Jacques Ellul observed that medieval man had a very limited sphere of involvement, but within that small sphere he could actually have an effect. Today, however, there are no limits to our sphere of involvement—we are encouraged to inform ourselves about the affairs of nations and empires, to form opinions about the causes of war and famines and prosperity and tyranny, to track natural disasters in far-off places—and yet we find ourselves both impotent to affect the course of such things, and uninterested in the mundane local affairs that we might possibly be able to affect. All this is the result of our modern fascination with “today’s news.”
Although today’s news did not really exist until the middle of the nineteenth century—before the invention of the telegraph, news could only travel as fast as the person who carried it—the hunger for it was always there. Henry David Thoreau remarked on both the desire and what drove it when he said, “We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”
But given that today’s news now exists, is there anything wrong with keeping up with it? Well, Thoreau also wrote, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. . . . We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Or, as a friend of mine once put it, “I know everything about the famine in Somalia and nothing about my next-door neighbor.”
Our desire to vicariously participate in what we think of as big and important things has left us without the time or interest in doing anything at the local level, where we might actually be able to accomplish something tangible. I wrote about this a few years back, in an essay about the epidemic of busyness:
Rather than playing backyard sports with family and friends, we win national championships by cheering on our team. No time to fix that leaky faucet; master carpenter Norm Abram needs our help with a million dollar renovation. The city council is about to waste another few million of our tax dollars? Sorry, we’re tied up determining the course of an entire nation through our talking, arguing, blogging, and occasionally voting. Why bother broaching the subject of Jesus with our unbelieving friends when with our help Mel Gibson will be able to convert millions? Why bother with the hungry person at our door when, armed with our favorable opinion and our tax dollars, our government can proceed to feed and clothe the entire world?
The classic book on our transition from being a culture of participation to being a culture of passive observation is Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Two other related books are Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda and The Political Illusion, but both are difficult reading.
As was mentioned earlier, medieval man had a very limited sphere of involvement, but within that small sphere he could actually have an effect. This provides us with exactly the guideline we need to decide whether or not to concern ourselves with a matter—is it something where our involvement could possibly have a good effect?
Of all the things that compete for our attention, not many of them are able to meet this guideline. Surely there is no need to listen to talk radio or other sorts of punditry, which devote themselves to political matters around the globe in which even the principals are unable to have any predictable effect; not being directly involved, all we are able to do is form and then offer our own opinion, to be ignored along with the rest. News programs and newspapers are not much better, telling us the woes of people we’ll never know who live in places we’ll never visit.
This is not to say that we are not to be concerned about other people and their difficulties, but instead that we need to redirect that concern from people we’ll never meet to people we can’t avoid. Once we stop satisfying ourselves with fleeting bursts of compassion which complete themselves in a prayer request or a mailed-off donation, we will have the time and attention to devote to thorny, difficult, long-term relationships with people whose names and faces we know all too well, people that we cannot fix but only love, forbear, and exhort by word and example, people who might actually benefit from the compassion we have been squandering.
These days our family invests its energies not in matters beyond our control, but in living together with people who call this tiny region of Kentucky home. Some moved here years ago and stayed put, some left only to return, and some never left at all. For better or worse it is a community, bound together not by like-mindedness but by geography and history.
We visit with our next-door neighbor, now 78 years old and mostly alone; we buy our hay from him, take him eggs that our hens laid and sausage from the pig we had slaughtered, accept invitations to play music at his church homecoming or lodge fundraiser, and pump him for wisdom about living in the country. We work together with a fellow who has grown organic produce here for thirty years, helping him get his seedings into the ground, asking for help in getting our own seedlings started, growing produce that he can sell for us, typesetting a book for him, sharing our extra milk with his family, and joining him for local music gigs. We attend a church made up of five or six families that live within a couple of miles, sharing pot-luck dinners, visiting, learning about their lives, telling a little about our own history, asking for help or offering it as the need arises.
Taken together with family life, even that much fills our plate, and so we watch with admiration as our Amish and Mennonite neighbors manage to spend even more time together, working and socializing, while still getting everything done in a more relaxed atmosphere. We continue to learn from their example.