Is it just me, or does your mind sometimes seem like a collection of sound bites and tune fragments stored up over decades of media saturation? My brother told me that even though his voice changed, with age, from a remarkable tenor to a mundane baritone, he was still a valuable member of the cover band because he could remember complete lyrics to all the old songs. (He also plays several instruments, I must add!). The rest of us are stuck in an ever-growing collection of undifferentiated mental debris — reminiscent of the Pacific Ocean plastic “gyre” I am fond of talking about, bits of stuff floating around in our heads.
The pandemic is waning (Lord, hear our prayer), but our media consumption is probably not. Entire new islands of media pollution may be forming right now! I know I have been filling my limited brain capacity with even MORE stuff. I think two favorites, Hillbilly Elegy and Nomadland were a lot like Lent — somewhat depressing subjects, calls to change and grow, and road trips. In the case of Lent, our “road trip” is like drawing back the curtain on a movie about our spiritual pilgrimages and seeing whether we are actually moving or, alternatively, trapped on screen, appearing to move by watching images move.
Can I keep moving through this mess?
I am trying to stay on pilgrimage, even though it is perilously easy to permanently stay at my latest point on the map. The courage it takes to keep growing is daunting. Wandering around with godless Frances McDormand in Nomadland felt vicariously heroic, free and honest. I did not like her or her life, but it sure looked more authentic than staying trapped in some subdivision like her prospective mate ended up. I have felt trapped a lot during the pandemic and it is easy to just stay trapped until someone sounds the all clear. Don’t you periodically wake up and see yourself sitting in your cage munching fake food, listening to fake news and fake exposés of fake news and inexplicably funding Netflix? We need to force ourselves onto our personal pilgrimages for Lent.
My Lent book, Passion for Pilgrimage: Notes for the Journey Home by Alan Jones, is helping me stay on the road. And, in my case, it is helping me write an elegy for my own past, as I move on into what is next. In the chapter I just read, “The Road that Leads Nowhere,” Jones is highlighting how our many choices as Americans has basically ended up with us not making any choices. He says, “We get lost spiritually precisely in proportion to the casualness of our choices.”
Does being in the band have meaning or am I just filling up my time? Should I explore my past and figure out how I got on the road I am on or just watch others doing that on the screen? Is the terrible thing I am experiencing pushing me out on the “road” or shall I push that energy back inside somewhere? Shall I keep writing this blog or decide I need more readership to be relevant? Shall I let the Lent story draw me into the eternal story about going home or shall I just stay trapped at home? You can tell I think everything I have talked about so far is filled with significance.
It always takes risking significance
Jones says, “Our smallest actions and decisions can be fraught with significance and have serious consequences, [because] the same energy that made the sun and the stars came into play, and the result was you. You matter and your choices matter. If you lose sight of that, you get frozen and lost. You are not an accident. To discover that is already to have recovered enough passion to turn you away from a dead end and toward life.”
I rarely think relating to Frances McDormand or Glenn Close on the screen is a dead end. Although their stories were filled with roads to nowhere, they are helping me with Lent, as we speak. Getting something out of the screen rather than it just sucking the the life out of us is hardly automatic. Christians often hide the fact that we are in the screen’s “tractor beam” just like everyone else, being dragged places we might not choose if we were more conscious. My cell group always has great suggestions for what to watch next; it is one thing we all know. None of us need to risk significance, we can just sit there and make choices with our remotes.
The series I have been recommending is another import on Hulu from the Brits, Larkrise to Candleford. The show is about a village girl and her townie relative experiencing the 1890s as everyone begins to move into the modern age. All the innovations of the next era crowd into village life and cause people to choose about things they don’t want to think about. As a result, people hang on to the past or jump into the future, with poignant personal and relational consequences. What I like about the series most, however, is how we can watch people from the past take their lives seriously. We let people from the past do these things we long to do. I like shows like Larkrise (calling Call the Midwife) because I long for the characters’ experiences. The past is clearer in memory than it was when it happened, so nostalgia is comforting. But I honestly think more people in the past felt their lives had meaning and their choices made a difference. Such significance seems harder than ever. Wasn’t it just last week that Trump claimed he won the election at CPAC? Didn’t Republican Senators just extract compromises in the Covid Relief Bill and then all vote against it? It is hard to take life seriously in a reality like ours.
Choosing against our illusions is hard
We make fun of people in the simpler past. But we also suffer from a twinge of envy when we weigh our lightness against their heaviness. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera says people in the past engaged in “something and not nothing; hard not soft; risky not safe; productive of long and dire consequences, not immediately dismissed in a cloud of smoke from a cigarette ironically name ‘True.’”
I can still remember the jingles of True cigarette commercials from my first stage of media saturation as a child. Of course, they are on YouTube:
My book for Lent and my latest show choice challenge me to be true and make true choices. Shall I do something hard (like have a serious marriage) or stay soft? Shall I do something that is meaningfully part of God’s creation or keep acting like what I do has no consequences as long as I do not harm someone else according to the law? Shall I just accept the absolute b.s. of almost every TV commercial or get furious that “True” cigarettes were and are an abomination that subvert the very word “true” and disgrace the Way the Truth and the Life?
My father died of emphysema and my mother chronically suffered from the effects of second-hand smoke. Fortunately, smoking and the addiction and health disasters that go with it are on the decline — but not fast enough for me. American cigarette producers got thwarted at home so they marketed worldwide. Worldwide tobacco use and addiction is just now reaching a peak and heading for decline. True cigarettes were introduced in 1966 when I was twelve. My Dad was at the height of his cigarette smoking. I was just beginning to refuse to collude with his habit. There are a lot of choices I had to make or avoid. I wanted Dad to love me. But I did not want to accept cigarettes to procure that love. I made many compromises I am still pondering and repenting.
Lent is a great season for repenting, which is basically a choice to go another way, to go home. Lent is a season that lures us out on the road, away from our addictions and resistance, and makes us susceptible to cooperation with God’s grace. As a result of making any of these true choices, we’ll probably uncover many of the false ones that tie us up, especially in our relationships. So we will repent and even feel better.
We try to get by with unhealthy habits, especially in unhealthy relationships, by not making a choice or by choosing everything. We don’t really want to do anything that has “long and dire consequences” like refusing to be codependent with someone who is killing themselves spiritually and otherwise or like making the commitment to hold a church together. To do so, we would need to risk going against the flow. What has society created? — a no-fault, guiltless world. How do policemen keep killing people with impunity and governmental grifters get away with breathtaking corruption? How is it that it is so easy to blame and hard to forgive?
Even in the church, reconciliation often means not having to say you’re sorry because no one will admit you (or they) are that wrong or even that significant. We avoid conflict by not recognizing anything for which repentance is required. That makes for a very soft response to an increasingly hard world. Are we getting used to being little Trumps demanding our right to choose whatever we want – even if it does not exist? I know it is terrible to imagine, but are we little Trumps starring in our own show, making up our own reality, and daring everyone to tell us we lost the election? Did we watch TV long enough for that to be a possibility?
I hope not. That’s why I wrote to you, since you are the kind of person who steps into Lent every year and lets it take you somewhere true.