Pure drops in an ocean of noise

by Brian Harper

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Several months ago, someone made the curious choice of inviting me to give a talk at Holy Family Catholic Community in Fond du Lac, Wis., the parish in which I was raised. I was both flattered and nonplussed. Public speaking tends to imply a degree of expertise on a subject. I could not fathom what mastery I had in matters of faith and spirituality, which is probably disconcerting to anyone reading this article.

After waxing lyrically about about my days with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) in Peru and studying abroad in South Africa, I answered a few questions. One woman asked how I balance JVC's commitment to simplicity with my current work, which involves spending significant time on social media. She correctly noted the discrepancy between my job and some of the feelings I expressed toward modern society and technology -- namely, occasional exhaustion from the noise and chaos of constant connection.

It was a good question, one which I have certainly asked myself many times. That is not to say I have an answer.

I am neither a Luddite nor a pure believer in all the advantages and possibilities of technology. As with most things in life, I think technology is capable of extraordinary wonders, shocking evils, and profound inanities. I also think that regardless of the nobility of the activities for which we use technology, there are some goods it simply cannot touch. As fantastic as FaceTime may be, it does not hold a candle to a deep, screen-less, in-person conversation.

Yet a technological world is where we live, so how should we engage with it? Not at all? By shirking the bad and embracing the good?

Again, I admittedly do not know the best answer. But when I consider all the vitriol and nonsense on the Internet, I also find myself thinking of the voices that manage to rise above the din with clarity, hard-won optimism, and an authenticity that is impossible to fake.

David Brooks of The New York Times recently penned a beautiful column about these sorts of individuals. "They seem deeply good," he wrote. "They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day."

Brooks went on to lay out a "moral bucket list" one might fill in order to become like one of these people. Practicing humility; confronting one's shortcomings; depending on others and letting others depend on us; experiencing selfless love; and finding a calling, not just a job, all made the cut.

What inspires me more than any of these qualities or prescriptions is that in addition to the strength and serenity these everyday superheroes demonstrate, they are notable for being "in any walk of life." While I know plenty of sisters, brothers, and priests who shine an inner light, Manny from the Chicago Transit Authority and Ms. Kim from the laundromat also strike me as bodhisattvas in progress.

Which brings me back to social media. The Twittersphere can feel as far from spiritual, life-giving terrain as one could possibly travel. But if we are troubled by the superficiality and hatred often revealed on the Internet, the lesson of these paragons of goodness seems to be not avoiding the wasteland but planting flowers in it.

I am sure those of us who use social media can think of several "friends" whose posts make us feel the way Brooks described. A college classmate I follow on Instagram always accompanies her posts with a quote that encourages me. The joy a Sacred Heart nun feels in her vocation reveals itself in all of her Facebook photos with her sisters. Someone who Tweets as @JesusOfNaz316 helps me envision a witty, but thought-provoking, hipster 21st-century Jesus. As Bono once said of Jeff Buckley, each of these people feels like "a pure drop in an ocean of noise."

I am not exactly sure why these pure drops' social media profiles give me such pleasure when the majority of posts out there seem vapid, obnoxious, or overbearing. Maybe the answer lies in another of Brooks' points: "They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all."

This, after all, is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity. We are exalted to the extent we are humbled; we gain more by becoming less; and in making our lives about something other than ourselves, we draw forth riches that no selfish seeking could ever win us.  

Despite Brooks' recipe, I doubt there is an easy avenue to such a state. Getting to this point is surely the journey of a lifetime. Like Brooks says, though, "Those are the people [I] want to be." I think we all should -- whether we are praying, playing, working, or logging on to Facebook.         

[Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. His writing has been featured in America magazine, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, NCR and various other publications. You can find his work at brianharper.net.]

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