When I am feeling all out-of-sorts—not just distracted, but traipsing toward disorientation—I regain a sense of order by pulling from the bookshelf a favorite book that has lain dormant for perhaps a decade, lifted only for dusting or for consideration when I am putting together a donation to our local library.
Sometimes, one cracks open the dusty pages and discovers that the book’s attractions have not held; what spoke deeply to one’s sensibilities at age 40 suddenly seems, at age 53, to be so much twaddle. This is productive; not only does the realization clear space on the shelf, it gives a reassuring hint that one has not grown stagnant but is still evolving. One’s orientation, like the arrow-tipped minute-hand of a timepiece, has moved, no matter how minutely.
Other times, one settles into a book with abandon only to be smacked into self-awareness on the strength of a single line. That happened to me this past weekend, as I reacquainted myself with Miss Jane Eyre who, wandering restlessly in her institutional chamber confided, “I tired of the routine of eight years in an afternoon.”
And there is was; the niggling sense of restlessness that has contributed to a scorching case of writer’s block, rendering my publisher’s hair gray and plunging my blog into near-blackout status. With something like horror I realized that I—the news junkie whose earliest memories involve sitting on the floor, transfixed as Nancy Dickerson read the afternoon headlines and the iconic black and white images burned themselves into my imagination; the girl who had devoured political and religious stories and had made a happy career out of the chomping; the woman whose greatest joy after family was the perpetual wellspring of the internet where one could read something, bang out a reaction and then click the mouse and do it again, ad infinitum—had become bored beyond endurance.
I am bored by the same people saying the same things, week after week, and by their dismaying contempt for curiosity, and by my own, too.
A few days ago, the gaffe-prone (far more than the press will admit) President Obama said, “the private sector is doing fine.” Opposition predictably jumped on it; sympathizers predictably worked to spin it; all of the same people who have been in our faces for decades were in our faces again—on television, on the radio, in social media—and their busy words, predictably, boiled down to “shut up; other opinions are unconscionable and do not belong at our lunchtable.” No one seemed remotely curious to ask, “does the president actually believe this? If so, why? Is his brain all right?”
This morning, in my capacity as editor, I rejected a submission touching on the interesting story of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s disapproval of Sister Margaret Farley’s 2008 book, Just Love. Rather than ask whether theologians should wander as they wonder about theological issues without being overly encumbered by doctrinal dictates, the writer’s curiosity had been stalled by an indulgent need for venting resulting in 1,100 boring, extraneous words that amounted to, “shut up; you only need those mitres to hold all the poop in your heads.”
Because the Farley story is so interesting, and I am curious about the theologian’s role, I read the relevant comment threads on both “conservative” and “liberal” Catholic sites and found more predictability: on one side, automatic condemnation being conferred upon the sister’s entire body of work, often without a word of it ever having been read. The other side, naturally, conferred automatic approval of her every past-and-future syllable, rendered with promises to buy her previously unheard-of book “as a political act”, because curiosity, apparently, wouldn’t otherwise compel the purchase.
Then I read Sally Quinn’s shallow comments on the story, which hauled out overplayed feminist tropes for the purpose of mere validation. Asking the most boring of boomer questions, “is the human body not to be admired? Why shouldn’t our own bodies give us pleasure?” Quinn cannot sustain enough curiosity to examine why the church teaches as it does before giddily skipping over to an astrologist whose celestial readings are ever so much more compelling than the “contorted thinking of celibate men,” who can have nothing of interest to say to her.
As an old English professor of mine would pronounce: Bong! Boring! Say something new!
Beyond predictable responses to the very interesting Farley story—interesting at its depths, where few dare swim—my email yielded the truly pathetic news that 53 year-old Madonna, desperate for an approval she still has not found, had exposed her nipple to a concert crowd. As we have been free to look at her nipples anytime these past three decades, nothing could be more worthy of a professorial “Bong; boring…” except perhaps, the screaming approval of a crowd, perpetually stalled at age 13 and willing to pretend titillation.
Familiarity breeds contempt. Incuriosity makes us predictable and boring, and our media outlets, whether old or new, establishment or alternative, are crammed with things we have already heard, already seen, already thought of. Say something new? What is there left to say?
As I write this, the carrilon at our church is telling the hour. Bong, goes the digitized bell, set to its quietest level, barely heard off the church grounds, because a newcomer to the neighborhood took offense at its reverberations. Bong, sounds the Angelus, a call to prayer no longer familiar, and barely permitted to be heard. Bong, it goes again: come to Adoration; now is a chance to worship, a chance to listen in silence, where I will tell you something different, something that will re-orient you toward what is real, and ever-new; something that will never bore you because I reveal it daily, in my being, and in my body, into which you are invited, and I pronounce it in so many original ways, and present it in a mystery so simple, and so paradoxically complex.
See, I make all things new.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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