Artificial food, sex and drugs give us an artificial high — and they’re getting in the way of our search for God.
In late 2018, Matt and Elizabeth Breunig broadcast an episode of their podcast called “The Hedonic Blitzkrieg.” They pointed to all kinds of things that distort our natural desires.
Modern commercial food is among those things that can create artificial dopamine spikes. Most cereal or chocolate is sweet beyond what is natural. French fries are often so coated with unnaturally high levels of fat that a nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommended that a healthy serving of them should be limited to six fries. The Bruenigs commented on how hard it was to find healthy food for their toddler.
Likewise, although humans have traditionally used drugs to get high, modern illegal drugs take this to a new level. We have manufactured drugs out of plants for years, but many of the synthetic versions of opioids found today are that much more powerful. They deliver such a rush of dopamine and endorphins that a wave of euphoria instantly comes over the user. However, in their extreme forms, they so overwhelm us that they can become deadly. Fentanyl can become deadly at just two to three milligrams, or about a grain of sand. Carfentanil is reported to be deadly at 1/100th of that amount—at which point it is almost invisible.
All kinds of things distort our natural desires.
Like food and drugs, pornography distorts our dopamine. It does not portray images of “normal” sex in a loving relationship, but of sex specifically designed to produce extreme hormone spikes. Pornography is just as artificial as the food and drugs mentioned above. It takes sexuality out of a deep interpersonal relationship to isolate what drives dopamine spikes. There is a trend of young men reporting cases of erectile dysfunction, possbily because their desires are so twisted by fake sex that real sex is not satisfying.
The Breunigs note how much they fight their toddler’s desire for fake food. Thinking about this and looking at my own nephews and niece, I noticed something different. One sister posted about her son’s love of unsalted pistachios. When I was at my other sister’s house, her son kept asking for tuna. Tuna and pistachios are far from the candy, soda and chips most kids ask for.
I come from a rather unique family in this regard. My parents run an organic farm; my sister runs a farm to table blog, and they eat either what they grow themselves or what is grown locally as much as is possible in Canada. Before they started farming, I grew up eating venison my dad hunted. During a visit to my parents’ home this summer, after dinner my mom brought out fresh cherries. My dad asked where they were grown, and my mom immediately knew the answer.
It is possible these young men's desires are so twisted by fake sex that real sex is not satisfying.
So, my parents were good at keeping me from artificial desires regarding food. My rebellion in college—when they could no longer guide my desires—was drinking Wild Cherry Pepsi at every meal just because I could.
Since listening to this episode of the Bruenigs, every time I see chocolates or similar sweets in our house, I ask myself if I am simply going along with society’s tendency to artificially fulfill my desires? Wouldn’t I be better off eating that orange, or a handful of peanuts? I am not perfect in eliminating artificial fulfillment of my desires for food, but I think I have gotten better. One of the Bruenigs’ main points was that society makes it very difficult for us to fight this artificiality alone.
We have seen in recent years the rise of different eating trends focusing on organic, fresh and/or local foods. Our natural needs for food are in a way better satisfied with such natural foods as opposed to the big commercial chemical food so common in society.
In our relationship to social media itself, artificiality and impulse can replace what used to be our search for the divine.
Like the movement towards more balanced food, movements against the artificial sexuality of pornography have risen up as well. We have seen the growth of groups like no-fap, which promote abstaining from pornography and masturbation. It is a movement found in both religious and non-religious circles alike.
It is not only in our relationship to food and sex but to social media itself that artificiality and impulse can take over our lives, replacing what used to be our search for the divine. While our thirst for God is a thirst for meaning, our fast-paced culture, where Google seems to answer every question, can easily make us forget that need for meaning.
However, Google can only provide us with external knowledge. It can give us the definition of a word, but it cannot tell us why words have meaning to begin with. It can pull up the Gospel descriptions of Jesus but cannot give you internal knowledge of Jesus like that which comes in prayer.
Google can give us the definition of a word, but it cannot tell us why words have meaning to begin with.Society tends to create artificial gods that look brighter and shinier than God. How often do people say “I’m low on battery” when they really mean their laptop or cell phone is low on battery? Likewise, with a never-ending stream of Netflix or YouTube we can easily create a substitute God. We even report on celebrities in a way akin to pagan legends of the gods.
We will not get out of the cycle of superficial meanings and false gods automatically. We need to make a choice to reach for a deeper meaning and a fuller view of God. The kinds of prayer taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola can help reset ourselves to be open to God. Drawing from his methods, I see four steps that are particularly vital today.
First, we need to leave distractions behind. Maybe this means leaving our cell phone elsewhere or locking out social media and games. It could also entail setting aside other distractions as well: When praying, an open Tom Clancy novel or People magazine won’t help.
Ignatian prayer can help reset us to be open to God.
Second, we need to put ourselves in God’s presence. We know God exists, but we have to begin our prayer by moving our will to what we know. If we do not try to put ourselves in God’s presence, we end up just talking to ourselves.
These first two steps help us remove what is artificial in our environment. They allow us to grow organically in our search for God. But they merely leave us at the door; they don't let us grow naturally. We have stopped eating chocolate bars and soda, sure. But now we need to replace them by eating bananas and peanuts.
The third step is a step fairly unique to Ignatius. If we are meditating on, say, Jesus appearing on the seashore in John 21, we can do an “application of the senses.” We might feel the breeze on our face and smell the fire with fish and bread. Then we look out on the lake and see Peter and John; we hear Jesus calling them, and, as the scene unfolds and Jesus invites us in, we taste this breakfast.
Finally, after all that is done we speak with Jesus. You might ask, “Why did you leave the apostles wondering after the resurrection?”
If you listen carefully, Christ will give you answers to help when your spiritual life seems uncertain.
We may not be able to completely fight the social forces of distraction and artificiality, but a diligent practice of Ignatian prayer can help us counteract them.
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