(This post appeared first on Matt’s personal Blog, “The Upward Drop“)
Today during prayer I was thinking about how Jesus would respond with deep compassion￼ whenever faced with the crisis of another. In the Gospels, he seems to have limitless energy for the needs of others, never too weary to pour himself out. We might imagine that this is simply because “Jesus is God”, supposing that his energy for all things is endless because of this unfair advantage. This would be a mistake, however, since while on earth he took up human nature in full, requiring all the normal means of refreshment and rest. He could be tired (Matt 8:24), hungry (Mark 11:12) and weary (John 4:6) like the rest of us, and yet his three-odd years of active ministry were marked by unceasing generosity, mercy and love. In these few years, he terraformed a world.
He did have one particular advantage, though, which we modern people so easily forget, and which dawned on me afresh as I sat in silence contemplating him. It occurred to me how radically different his experience of society and its problems must have been, and how much more hope he and his disciples must have felt despite their great trials and obstacles. Today, the world is both bigger and smaller than ever, and our interconnectedness means that we are aware of not only the challenges within our local communities, but the injustices occurring around the globe. We might be awake only five minutes before receiving a dozen updates or notifications about recent events, many of which are negative or even tragic. Jesus would never have awoken in such a way. I imagine most days began slowly with prayer and bread and water, and some small talk with whomever he shared his lodging. They might have shared a story, a prayer, a song or even a joke around the table. Far removed from even the advent of printed news or radio, his breakfast would not (even could not) have been disturbed by distant news unless within some direct conversation or by some actual knock at the door. In short, unlike us, he mostly experienced the tragedies of the world in real time and space, one face at a time.
Our present situation, in which we have near-unlimited access to the world’s news in our pockets and lounge rooms, is a decidedly mixed blessing. We might feel that we could even have some advantage over Jesus (!), being allowed instant access to world events toward which we might pray and act. We can discover within minutes those things which Jesus would have waited months to hear of by letter.
On the other hand, there is little we can do about much of this news except offer our prayers, and even these must be limited because the list quickly becomes far too long. In the end, we settle for being merely “informed”, since this apparently holds great value in itself, despite the fact that our necessary disengagement engenders a kind of distance and indifference toward most of the sad things about which we ever hear.
Informed to Death
The extent of this problem should be obvious, and it is one of many modern problems with which Jesus never had to grapple while here on earth. By this flood of distant information we are at once informed and paralysed. Such access to all the world’s bad news at once is surely unnatural, and surely very hard on the soul if the soul has any tenderness left at all. We might pretend to care deeply about all of this bad news, but in reality we can’t give much of our conscious minds, prayers or actions to them while living anything resembling a functional life. Instead, most of it hangs in the back of our minds as an unresolved tension or tragedy toward which we can do nothing. This is a recipe for anxiety, self-loathing and hopelessness.
It is also, as hinted, a recipe for simply ceasing to care, since such detachment (in self-defence) becomes practically a matter of psychological survival. We are profoundly desensitised by our daily bombardment, such that today when I see a picture of a starving child, it can be dismissed as a cheap trope or marketing trick, if I notice it at all. The dullness of my conscience condemns me, but it also makes plain the extent of the problem. Perhaps this is why so few souls today are both soft and joyful. We seem to have to choose between one or the other. I can’t blame young people for feeling stuck, not knowing how to follow Jesus in any way which seems meaningful or impactful, because they’re not sure where to start. It’s all simply too much. Even if they do a truly good thing, amid the sea of all the world’s problems it can feel utterly insignificant.
Our new situation is cruel. Ours is a hard world for any soft soul, and our compassion is sure to be slowly crushed by its tendency towards helplessness and hopelessness. We likely won’t even notice local victories or local needs, because we are blinded by “larger” and more distant concerns, and problems set in the future. Jesus’ world, by comparison, was smaller and slower, grounded in present and local realities. He didn’t spend his days trying to solve tensions in Afghanistan or navigate arcane political rhetoric, but loving the leper by his side.
If we were to try to inhabit his world for ourselves, it would surely be far more evident to us that our daily good actions really do have profound effects, especially as they compound over time. Our overwhelmed modern existence robs us of such hope by blinding us to plainer, simpler and more local realities. If we were to start over, consciously choosing to think simply and locally, we might start to notice our neighbours, and pray more deeply and often for our families and friends, and those local needs which we have heard about directly or through our real relationships. I don’t suppose that God expects us to pray and care for everybody everywhere all at once. Instead, Jesus shows us that the world is best changed in person, one encounter at a time. He didn’t need social media, fast transport or even a microphone to change the world, and for the most part we might be better off without them, too.
Grounded in the Here and Now
How can we return to the simpler way of Jesus and find the hopeful compassion with which he was always filled?
Well, the “how” should be quite obvious, even if few of us will want to do it. Nobody is forcing us to engage endlessly with the flood of modern content; we are free to disengage to whatever extent we like. We must choose to let go of the fear of missing out, though, and to care more about our spiritual health and our ability to love others than having something to say about present world events.
If you reduce your consumption of social media and news to near zero, the world will keep spinning, your true friends will still be in your life, and you may even start to rediscover that mythical coexistence of soft-heartedness and joy. You will also share the experience of almost all humans in almost every age. You might pray with more hope, since you are not burdened by all the problems everywhere. You might see the value of enjoying a small exchange or a laugh with someone in the supermarket aisle because you’re less burdened by the heaviness of life. And you may find the return of something which is increasingly absent from a world which constantly uses its name: compassion. Being no longer so desensitised, you might find yourself crying and rejoicing more deeply and more often, joining others in their sorrows and victories, and giving up your time for no obvious personal return. This has certainly been my experience. Of course, it all depends on how you choose to spend all that time and sanity you’ve reclaimed. If you spend it connecting as deeply as you can with God, people and nature, you’ll not be disappointed.
In the end, this post has been my long way of saying something very simple: if you want to change the world, stop trying to change “the world” and start loving the person in front of you in the way of Jesus. Turn off the news and connect with someone. Delete the news app from your phone and check it on a website once a week instead. “Once a week?!” You’ll be fine. If you do the same with social media, you’ll be even happier (better still, get rid of it altogether). Technology ads will tell you that today we are “more connected” than ever, but surely none of us buy such nonsense. We are more alienated than ever, because we are far more engaged with distant and abstract things than directly with creation and humanity. How many of the most profound experiences of your life happened on a screen? Screens are great slaves, but the worst of all masters. We must connect in real time and space. We are human beings. We must return to the “Jesus way” of bringing new life into the world, and leave the gimmickry and unnatural burdens of the modern world behind.
There is one important caveat to all of this. I am not for a moment suggesting that we stop caring about problems which are far away. I help run a mission organisation, and spend much of my time working with and for people overseas. I care deeply about these people and their communities, and only want that care to grow (which is part of the purpose of this post). Rather, I am highlighting the paralysing affect of constantly hearing about the perils of people to which we have no connection at all. It is obviously important to hear some such news, but there is clearly such a thing as “too much”, and that line was, for most of us, long ago crossed. We now even use the term “doomscrolling”, fully aware of its negative impacts but helpless to avoid it when we are in those apps which are designed to perpetuate it for profit. Then, when faced with the perils of the whole world, we feel “like butter scraped over too much bread”, as Bilbo said. Our love can only be so wide without sacrificing depth, because we are not God. We are much better served by focusing mostly on real connections, and by simply living in the world, with our eyes and hearts wide open to those around us, following whatever God might do or say if he himself walked among them. That was good enough for Jesus, and it’s good enough for me.