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Simcha Fisher: The real world is what’s right in front of you

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Is there anything more irritating than commercials that urge you to do what you’re already doing? Hey, clothing shoppers, you should shop for clothes in this store! Hey, movie-watcher in this theater, you should watch movies in this theater! This morning on the radio, an upbeat, savvy-sounding man explained to me, the listener, that I should be listening to the radio station that I was, in fact, listening to.

Why? Because, he explained, I do the same thing every day. I eat the same breakfast, drive the same route to head to the same office and do the same job. But it didn’t have to be that way. All it took was the flick of a switch and I could be listening to their news program, and my world would be opened, my brain would light up like a roman candle, and my mind would be made fresh, new, and wonderful as I tapped into the fascinating, enlightening stream of global news pouring forth from their news room.

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Well, he wasn’t wrong. His words were enlightening. I realised I had the radio on automatically, and it was blathering away about things I didn’t know much about, things that were important and relevant and worth engaging with . . . for somebody. Not for me. I wasn’t even really listening; I just had it on because I like to stay connected to the “real world” as I drive down my same old road in my same old car with my same old kids.

So I turned it off, and I started to think.

It’s routine for advertisers to hint or outright proclaim that there is something wrong with your life as it is, and you will be so much better if you simply take advantage of this thing they’re selling. This is how they make money: By inducing dissatisfaction. It’s an unpleasant trick, but it’s nothing new.

I was startled, though, to realise that this radio station wanted me to think of my ordinary life as inadequate, just because it was . . . my life. They didn’t specify why that was a problem. They didn’t say it was boring, or unsatisfying, or that I would be in some kind of danger if I kept on living my life without their help in branching out to bigger, better things. It simply assumed that my life, by the very fact of being ordinary, familiar, daily, and mine personally, needed to be remedied.

The implication is that anything that is personal, immediate, and relevant to my everyday life — anything, in short, that is right in front of me — is not really real enough. That things are only real if they are newsworthy, interesting to great swaths of people, or likely to change history. That the “real world” I should be connected to was elsewhere.

In The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon instructs his nephew in the value of making sure the patient (a human whose soul they want to consume) is never full attentive to what is personal, immediate, and relevant to his everyday life. Screwtape says:

“[N] nearly all the vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead.”

And he is right. When I allow myself to be trained to think of the everyday as inadequate and meaningless, and of my life as empty and in need of being filled, exalted, and illuminated by the global, the noteworthy, and the historical, then what do I miss? Love. Love of the people around me, and love of God who is with me now. Love is active, and activity belongs to the present, the immediate.

The cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Photo: DaveBleasdale/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
The cover of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Photo: DaveBleasdale/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Screwtape says:

“The humans live in time but our Enemy [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the present is the point at which time touches eternity. Of the present moment, and of it only, humans have the experience which our Enemy has of reality as a whole; in it alone freedom and actuality are offered them. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”

Well, by all means, be informed. Pay attention to great global matters of historical significance, and don’t stick your head in the sand. But don’t let some vague sense of duty to more important things distract you from the present; and don’t, for goodness’ sake, believe the line that tells you that the more close and familiar something is, the less it signifies. Just the opposite is true.

So do what you’re already doing, as all the commercials urge — but really do it. Really be there, be attentive, be aware, be present. See what is right in front of you. Attend to what is demanded of you right now. Enjoy what is given to you right now. Suffer what you’re given to deal with now. Take your life seriously.

It’s not easy. There are constant demands on our attention, some legitimate, some trivial, some entirely bogus. And sometimes we are just too blamed tired to focus on the present. It happens.

But if you start to believe the lie that your common, ordinary, everyday life is inherently inadequate, then what will be left of your life? What is your life made up of, if not the personal, the immediate, the relevant, the small, the ordinary, the personal?

The devil in Screwtape fears the man who concerns himself with the present “because there, and there alone, all duty, all grace, all knowledge, and all pleasure dwell”.

Don’t let anyone persuade you your life isn’t meaningful just because it’s happening to you. The present is a gift from God, and it is where God is.

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