The thirst for distraction is a sure sign of despair—and we live in one of the most distracted cultures imaginable.
Of course, computer culture feeds such distraction and has made it an addiction. People flit from screen to screen, website to website, meaningless piece of gossip to meaningless piece of gossip. What can be said about computers may be said of any human tool. Like a hammer, a computer can help build something significant, or it can alternatively do in your head.
But it is not technology per se that is causing our restlessness. What is worrisome is the way computerization is being used to make us increasingly nomadic in every part of our lives—even in our workplaces. The open offices and flexible seating assignments that are now commonplace promise, rather like false prophets, more creativity, communication and (most of all) profit. But we must ask, in the manner of Jesus’ incisive question, ““What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:36).
The open offices and flexible seating assignments that are now commonplace promise, rather like false prophets, more creativity, communication and (most of all) profit.
Perhaps this brand of nomadism is not new. It was pagan culture that made restlessness a spiritual exercise. Pagan worshipers in the pre-Christian era had to remember so many gods, pay them homage and rush from statue to statue, temple to temple. It was as if, without the light of Christ in their lives, they could only run around in a panic, seeking tiny pieces of solace wherever they could glean them.
Now we have adopted the ancient worship practice for our modern working habits.
“Hot desks,” for the blissfully uninitiated, are single places at work that can be occupied by a variety of employees at different times of the day. Nobody has a place to settle. Everybody can be “deskless,” or at least, have no desk they can call their own. This impersonal place, open to all, belonging to none, is part of a phenomenon that is coming to be known as “hoteling,” by which any office worker can “check in” to an open seat on a first come, first served basis.
This supposedly happy state of eternal disturbance, of mobile and mutable inconstancy, is arguably the end product of one of the sadder American cultural trends.
America has given the world the gloriously astonishing notion of the “drive-through,” and not just for fast food. There are drive-through pharmacies and even drive-through banks, which almost makes the getaway car redundant. But then, one could make the case that American culture has pioneered modern materialism; and materialism breeds a million ever-changing pagan gods, and therefore a great deal of pointless racing around.
Jesus, however, was a great sitter. Sometimes, he even reclined. Great moments of ministry were accomplished sitting down: the Sermon on the Mount (“He went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him,” Mt 5:1); the discussion with the woman at the well (“Jacob’s well was there. Jesus, tired from his journey, sat down there at the well,” Jn 4:6); the Last Supper (“as they reclined at table and were eating....” Mk 14:18).
True, he travelled. That was part of his mission, but when he arrived, he sat. We should not assume that it was his ideal to have to move from place to place before sitting; it was the pressures of an imperfect world that forced him into physical restlessness. Jesus was begotten for permanence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the word was God.” Having accomplished an ultimate spiritual permanence beyond this physical world, he is, we are assured, permanently “seated at the right hand of the Father.” We know where to find him.
In the Catholic world of Christian humanism, there are fewer troubling words than those used after a pope has died and, for a brief spell, the church is without its human spiritual center: sede vacante. Roughly translated, it means, “The chair [of Peter] being empty.” Ss. Peter and Paul both found their final mortal home in the eternal city of Rome. St. Paul, despite traveling a great deal, loved to find one place after having traveled, usually close to the synagogue, where he could sit, think and be found. His day job was tentmaking, but in sitting and stitching impermanent structures of transience, he shaped enduring metaphors of the eternal: “If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands” (2 Cor 5:1).
St. Peter certainly did not want to be dragged off to the other end of the world, to Rome. He could probably have remained in Jerusalem (or perhaps, Capernaum) until old age. But together with Paul, he made Rome the permanent seat of Christianity, and the church was rescued from a potential history of distracting nomadism so that it could reflect on the things that last.
Whenever anyone has had important and lasting work to be done, they have invariably established a place for themselves that is as permanent as anything in this life can be: a room, a study, a desk with shelves. Adequate and secure housing has become a statement of principle in the United Nations. The modern principles of personal and intellectual freedom have assumed the right of a human being to a space that is their own, free from the impositions of the passing and restless parade. As with so much that is mysteriously spiritual, such thinking aligns with the natural realities of human life. We think freely when we can repose in familiar spaces that are our own. Reflection requires respite.
We think freely when we can repose in familiar spaces that are our own. Reflection requires respite.
It is also a strange inversion of alleged progress that the technological revolution that forced us to sit behind a computer for hours a day has now made possible a sort of endless restlessness through newer and newer forms of the addictive machines: hence the “hot desks,” the “agile workplaces” and “hoteling.” The idols have shifted into our hands, our pockets. Who needs a lararium when you have a laptop? But personal reflection flourishes in familiar places. To be perpetually on the run is to be controlled by whoever is pursuing you.
But eternal motion is for pinballs, not people. It is the great heritage of Christianity that it wrestles with the difference between the transient and the eternal, the things of this world and the things of heaven. Jesus travelled so that he could sit with friends, like Martha and Mary, and tell them that Mary, sitting and pondering in her own familiar home, had chosen the better path.
It is when human beings settle down to do the important things of life, like composing a symphony, writing “Hamlet” or pondering the immutable laws of the universe, that one needs to sit at one’s own familiar and permanent workplace. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labor…and I will give you rest.” He might well have added, “and a desk.”