It is a common occurrence: you’ve been working on a paper and have read and reread it a dozen times. You hand it to someone else and they instantly see where you used “there” instead of “their” and forgot to capitalize a proper noun and…. Why does that happen? When writing, we know what we are trying to say, so as we reread, we tend to be more forgiving of ourselves because we know the big picture we’re trying to render. It is that picture we are focused on. The bystander has no such knowledge and approaches the paper as a bunch of words on a page, which may or may not make any rational sense. They don’t share the author’s inside knowledge.
Our habits and environment can suffer from a similar problem of familiarity. Some things don’t occur to us because we are used to things being the way they are. Sometimes a fresh set of eyes can help us to see our world in a new way. That could be someone from a different culture or even a different time.¹ We can self-induce this questioning in ourselves and Lent is a classic time for this. The call to voluntarily set aside something for 40 days gives us a new perspective on it. But we don’t have to wait for Lent; we can choose to step away at anytime.
My convictions on television developed in this manner. Years ago, when our children were all still young, my wife and I realized that television was taking time from us, so we decided to stop watching. We soon found that we did not miss it and went on with our lives. Only after years of this abstinence, when confronted with television’s omnipresence in our society in which waiting rooms all but force it upon us, did I notice its content.
The news channels are what struck me. I remember thinking in an airport, “Why are they trying to make me anxious?” Fear and uncertainty seem to be the hallmarks of the 24 hour news cycle, and from a psychological standpoint it makes sense. If they can keep us anxious about what is happening in the world, we’ll keep tuning in. What makes no sense is why I would voluntarily choose to be manipulated like that.
My observation became possible only because I had been removed from television long enough to see the situation with fresh eyes. Questioning our habits, routines, and environment can help us to see them in new light. Be warned: doing this will probably lead you in some directions that are acultural.²
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. Jesus calls us to examine our lives in the light of his teaching and the Holy Spirit. He uses the question, “Why?” frequently in his teaching. Why are you anxious? Why are you afraid? Why do you think evil in your hearts? We do well to examine our own lives in the light of Scripture. Question your habits and if they don’t give good answers, change them.
¹ How, you ask? Read a book. Engaging with an author from a different century can help us see our current world reflected in a different mirror.
² I say acultural rather than countercultural because counterculture has come to mean merely the opposite of prevailing culture—the hippy movement of the 1960s is a prime example. Acultural denotes going at whatever direction to the culture one sees as necessary. It is not a reaction so much as charting a course by a different value system altogether.