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Sensory Overload

By Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR

I am quite concerned about the overall state of humanity. With the exception of people living in desolate areas, and maybe undiscovered tribes living deep in the rainforest, most of us are connected by social and digital media. It seems as though every thought and experience is immediately shared with thousands of people. Even those we know only as friends of friends are part of our lives.

This is not a rant against social and digital media. I’m aware of the power of the media platforms and recognize what is good, what is imperfect, and what isn’t fully understood. Most of my books, magazines, newspapers, and even my priestly breviary are digital. I read more than ever, so on balance my use of digital media has been a good experience.

My concern is that for most people, regular -periods of silence and just “being” have given way to a never-ending stream of information, music, entertainment, and other distractions.

When do we reflect, when do we ponder, when do we have time to simply be present to the mystery, the wonder, and the awe of the universe? Are human beings created to be so digitally connected that we never have sustained, conscious moments of solitude? Are we doomed to a life of distraction?

Some of my favorite memories—none of which, by the way, are catalogued on social media—are of times spent fishing for bluegills, rocking on my mother’s back porch, taking long walks on country roads, sitting before the Blessed Sacrament in deep and sustained silence. Are such moments gone forever?

I don’t think I’m overreacting. Recently I saw a woman playing solitaire on her phone as she waited for Mass to start. What a wasted opportunity for silence and prayer.

Spiritual directors, psychologists, and therapists know that it’s unhealthy to experience any stimulus in a never-ending stream. People who are unwillingly subjected to unrelenting thoughts, anxieties, voices, and other distractions routinely report feeling exhausted and disconnected. They long for simple quiet and aloneness.

So why would anyone deliberately live with constant distraction? And what will happen to the human community when unrelenting noise and images are no longer the exception?

In my book Christian Contemplative Living: Six Connecting Points (Acta Publications, 2014), I observed, “Silence and solitude are food for the soul, the essential nutrient that fuels our spirits. Just as we cannot long survive without food and water, so also our soul cannot thrive and survive without silence and solitude.”

Are we not starving ourselves spiritually when we deprive ourselves of quiet and stillness? Are we aware of the steep price we pay when we give in to distractions instead of staying connected in the silence to an experience that is beyond ourselves? Do we not see the harm in being so self-centered and absorbed that we never experience an unscripted moment?

One reason the spiritual suffering of scrupulosity is so intense is that it limits the opportunity to connect with God. Through no fault of their own—and certainly not as a result of sin—people with scrupulosity who are bombarded with unwanted thoughts, desires, and feelings are being deprived of the essential building blocks of spiritual relationship. Every moment of quiet connection or experience is rudely and painfully interrupted by the scrupulous disorder’s demand, “Pay attention to me, pay attention to me!”

Many people with scrupulosity have a hard time believing that God does indeed love and care for them, not because they lack faith, but because scrupulosity cruelly denies them the silence needed to hear the Spirit of God.

We have an essential need for prolonged moments of silence; therefore, filling every moment of every day with unnecessary distraction is not a good idea. People who have no choice or for whom the gift of silence is elusive should adopt a spiritual practice that trains and focuses their attention on the experience of silence.

For people with scrupulosity, this isn’t easy—but it isn’t impossible, and it’s well worth the effort.

Social and digital media are a blessing but, as with all blessings and good gifts, moderation is key. We risk spiritual starvation if we don’t deliberately moderate our use of media and find a healthy balance that also includes silence.

Published in2015 NovemberCover Articles