(Originally published on the Huffington Post.)
As of late, I’ve become aware of a growing tragedy: the tragedy of fast-moving conversations.
Just think of the speed and shallowness of modern communication. Recent studies showed that the average attention span at present is just five minutes long — 10 years ago, it was 12 minutes. Additionally, Facebook now owns more than 25 precent of total time spent on mobile apps and each Facebook user spends on average 15 hours and 33 minutes a month on the site writing and interacting in sound bites.
Whether gun control, the problem of educating our youth or the nature of sexuality in America, most conversations running their way through the Internet and social media have, far too often, degenerated into a mire of pithy rhetoric and hollow opinion. Meaningful conversation has devolved to millions of people throwing around pictures, sound bytes and narrow conclusions on topics most are not afforded the time to study or reflect upon.
We’re forced by the nature of fast-moving conversations to accept or reject, without the time for the argument and analysis necessary to sufficiently and appropriately support our conclusions.
In such a global, fast-moving conversation, a person must almost detach completely to find the space to think. It is the difference between the monastery and social media: the first isolates you from outside thought while the other isolates you from your own thought.
I spent two years of my life journaling when I was in my 20s. It was a season of life-change and course correction.
What I learned while practicing the disciplines of solitude and writing was the amount of noise that exists. A lot passes for news in life, but a worthy headline is one that is still around after 30 days. I checked out of reading papers and endeavored to attune my ears only to conversations I knew would endure or were significant enough to compel my attention.
During this time, I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden for the first time. At the end of my copy of the book was a short essay by Thoreau entitled, “Life Without Principle.” I returned to this piece many times.
Thoreau begins by writing, “Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives. This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle! … It interrupts my dreams. There is no Sabbath.”
If Thoreau were alive today, he might have written that the poor fellow who spends the most time online has not heard from himself or herself in a long time. Conclusions a-plenty, deep thought maybe less so.
When we are inundated with noise and information, the opportunity to grow through the process of wrestling, praying, arguing, processing and conversing is lost. Fast-paced conversations are the death of reflection.
In the Old Testament there is a rich theology of “waiting on the Lord.” It seems many of the conclusions we are supposed to reach and much of what we’re supposed to know in life is found through the process of a long and slow meditative process.
When we lose this, I fear, we lose true education and learning. For faith and maturity, like stories, need the dialog as well as the conclusions.
The reality with social media is that the prevalence of words often leads to the cheapness of words. In deep conversation, tension results from exploration. But in shallow conversation, tension results merely from combat. The former is largely redemptive, the latter often contentious. This puts forth a significant challenge to education and the process whereby we learn and grow through the rough workings of ongoing, unhurried and deep dialog. As this goes, so too does our ability and opportunity to learn and grow as we relate and interact with other people’s ideas.
In addition to the loss of depth and the challenge to education in fast-paced conversations, I also fear the loss of something greater.
When all we do is speak with ready opinions, sound bites and conclusions, it dampens our ability to hear the truly prophetic voice — the voice that compels us toward justice and truth. Prophets, as they are called in the Old Testament and still can be today, are the God-given devices for bending society back when it veers from where it should be.
The prophetic voice speaks fast, hard and clear and is unyielding.
What happens, however, when everyone throws around conclusions and every voice sounds prophetic?
Put simply, when everybody speaks with a prophetic tone, it dilutes the value of the prophetic voice.
We need the ability to sustain dialog with others. And we need the ability to clearly spot God’s true prophets among the masses of us armed only with opinions, sharp words and a social media profile.
G.K. Chesterton in “Alarms and Discussions” (1910) wrote, “Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” I take his argument to mean, beyond the humor of it, that deep things are the territory of the poets. It takes art and space to plumb the depths of a subject. Cursory matter, like cheese however, can be spoken of easily, quickly and doesn’t require the depth of poetic diction.
What we need these days is not an increase in provocative conclusions, but a growth in compelling explanations.
There is a fine texture to deep and original thinking. Deep reflection and sustained dialog lead to conclusions that are owned and understood.
I love the positive advantages of social media, the ease of spreading thoughts and ideas, the ease of connectivity with friends, family and engaged people from around the world and the speed and immediacy for having news and information.
Sometimes, however, there is a real drawback to fast-moving conversations. The death of slow conversation and reflection means the death of interaction and deep exploration. What we are left with when everyone is trading conclusions is simply to decipher which side of a line you or I stand on.
This issue or that issue.
Right or wrong.
With me or against me.
The death of deep conversation leaves us all victim to the tyranny of triviality.