I begin with a little bit monk’s humor. It is the story of a particular monastery that operated with a vow of silence. Speaking was strictly regimented, with casual conversation never allowed. Once every year, on their patron saint’s feast day, one monk would be allowed to speak at dinner – whatever he wanted to say. It was an honor that recognized that monk’s outstanding service in the previous year.
One year the monk chosen rose at dinner, cleared his throat, offered a very brief prayer, and said, “I just want to say that the mashed potatoes served in our monastery are surely the best mashed potatoes served anywhere in the world – perhaps in all of history.” Then he sat down. That was it, for a whole year.
The next year a new monk was honored. He stood up, cleared his throat, offered a very brief prayer, and said, “These are the worst mashed potatoes I have ever had, anywhere. A high school cafeteria serves better mashed potatoes than these.” Then he sat down.
The story might have ended there except for the next year when the succeeding honoree stood up, cleared his throat, said a very brief prayer, and said, “Really, I am sick and tired of all this bickering.” That’s the punchline if you missed it.
Our ancestors lived with that kind of news delay. Natural disasters, plagues, who won the battle or lost the war, who died and who was born, was information received weeks, months, and even years after the fact. The full text of the Declaration of Independence was first published on July 6, 1776 in Philadelphia. The news didn’t reach South Carolina until August 2. Word of the rebellion finally reached Europe two weeks later in mid-August, six weeks after the fact. It wasn’t any faster sixty years later when The Alamo fell on March 6, 1836 — it made the newspapers in London on May 17.
Now? Well now it is almost instantaneous. The speed and voraciousness of the media to publicize the news of events demands “Breaking News!” after every commercial. With Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and FB the distance from random thought to an eternally preserved digital memory is measured in seconds. We do not know what the ultimate impact of this change will be on human nature and culture, or upon the earth and universe. But I am betting it is not good.
As with disposable diapers and plastic wrappers, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. The challenge is how we will manage instantaneous information going forward.
I do not get any input into how the human race will manage the loss of time between events taking place all around and far away from us, but I am working on a strategy for myself: Taking time. Time to process, time before reacting, time away from the spray of news that may or may not be of actual relevance to me even though it is packaged as if to be of direct urgent importance. In short, putting time back into the equation. A vow of silence may be going overboard but those monks had the right instinct.