It's hardly news that we Westerners have suffered for generations from a syndrome known as “attention deficit disorder” in increasing numbers. Causes may include diet, television with it's emphasis on short “sound bite” chunks of information and repeated build-ups and punch lines, and other forms of information overload, including the Internet. Facebook and Twitter, the two most popular social networking environments, both require us to produce and consume information in small chunks. In order to keep up with these, we learn to skim rather than read carefully. It's possible then that our ability to hold a thought for more than a moment or two, and especially to “think through” a question or issue, never an easy task, has been further crippled. And whether it's cause or effect, we find ourselves discouraged from the task from the start. If we attempt to muster the effort, even the courage, to publicly think through something, we find little readership. Our friends, unless we have broken through to some level of professionalism at this task, are particularly discouraging. They are likely, we know, to consider us uppity, self indulgent, and elitist. Any attempt to develop the skills of a truly erudite intellectual separates us from the pack and isolates us from our more “down to earth” peers.
Thus the art of the essay has degraded. One sign: length. Compare great essays from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to those we find on the Internet today. The earlier generation wrote for publication, whether broadsheets or newspapers or books. An intelligently written essay might run dozens of pages. Length was determined by the nature of the argument. Often an essay dealt with questions of such import and complexity that it expanded into a whole book. Essays now, published on web logs and online magazines, hardly resemble essays of the past. They rarely extend past a single “page” in your web browser. They may come on strong, may seem important at the outset, but they limit themselves to at best a single topic and tend to be no more than summaries of a question or issue. They may tantalize, but they do not inform with any depth. They fail to feed the mind. If we are truly curious, we leave frustrated. It's as if we hope to watch a full movie and find only a preview clip, or we expect to read a book and find only the briefest review.
Granted, reading an essay, even a well written one, is not the simplest task we might set ourselves. It requires at least a modicum of training, a bit of self-discipline, some patience, and a genuine hunger for understanding about a topic. That's just on the reader's side. For a writer to create a well-thought out and well-drafted essay is exponentially more challenging. Not least, the writer must be able to sustain and pace her thinking on a specific topic. She must be able to resist the temptation to quit early, and to drift off-topic while writing. She must be inclined and able to think through the ideas, either before or during the process of writing, or both. She must be driven by an unwavering need to achieve clarity and a clear flow of ideas, one to the next, so the reader will understand at each sentence and paragraph how what he read earlier relates to what he is reading now.
In fairness, maybe it would be more accurate to suggest we have yet to learn how to think (most of us), rather than that we already know how and are forgetting. After all, one of the goals of a liberal arts education (of which I partially benefited in my youth) is to train the intellectual mind (as there seem to be many other kinds), how to think. How to grasp an idea and follow its implications and thus to better understand how that that idea and its logical threads apply to us (if they do). This understanding, one hopes, gives us greater range of options, greater control, more ability to make informed choices in our lives. Another effect of greater understanding, a non-trivial one, is that it buffers us from thoughtlessly adopting ideas and belief systems that are illogical and dogmatic. We find ourselves less locked into restrictive paradigms. We remain free to believe what we will, knowing we have examined and analyzed at least some of the implications of those beliefs, and most importantly, retaining knowledge that those beliefs are adopted after examination, rather than being thoughtlessly accepted as fact based on external authority.
But liberal arts education has fared even worse than music and arts education have in our schools. Most of us in America at least have little training in how to critically examine and evaluate ideas. Our thoughts and beliefs and attitudes are buffeted by the winds of popular opinion and omnipresent media. We are like fallen leaves; we have little to hold us in place long enough to sense how we are being shifted from place to place.
With very little center to hold us as our beliefs and preferences are blown about, it's no wonder we have short attention spans and little frame of reference with which to make useful judgments. By frame of reference, I mean at best those values we have learned and/or determined for ourselves through critical analysis and various sources of ethical training. The shorter our attention span, the more easily we are blown by the winds of opinion and subject to being walled in by unexamined dogmas. One result is that we live in an age of moral relativity – what we value depends on our current circumstances. Do we value freedom? Yes, unless it requires us to think too much about what that means. Do we value human life? Yes, unless we find ourselves fighting for our own life. In such an environment, we have no immovable center, no permanent point of reference. So, because we crave such a center, we scramble to find and adopt the first convenient dogmatic belief system. For that system to give us a stable frame of reference, we must accept the external authority behind it, whatever that may be. If we allow ourselves to question the validity of the system or its authority, we risk losing our moral reference point and being cast adrift yet again. So we not only accept it, we defend it, often with our lives.
This situation, that of intolerable moral relativity followed inevitably by adoption of external authority and dogma, may accurately describe the dilemma most of us face, but it comes at a horrible price: we're forced to sacrifice ourselves as free thinking individuals. Many of us, it seems to me, find no alternative but to imprison ourselves intellectually and emotionally and to allow our critical selves, that part of us that was free, to degrade or expire entirely. We become slaves, quite literally, to ideas not our own. The tragedy in this situation, the human tragedy, comes from the fact that, though we feel we have little choice but to accept some kind of deliverance through dogma, we little appreciate the extent of our sacrifice. We insane monkeys are and always have been on a path to true deliverance from the conflicts and mendacity of our lives: we are each evolving mentally and emotionally and spiritually toward a more unified and integrated and truthful self. Toward a condition we might call Sanity.
Sanity, then, is what we sacrifice when we give up learning and critical thinking, along with practices that open our minds and hearts and quiet our spirits and racing thoughts. Sanity, the true holy grail of our existence, is the destiny of each of us individually, if (and only if) we are able to attain and practice the courage to be who we are: transcendent beings struggling to free ourselves from the clinging attachments of our immaturity.