A certain spirit haunts the atmosphere of our internet landscape. (Another, similar spirit haunts the news channels, but that spirit is less dangerous because it only creeps out slowly behind a walker.) The younger spirit’s presence casts a baleful light over all things, past, present, and future, making them appear hateful and getting worse. It feeds off our despair.
The spirit leads us subtly down a garden path and I see that path leading eventually toward universal pessimism. It goes down, down into swampy places of the soul. I see friends going down that path, thinking it the path of truth and goodness. I see myself on that path, having traveled far, perhaps, but halting by some instinct for self-preservation.
It does not matter whether we are Democrats or Republicans. It teaches the Democrats to despair over what the Republicans are doing to the country, and it teaches the Republicans to despair over the Democrats. It does not matter whether we live in the city or the country, are rich or poor, married or single. Whatever our condition, everything becomes a sign of the end.
The mechanism of our entrapment has been well documented. First, we know that fear and anger sell. Nearly all the sources of our information have a vested interest in keeping us hooked on these potent emotions. We know how fearmongering and outrage addiction work, but that does not stop our scrolling—at least not without some real discipline and willpower. Second, we know that confirmation bias leads us to heavily favor any new piece of information that gives further evidence to our suspicions and ignore any new piece of evidence that might suggest that things are not so bad. Do you already believe that masks are effective at stopping the spread of Covid? You are likely to click on that article that proves you were right all along but ignore the article that gives you counter-evidence? You are likely to think that you are smart and the people with the opposite view are stupid—or worse. Do you believe that masks are ineffective? You are likely to do exactly the reverse.
I am extremely pessimistic about this whole pattern in culture. I am convinced that this mechanism is making people crazier and crazier. I am cynical about contemporary culture because it so encourages people to be cynical about everything. The whole thing is going to hell in a hand basket—and if you have any evidence that it isn’t really so bad, I will simply accuse you of being part of the problem.
How do we exorcise this spirit? I have a Christian-Platonic incantation. It is a spiritual exercise of sorts. It involves the body and the soul, the senses and the mind. Go outside. Look at trees. Watch clouds in the sky. You can even do this in cities. Some balustrades can be quite nice. Looking and looking long is the first step, but we must go beyond mindfulness exercises. Learn to look and then learn to love. Train the mind to search into the goodness of things and train the heart to respond with warm admiration. Learn to see the manifold participation of finite things in the Goodness of God. Learn gratitude.
I will leave you with a poem by Hopkins to memorize and repeat to yourself as a kind of protective charm against the spirit of the age while you are on these little walks:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: