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Turn it Off, Tune Out, Save Your Soul


Esther Vargas CC

David Mills - published on 10/14/15

Guard against exposure to bad ideas --they're everywhere.

Except for the occasional football or baseball game, I don’t miss having a television and think other people should get rid of theirs the way we did ours. I know that people who talk about their giving up television affect most people the way joggers and early risers affect me. I want to say bad words and frighten them into silence.

I also know giving up television’s not for everyone, that it can teach you things, that you can stream classic movies and great documentaries, that reading can be almost as mind-vacating an activity as watching television, and that even those of us without televisions have the internet with which to fill up our time.

Yes, true. But even if television were better than it seems, we have to police what goes into our minds and if we have children what goes into theirs, and that policing ought to be a lot more stringent than it usually is. It’s usually like the genial English bobby of children’s story books, willing to look the other way, when it ought to be like a North Korean border guard.

We don’t reliably recognize the good and keep ourselves unstained by the bad. This applies if you’re a seventy-year-old whose life has beaten him into reading everyone skeptically, or an idealistic twenty-something who throws himself without a second thought into his causes and treats its major writers as prophets.

I’m not seventy, but by personality and experience am probably more skeptical and critical than most people, and still I find myself picking up ideas and assumptions that mislead me. They make sense to me, sometimes giving me that “aha!” feeling you get when you find someone articulating an idea that you’d sensed but not been able to put into the right words. But then, when I read something from the other side, or even some of the responses in the combox, or just learn more or grow older, I see I was wrong, and sometimes wrong in ways that mattered.

One of those ideas many of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies know well is the superiority of acting spontaneously on instinct and intuition to living by general one-size-fits-all rules imposed by someone else, and the related belief that only the natural and personal is authentic. (Cue The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’”.) When it’s stated so plainly, almost everyone sees the idea as a serious error that will end in tears. But it’s so much a part of our culture that we act on it anyway. It’s the idea behind almost every marriage in every movie.

I know, for example, that marriage is a vocation that you have to work at, that love is a commitment to act and not a feeling, that the rules (You shall leave your father and mother and cleave to your spouse, you shall not commit adultery, etc.) offer the way to happiness even though they aren’t tailor made for our own situation. Then when talking with someone whose marriage causes him pain, I find myself wanting to answer in our culture’s terms, about his need to find the happiness he deserves in the ways our culture defines it. I always catch myself, but the ideas, ideas I see clearly and flatly reject, hover at the edges of my mind, waiting for their chance when compassion makes me vulnerable.

I’ve been thinking about this because yesterday we published at Ethika Politika an essay by a legal scholar titled The Protection of Souls and the Banning of Books. Gabriel Sanchez asks, “What is to be done with works that challenge faith and morals?” and explains his reason for asking: “While there are some souls equipped by nature and circumstance to examine, digest, and ultimately refute such texts, a good many persons are not.”

What he describes as “a good many persons” I think is actually “pretty much everyone.” Our culture preaches bad ideas all the time, and even the smartest, most critical person believes them without realizing it, even if he rejects them when he sees them stated as propositions. Repeated exposure makes them seem normal and natural, the way things are.

Bad ideas can hurt us. Ideas are like roads. They take you places. They take you to good places, and to bad — to faithfulness or to adultery. You misread the instructions because you don’t know the area or you’re not paying attention and turn off the highway a couple miles early, and after a few miles and a couple more turns, find yourself lost in the woods and humming the theme to Deliverance. This means only a few wasted hours when you’re lost in the Pennsylvania woods, but imagine if you did it in ISIS-held Syria or rebel-held Ukraine.

Sanchez asks what is to be done. At least two things. We need a deeper immersion in the good, and that’s most important, but we also need a North Korean degree of care about what we let across the border of our minds.

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.

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