A Crisis of Imagination
This post first appeared on Taming the Wilds: Holy Living in a Wild World.
It was 2 am. My husband snored lightly beside me, and I was still wide awake, glued to the television. I had intended to fall asleep early, but, hours later, I was more awake than ever and six episodes into the latest trending show on Netflix. I fought off the urge to watch just one more episode to see how it all ended and finally fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke the next morning, I was groggy and more than a little disgusted with myself.
I sincerely doubt I’m the only one who has experienced this sensation. In fact, “binge-watching” has become something of a national pastime. Statistics vary, but our best estimates reveal that the average adult spends anywhere between 2.7 to 3.7 hours watching TV daily, plus another 2.4 hours or so on social media.
What makes binge-watching so ubiquitous is in our biology. "Our brains code all experiences, be it watched on TV, experienced live, read in a book or imagined, as 'real' memories," explains Gayani DeSilva, M.D., a psychiatrist at Laguna Family Health Center in California. "So when watching a TV program, the areas of the brain that are activated are the same as when experiencing a live event. We get drawn into storylines, become attached to characters, and truly care about outcomes of conflicts.”
We care to such an extent that many times we end up substituting our real-life relationships with virtual ones (either those imagined relationships depicted by the shows we watch, as described by Dr. DeSilva, or the often superficial ones formed through social media). This reality was strikingly portrayed in yet another recent Netflix hit, the documentary The Social Dilemma. And if our physical relationships are suffering, you can bet our spiritual ones are, as well.
Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932. In the novel, he describes a future society addicted to pleasure and amusement, where citizens take a daily dose of soma to forget all pain and suffering. It’s not a far cry from where we find ourselves today. We have become a culture so fixated on the trivial that the Truth is “drowned in a sea of irrelevance,” as Neil Postman reflected so poignantly in his book reflecting on Huxley’s work, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
While our real-world soma takes many forms, it is not a stretch to claim that we are amusing ourselves to death as Postman feared. By constantly immersing ourselves in a cacophony of entertainment, we dull our sensitivities to the mystical and forget what it means to be truly alive. Instead of encountering the supernatural continuously in the world around us, as Christian mystics did in millennia past, it now takes major events like pandemics and state-mandated lockdowns to shake us violently awake and force us to slow down.
There is an ancient antidote to this soma, one Elijah discovered in a cave on the side of Mount Horeb. The antidote is not in the great and powerful wind, it is not in the earthquake, it is not in the fire: those flashy but shallow distractions with which we constantly fill our minds. Instead, it is in the still, small voice, asking with a loving smile, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:11-13). To hear this voice, we, too, must enter the cave of our hearts through contemplative prayer. It is there that we seek Him “whom my soul loves” (Song of Songs 1:7; 3:1-4).
St. Teresa of Avila explains: “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” It requires both determination and perseverance: a “commitment to be sincere and vulnerable to God interiorly, in season and out of season,” as Dr. Anthony L. Lilles writes in his book, Fire from Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom. It is, in short, an acute attentiveness to the Divine.
Two of the major approaches to this type of prayer, Ignatian and Carmelite, each involve a sort of “baptism” of imagination. The method propounded by St. Ignatius involves Lectio Divina, immersing oneself in the Scriptures in a very personal way, then taking time to reflect, respond, and rest in God’s presence. The Carmelite technique, by contrast, is best described as a devotion of the heart, examining God’s very presence within oneself and one’s memories.
Regardless of method, however, we cannot attune our intellects and imaginations to this Divine conversation if we consistently feed our minds the equivalent of junk food. In the same book, Dr. Lilles notes that “[t]he most difficult obstacle to this kind of prayer is our own distracted minds. We have filled our imaginations with impure images, and we have entertained whole ways of thinking that are opposed to the tenderness that deep prayer requires. A kind of sluggish indifference can pull at us when we try to pray.”
We overcome this “sluggish indifference” by setting our minds on the things above and not on earthly things (Colossians 3:2). Spiritual reading, either the Scriptures or the writings of the Saints, gazing upon a crucifix or sacred art, listening to sacred music, seeking Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the world around us, and, above all, silence are necessary. Our lives – the kind we are truly meant to live - depend on it.