‘When we click through the news on our screens we experience it in the immediacy of the present moment. We also experience it in our loneliness. The loneliness of such moments feeds the fear we carry around in ourselves, the fear that comes with a sense of our disconnectedness from some indefinable life-source.’ Excerpt from my latest book In Such Times: Reflections On Living With Fear
‘Mouse’ is not a bad name for the gizmo which connects us to our computer screens. It is a symbol of the hunted, but also of the one who hunts, or searches, indiscriminately picking up whatever life sustaining morsels lie to hand. As ‘hunters’ we are in control, believing that the world lies open to us, that there is an abundance of choice out there. As ‘hunted’ we are the victims of the fears and uncertainties which this spurious freedom appears to give us.
I think of my own screen habits which have deteriorated of late, both in the amount of time I spend ostensibly reading things, when I am in fact simply grazing. I remember, rather wistfully, my pre-social media days.
As one of many millions who spend a fair bit of time online, I’ve thought about screen habits quite a bit of late, first in regard to how, if at all, they affect the way I think about what is going on in the world, and what I choose to watch, and why I watch those things. Most of the time it’s the news. I feel helpless in the face of the destruction of the planet and the evasive tactics of the powerful who benefit from that destruction. I am horribly fascinated by the antics being played out in parliament, though I am growing bored with those of Donald Trump and with much of the competing rhetoric surrounding the Brexit issue. Recently, I’ve been drawn to things that somehow ring positive – stories of heroic beach rescues, or of the devotion of animals which defies understanding but brings hope.
As I live in the country, I’m fairly well acquainted with the hunting habits of mice. You can be pretty certain that for every one mouse you see scurrying across the kitchen floor – even a reasonably clean kitchen floor – there will be at least ten more lurking behind the pipes or nesting in the cavity insulation. They work in teams but seem to hunt alone, a little like the computer mouse. We hunt alone, but there are millions of us gravitating to the same things.
This being said, I don’t think the solitary hunter mouse experiences existential loneliness. The idea hasn’t even crossed her mind. The solitary rodent is not in denial about anything in particular. She has enough to do, just obeying her nest-making and other survival instincts.
This is where we, when we are in ‘hunter mouse’ mode, differ from those little grey rodents. Much of the time we spend on computers is spent in a form of denial. We hunt to get away from our loneliness. We are in denial about the isolationism which our freedom to access information as events unroll has brought us. We are also in denial of the loneliness we experience in it. Though anxious about the way the world is going, our anxiety seems to return us to ourselves most of the time.
What we are really looking for, then, is something that will lead us out of ourselves and into a place of commonality, a feeling and desire for the common good. Deep down, I think many of us are watching out for something resembling sacrificial love, especially in the sphere of politics and leadership.
Watching the news, or surfing it, gives you a sense of the kind of battle being waged between the forces of good which are to do with sacrificial love, and the arrogance and self interest which ultimately leads to loneliness and isolationism.
Watching the news becomes a matter of surfing for the opinion which best chimes with your own, even when your own is shaped from ‘gut’ feeling rather than a balanced seeking out of the truth (a now completely devalued word) and of what best serves a nation. When glimmers of love emerge in the political arena, as they do from time to time, defying the arrogance and contempt of some for those they are there to serve, we recognise them for what they are with a kind of deep sense of joy – but not the triumphalist joy that comes with ‘winning’ or having the last word.
If the whole Brexit debacle has served any purpose at all, it will at least have revealed that it is possible for politicians to act with integrity in the matter of sacrificial love. In other words, to put their consciences and the needs of the country ahead of their careers. The same holds true in all public spheres, including that of the Church, where integrity and sacrificial love is required from time to time from leaders. Much of the time, the personal sacrifices that they make go unnoticed, or unremembered.
But they are remembered at a different level. In the case of Brexit, their story will no doubt define history, so they will be remembered by future generations. But hope does not begin and end at its source, with the person or people who are courageous and competent enough to put sacrificial love at the service of the country. It gives hope to the millions of us ‘hunting’ desperately for politicians we can trust and for a future we can believe in.