Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century.
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harvard University commencement address, 1978 (link)
This is from 1978!
I read this address in preparation for a Christianity and Culture class I’m helping to teach, and this quote was one of the standouts. Solzhenitsyn delivered this address when he’d been an exile in the West for four years, long enough to see a “world” very different from his own Communist Russia, but also with its own weaknesses and crises.
This statement seems more prescient than ever in our present era, which – especially for public life – encourages and rewards haste and superficiality. We aren’t asked to think, reflect, or wait; we must hustle, go viral, bust out the hottest hot take. Our intellectual economy outputs virality over all.
And if we on the “consuming” side of this economy are honest, we (I) reward virality because we love to ride the next wave of infotainment, feeling in-the-know and in-the-feel of our tribe’s jubilation or outrage as it’s happening. The desire to watch history unfold is, at root, as admirable as the desire to study history; but, as incidents like the Covington Catholic one show, there’s a difference between observing/learning what actually happens and the judge-balloon-move on incendiary cycle that we create.
My stream of Christianity has been too-recently rediscovering how the resources in Christianity speak to human wholeness; ways of being-in-the-world that we see addressed in psychology, sociology, and their pop and “business” analogues. One of the clear distinctions made within historic Christian thought is between deliberate, charitable thinking and curiositas – shallow, selfish thinking. The latter is condemned as a vice; it is even described in terms similar to an addiction. That’s how my own desire to learn-know-judge-comment most often feels: like an addiction.
Another principle of Christianity is that we cannot live compartmentalized lives: ultimately, I will become the same person among my family that I am at work, at leisure. Good habits and bad habits alike will spill over from one area into another. That means an addictive pattern of news intake will spawn addictive patterns that affect enjoying books, conversing with my wife, playing with my kids. Unchecked (untreated!), hastiness and superficiality will take over my soul.
The Christian responses to haste and superficiality are wisdom and integrity– seeking knowledge and choosing information/entertainment in a way that will make me wiser, more charitable, and a better husband, father, and neighbor. It’s a more patient way of being that resists novelty, spin, and the temporary thrill of the spectacle. It also creates people more resistant to tyrannies from West and East, monarch and mob.
May I abound in wisdom and integrity. May we all.
Image by Chris Johnson, taken from Harvard Magazine