Monday, January 08, 2007

Be still and know

A talk I heard at a Catholic “Mothers Group” a few months ago has been slowly filtering through my brain until it was drawn to the surface again by a comment Michael made to me the other night. Gabriel has been getting increasingly wiggly when we sit down to have dinner, and rather than sit calmly on our laps and play with a toy, he insists on standing precariously on our legs (a feat for which he still needs support), leaning over the table, and burrowing his face into the toy/napkin/shiny object with which he is currently enthralled. Not only does this make it impossible for the person holding him to eat, it also has the pleasant effect of forcing out any lingering burps and spit-ups which might be floating around in his stomach. Suffice it to say, meals of late have not been the peaceful, idyllic family moments one might hope they would be. Reflecting on Gabriel’s behavior, Michael commented that we’re going to have to figure out a way to teach Gabriel to be still, to be silent, to contemplate, in age-appropriate ways, of course, and not necessarily at dinnertime, but certainly in the context of prayer time and church visits.

All this brought back to me a quote the speaker at the Mothers Group shared with us from Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture: "The greatest menace to our capacity for contemplation is the incessant fabrication of tawdry empty stimuli which kill the receptivity of the soul." Since the topic was the music and media that we expose our children to, he commented that he himself did not own a television, as he wished to keep his family away from the empty stimuli that it provides. Perhaps inevitably a mother asked, “What about VeggieTales? Or educational TV? That’s okay, right?” The speaker replied that although VeggieTales may have a moral message, and Christian content which is good, the vehicle for this content is still “tawdry, empty stimuli”–in other words, the method of delivery is also problematic. Full of loud sounds, raucous singing, quick scenes, silly humor, etc, VeggieTales is not quite designed to build a child’s capacity for contemplation; rather, it may contribute to the short-attention-span disease which plagues so many children today, which is not only detrimental to their ability to learn but also more importantly to their ability to pray and thus to relate to God.

His point certainly got me thinking. In the context of the talk, “contemplation” doesn’t mean floating-off-into-a-sea-of-mental-nothingness for relaxation purposes. It means consciously, lovingly, putting oneself into the presence of the God who gave and continues to give us life. This is, in effect, what prayer should be, which is basically a “dress rehearsal” for what heaven’s going to be all about. Eternal, joyful adoration of God along with the whole communion of saints and hopefully everyone we’ve loved here on earth. And the only way we can even begin to contemplate in such a manner is if the “receptivity” of our soul is fine-tuned. I can only imagine that one whose soul is “receptive” would, among other things, be able appreciate beauty in all its forms, particularly in the created world, would be highly sensitive to (and responsive to) the joys and sufferings of other people, and would be open to discerning God’s will for them through Scripture as well as the events of their lives.

It seems avoiding television may be one way to nurture Gabriel’s ability to contemplate and be still. (For us that is pretty much a no-brainer since we don’t have a TV.) I’ve spent time thinking more about other ways to do this, I’ve realized that teaching him this will require learning how to do it myself–to allow for silence in our day to day lives and resist the temptation to fill every moment with words, narration, music, movement, and other forms of stimulation. We’ve spent long moments looking at the squirrels scurrying through the courtyard, feeling the texture of different objects around the house, and quietly playing with toys. For myself I’ve tried to spend less time Googling and more time reading worthwhile books; less time talking and more time listening (in daily conversations and in prayer); less time adjusting things around the house and more time dwelling in it. It seems like a big jump from a rather everyday “secular” things to the much more profound matter of how our souls are formed and how we relate to God. But that’s the way life works–in reality, nothing is “secular” if that word is used to mean not pertaining to our relationship with God.


earthie said...

Cain't fool me, you're a Schindler child through and through ;)

Carla said...

can i comment on my own post? i was resisting the temptation to note that nothing is neutral...:)

Chris W said...

Not to have a television in the home is, I agree, a prudential choice, but is it an oversimplification to say that it's just a tawdry empty stimuli. Forgive me, but I'm going to be a bit Kantian and ask whether or not this imperative can be applied to all human beings in all situations. If this is true for children then it must be true for adults, but I do have some very memorable experiences of sitting around a televeision with friends and enjoying a TV program or a sporting event. In other words these experiences were far from being empty.
I would disagree with the person who said a child watching veggie tales is just an empty experience. Not only can they learn an important moral from the video, but this also could create conversation with parents about the moral.
With all this said, Carla, I'm glad that I've found your blog. I thought that your comments here were very insightful, and I have a few people in mind who I'd like to read what you've said.
Gabriel is so cute and getting so big. I hope that I get the chance to see you guys some time soon.
Chris Wilson

Chris W said...

I know that it's not an imperative but rather a statement. They won't let you edit your own comment, bummer.

Carla said...

hey, some controversy, I like it! :) thanks chris! i may have to return to this topic since it's definitely not a closed book in my mind.

Chris W said...

I think that the controversy would concern the difference between the way a child responds to the images that are transmitted by the television as opposed to an adult. I think that I was wrong in saying that if this is true for children then it must be true for adults. It could be true that this sort of stimuli effects children in a way that is negative but not a problem for adults. It still to me seems conter-intuitive to believe that watching tv is just empty stimuli for any age group. I think that an argument can be given for why it's better not to have a tv in the home. I just don't think that the argument presented was very convincing.

earthie said...

I bet it's too late to jump in the controversy but what the heck.

I think there is certainly a difference between how a child responds to TV/ movies and an adult. I remember as a kid liking any movie I ever saw because it was a movie on a big screen. Now I hardly ever go to the movies because I'm always struck by inadequacies or I am more aware of the ways that the movie is manipulating my emotions. i.e. You watch enough romantic comedies and you think that is love. As an adult, you are equipped to take something like that and compare it to experience and real life, and judge it. As a child, you accept things much more without questioning them.

There are plenty of TVs in the world so not having one in your house will not hinder you from enjoying TV viewing from time to time. And there are lots of times when people can have a great experience watching something together. The problem, I think, comes when TV is used simply out of boredom... which I think you'd agree happens 90% of the time. I've certainly experienced this in my own life. You get home, make something to eat, and it's silent because no one else is home. The TV beckons to you... it says, 'Don't be silent, Don't think, just sit back, relax, and watch'.

I love something simple that Schindler said my first year that reminded me that he was a real person (I struggled with a lot of this) "I don't have a tv, because you know, if you HAVE one, you'll watch it"