My awakening began with two simple experiences. The first came through touching wet granite.
I am a writer by trade. Add to this occupation the average person’s basic online consumption, and the result is, I find myself in front of screens for long periods of my day. While finishing a recent book project, I kept wandering outside, simply to touch real things—stone, pinecones, the juniper bush. This wasn’t a cognitive decision; it was a compelling, something I felt I had to do in order to come out from a weird ether-space, come back to myself. Laying my hand on a wet boulder, feeling the cold, examining the granite crystals, I realized, I need reality.
The second, far more startling, moment came when I stepped into a small, local bakery.
Normally when we need a loaf, I do what nearly everyone else in the West does—I go to the store and choose something from the racks. There is no smell of bread; there is no oven nearby; you see only factory-made products neatly packed in colorful plastics. It is an entirely detached experience, and often what comes in that plastic bag is barely even a food product. That was my normal, and so stepping into an actual artisan bakery was a thunderbolt, like suddenly finding myself on the open ocean. Soon as I walked through the door, I was engulfed with the aromas of dough, baking bread, and burnt crust. I felt the hot ovens. Instead of plastic rectangles, I beheld racks of naked loaves in ordered disarray: baguettes, boules, ciabattas. It was so real, so sensual. I wanted to grab several loaves and a jug of wine, find a meadow, and take a two-hour lunch. I wanted to dive in a river and run through the forest and never, ever go back to my office. My soul was awakened by an encounter with the Real, and I found myself wondering, If this is how the human race dealt with something as basic as bread for thousands of years, what have I gotten used to?
What have we gotten used to?
The average person now spends 93 percent of their life indoors (this includes your transportation time in car, bus, metro). Ninety-three percent—such a staggering piece of information that we should pause for a moment and let the tragedy sink in.
You live nearly all your life in a fake world.
Artificial lighting instead of the warmth of sunlight, the cool of moonlight, the darkness of night itself. Artificial climate created by the thermostat replaces the wild beauty of real weather; your world is always 68 degrees. All the surfaces you touch are things like plastic and faux leather instead of meadow, wood, and stream. The atmosphere you inhabit is now asphyxiated with artificial smells—mostly chemicals and “air fresheners”—instead of cut grass and wood smoke and salt air (is anyone weeping yet?). In place of the cry of the hawk, the thunder of waterfall, and the comfort of crickets, your world spews out artificial sounds—all the clicks and beeps and whir of technology, the hum of the HVAC. My God—even the plants in your little bubble are fake. They give no oxygen; instead, the plastic off-gases toxins, and if that is not a statement, I don’t know what is.
But the worst part of it all is this: We have come to prefer it that way. Like laboratory rats or the slaves still tied into The Matrix.
You live a bodily existence. The physical life, with all the glories of senses and appetites and passions—this is the life God meant for us. It is through our senses we learn most every important lesson. Even in spiritual acts of worship and prayer, we are standing or kneeling, engaging bodily. God put your soul in this amazing bodily life, and then put you in a world perfectly designed for that experience. He forever exalted the bodily life through the Incarnation, when God himself chose to dwell in a body. Forever.
The implications for young men are critical. As we have tried to articulate a thousand ways here at And Sons, the initiation of the masculine soul takes place through our training in the Real World. Thus the quote—variously attributed to Churchill, Will Rogers, and Reagan—that “The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.” Because when the young man encounters the horse, he is thrust into a constant, dynamic encounter with the Real. It calls things out of him, not only fears, anger, and impatience to be overcome, but intuition and presence and a sort of firm kindness no Xbox game can ever replicate. There is no switch you can flip; you must engage. Reality shapes you.
I love March Madness. I can watch hours of it in a stretch. But I feel like crap afterwards. Just compare how you feel after binge-watching hours of screen anything—TV, video games, YouTube—with how you feel when you come off a mountain bike ride or a swim in the ocean. Living in an artificial world is like spending your life wrapped in plastic wrap. You wonder why you feel tired and numb and a little depressed, when the simple answer is you have a vitamin D deficiency; there is no sunlight in your life, literally or figuratively. Our body, soul, and spirit atrophy because we were made to inhabit a real world, to draw life and joy and strength from it. To be shaped by it, to relish in it.
The world we inhabit substitutes real community with artificial community through social media. Now, I do understand the benefits. But having a “friend” on Facebook is nothing like having beers with an actual human being, and eons from taking a road trip together. They’re not even in the same universe. No text, no post, no update can ever replace engaging a person in person. But we have come to prefer the quick text, even quicker emoji reply. Because of the convenience. Our ability to relate is atrophying by the hour.
The world tries to make up for its artificial hollowness through spectacle and hype, trying to make small stories seem like big stories. Watch any pro sports—the media surrounding it, the graphics, the pounding music, the “drama”—all trying to make it seem important, when the truth is, it’s inconsequential. Who cares who won the Superbowl last year? Thus we accept artificial meaning over a real life.
Is it any wonder that men now prefer artificial sex to a covenant relationship with a real woman? All the rest of their life has taught them to prefer the artificial, so they are sitting ducks when it comes to their sexuality. It’s quick; it’s easy; it requires absolutely no masculinity whatsoever. But it provides an artificial feeling of being a man. Junk food is easy, tasty, and addicting. It will also kill you (anyone seen Fast Food Nation?). It’s not real. Pornography is sexual junk food.
The artificial world lies and cheats. It seduces us with the worst of all lessons: that life is easy, and comfort is the goal. Thus it kills initiation at every turn. It cheats us of nourishment and strength and the very training we need. The answer is not only online filters. The answer is to choose a life where you prefer the Real over the artificial everywhere you possibly can. Reality was meant to shape us. The artificial is built almost entirely around our comfort and ease. Take back your soul. Re-engage the process of your initiation by choosing the Real everywhere you can.
Get outside, every day. If you work out in a gym, take it outside with a run, bike, swim, hike. Encounter the weather whenever you can. Walk around outside your office building every day. Turn off the A/C and roll down the windows in your car. Turn off your screens and do something with real things. Change a tire; change your own oil. Learn to sharpen a knife. Plant some vegetables. Eat real food. Cooking is a surprising access point to the real—an encounter with textures, with heat and cold and spices—and it shapes you. Brew your own beer.
Have a look around your world; notice how much is artificial. Begin to choose against the comfort and ease of the fake for the bracing trueness of the Real. You will love it!
I was on a two-week business trip recently; it began with an overnight flight, 10 hours in a tube. From there it was airports, hotels, cars—an entirely artificial existence. Everything was fake—weather, lighting, sounds. I found myself increasingly wanting to drink, eat chocolate, watch TV. The artificial was wearing me down, poisoning me, and my soul was looking for quick relief. On the last night, a massive thunderstorm let loose in the city. My car was parked two blocks away. Instead of trying to avoid the rain by calling a cab, or cringing and moping at the fact that I would get utterly soaked, I relished it. I rejoiced the entire two torrential blocks; I whooped and shouted and let the rain utterly douse me. After days upon days in the artificial, it was a cleansing baptism in the Real.
C. S. Lewis said, “[Christians], of all men, must not conceive spiritual joy and worth as things that need to be rescued or tenderly protected from time and place and matter and the senses. Their God is the God of corn and oil and wine. He is the glad Creator. He has become Himself incarnate. The sacraments have been instituted. Certain spiritual gifts are offered to us only on the condition that we perform certain bodily acts….To shrink back from all that can be called Nature into negative spirituality is as if we ran away from horses instead of learning to ride….Who will trust me with a spiritual body if I cannot control even an earthly body? These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables.”