The Habit of Not-Quite-Living

A story by Todd Gitlin, retold by James Emery White in The Church in an Age of Crisis: “A customs officer observes a truck pulling up at the border. Suspicious, he conducts a thorough and painstaking search of the vehicle but finds nothing. This begins a pattern in which week by week the driver approaches the border, the truck is searched, but nothing is found. Yet the customs officer is convinced that there is contraband. Finally, after many years, the officer is set to retire. Once again, the driver pulls up, and the officer says, ‘I know you’re a smuggler. Don’t bother denying it. But I can’t figure out what you’ve been smuggling all these years. I’m leaving now. I swear to you I can do you no harm. Won’t you please tell me what you’ve been smuggling?’

“‘Trucks,” the driver says.

The story is meant to be a parable showing how, in contemporary culture, the media has been smuggling something bigger than any particular message or content. The media smuggles into our lives the habit of living with the media.

This habit, says White, keeps us distracted enough so that we don’t realize we’re missing out on life. We’re like the victims of the Matrix—fed virtual reality while real life is stolen from us.

Of the 25 issues presented in this book—all well researched and straightforwardly presented, all requiring careful thought and action—this one haunts me. The issue is ambiguous and complex. One voice tells me to work harder to get up to speed and stay current and connected. And I don’t want to marginalize myself because of laziness or fear. Another voice warns me that media is a vacuum endlessly grabbing for my most precious possessions: time, attention, thoughts, hearing, sight.

With these five gifts, I buy life. I can use them to find and acquire happiness, real life, life eternal and abundant.

Happiness means having what we want. We want what is good—the whole good, which is to say, God. How do we “get” this goodness? With our eyes and minds—by seeing and knowing it. Eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3). We know God by thinking about who He is, looking at what He has done and is doing, listening to what He has said and is saying. God made us with eyes and minds to see and know Reality Itself—also to know ourselves.

Someone doesn’t want us to be this fully alive. Someone would rather we focus our attention on anything other than the Way the Truth and the Life. Someone works hard to make it easy for us to “amuse ourselves to death”[i] by providing mind candy, by smuggling in the habit of not-quite-living. The contents of the candy are often another poison altogether. Yet even when we select only nontoxic content, we’re being trained to live with media.

“We prefer seeing to all else” says Aristotle. This is evidenced by what Josef Pieper calls “the morbidity of the contemporary craving to see.”[ii] Pieper says that perhaps “the greatest menace to our capacity for contemplation is the incessant fabrication of tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul.” If the receptivity of my soul is destroyed, I cannot know God. Knowing God is life.

James Emory White ends this book by saying we must meet the challenge. “There is so much we can do.”

What is it we can do to rescue the receptivity of our souls?

One strategy is to set boundaries. Say, “You may come this far and no farther. I will give you X number of minutes, and then I’m going back to real life.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on White’s book or on this issue of the habit of living with media. How do you deal with media’s encroachment on your life? How do you preserve the receptivity of your soul?

[i] The title of a book by Neil Postman

[ii] This quotations in this paragraph and the ideas about happiness two paragraphs up are from Josef Pieper’s book Happiness and Contemplation.

written by

I am a Christian thinker, reader, and writer, who never travels without chocolate. See the “About” page for details.
Related Posts

2 Responses to "The Habit of Not-Quite-Living"

  1. Hope @ The Flourishing Tree says:

    This sounds like a fascinating book! Many years ago now, I realized I was giving my TV too much time and attention each night after work. So for Lent, I gave up TV completely and, during that season, was able to fill my time with more meaningful activities. Once Easter arrived, I worried I would slip back into my old habits, but I never have returned to my previous level of TV watching. If I find myself letting TV creep back in too much, I cancel cable for a season and realize that I don’t miss most of what I had spent so much time watching. Thanks for a reminder that media is simply another tool in the war for our attention and a way of not-quite-living.

    • Tracey says:

      Hope, I admire your vigilance and your willingness to do what it takes to keep balance in life. Our culture makes it impossible to get by on default mode, doesn’t it? But I guess the highest way to walk through daily life is with our eyes open and our minds alert, so the distractions do us a favor by demanding that. Thanks for reading and responding!


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply to Hope @ The Flourishing Tree Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *