we don’t really have to connect, really? Does the thought of being cut off from the Collective bring us running back? Even when it shows us horrors that give us nightmares?

Anyway... I've been informed by the internet that it doesn't want to come over to my house to hang out for a while. I didn't inquire further. We'll see what happens. But it's a funny thing I've noticed, that my productivity as a writer - and for everything else - goes up considerably when it's off...



Anonymous said...

In the last seven years, I have read one book. I used to be a bookworm, always with four or five books 'on the go'. Now, the thought of having to concentrate on, and maintain interest in, a text from cover to cover repulses me. It took me a long time to recognise the cause of this malaise.


Anonymous said...

Hello Hilary,

Off topic, I know, but I wanted to thank you for posting Glenn Beck's interview of Michael Matt.
Glenn Beck woke me up about 10 years ago. I stumbled onto him telling a story on the radio and
thereafter watched his show every day at 5 o'clock for about 5 years. I've always been a Catholic
but not a good one and along with making me aware of the manipulations in the secular world,
God was constantly an evident presence in his life and conversation so I made God more a part
of mine. I would probably still be listening to him if Traditional Catholicism (and the fact that I
felt too much of his ego creeping in)hadn't taken over for me. Now I spend that same time
focusing on the Real and following people like you.

One of the reasons I like him is because he doesn't just talk. He makes an effort to change
things. A few years ago we had a case similar to Alfie Evans' in one of our hospitals. A teen-aged
girl was taken there severely ill. They diagnosed her with something bizarre and kept her from
her family for over a year. If Glenn Beck hadn't gotten involved she probably would have died there.