Natural Life Magazine

Drowning in Details, Our Lives in Jeopardy

Drowning in Details, Our Lives in Jeopardy
By Gene Sager

When I recently went to buy jeans, I was deluged by an incredible variety of jeans to choose from – slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy, and that’s just for starters. When I found stone-washed, acid-washed, and “distressed jeans,” I went into overload mode. Then there was button fly, zipper fly, faded, low, mid, or high rise. Finally, I had to smile at “professionally ripped jeans.”

I saw a red flag flying on top of this jeans phenomenon, but my son did not. He dismissed the jeans thing as “a trivial, innocuous piece of merchandising.” I see a red flag because the jeans proliferation reflects a wider, deeper cultural current that is not so innocuous. The current is an obsession with multiple items of information and their manipulation. My concerns are that this manipulation occurs without discernment and that most of us are unaware of this pervasive and powerful pattern. In other words, our lives are awash with details and floundering is the new normal.

We are exposed to this obsession on a daily basis, especially as it appears as news. Non-stop news even pops up uncalled-for on our phones. News media are accustomed to following conflicts between politicians. When a difference over legislation becomes a personality clash, the media continues to report the politicians’ interminable exchange of epithets. The more colorful the name-calling, the more titillating the news report, and “news” becomes a twisted form of entertainment. This is not a new form of news, as Henry Thoreau wrote this admission in 1859: “We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day.” My local newscast recently featured a hit-and-run accident, a hotel fire, and a helicopter rescue of a dog stranded on a craggy cliff. The report included the name (“Freddy”) and breed of the dog and an interview with the much-relieved owner. Such news has no connection to the reality of our lives.

We are exposed to this information and then, sadly, our minds re-expose us later, cluttering our heads with old news. I confess that I still recall that one feuding politician called his opponent “moronical.” As has been wisely said, it is so hard to forget what it is worse than useless to remember. A few junk words like moronical will do little harm, but today we are swamped with them. In housekeeping, so with the cultivation of the mind, a bit of clutter is natural and unavoidable, but clutter out of control is degrading. We need to seek higher ground where we are not preoccupied with such details.

The so-called news, celebrity tracking, and the overloading of information on social media have received some attention and criticism, but the obsession with details has gone virtually unnoticed in addressing some of the most important issues we all face today. An example is the way food and health issues are reported. Food/nutrition sources and the media that report on them tend to binge with warnings about the perceived dangers of certain ingredients. The latest of these has come to deserve the label “gluten phobia” because the flood of warnings has somehow become a vague feeling that gluten is bad for everyone. Food producers began to mark safe products with the now familiar “GF,” and the media published myriads of conflicting lists about what foods contain how much gluten. Another nutrition binge is the touting of fish oil as a source of omega-3 fatty acid. In the case of fish oil, the dangers are ignored: rarely are the dangers of toxins (mercury and PCB) and overfishing mentioned. The gluten binge assumes a general dangerous connection which may be spurious, and the fish oil binge ignores real dangers.

Finally, we look at a different species of the obsession with details – the fascination with interesting or obscure facts. My friend surfs the Internet visiting “Did you know?” and “IQ Upgrade” websites. He says this improves his conversational skills, and I admit that some of his “discoveries” are interesting. After one beer he is likely to blurt out, “Hey, did you know that Yellowstone is the oldest national park, founded in 1872? I thought it was Yosemite. Or he launches into Jeopardy mode: “He allowed Henry Thoreau to build a cabin on his land near Walden Pond.” I am supposed to respond, “Who was Ralph Waldo Emerson?” My friend’s interest in these facts is for the “Did you know?” effect, nothing more.

I happened to know the answer to the Thoreau question and so my friend praised my “smarts.” But I wonder about our use of the words “smarts” and “smart.” If people hold a large store of random details in their head, are they smart? Most of us admire, even stand in awe of the Jeopardy champions like Roger Craig, who said, “The name of the game is breadth, not depth.” How smart is a person whose knowledge has breadth but lacks depth?

We would do well to ponder the difference between jeopardy knowledge and wisdom. Jeopardy knowledge, no matter how detailed, is not concerned with the connections among things. It does not guard against assuming connections where they don’t exist. And It does not watch for important connections we should know. In contrast, the key to wisdom is depth, and that means understanding connections like the connection between our health and the fishes in the depth of the sea, and the connection between Yellowstone and the mining threat in adjacent land. Wisdom brings the realization that we are inextricably connected to each other and to Nature – a realization with spiritual implications. But if our minds are cluttered and preoccupied with random details, we cannot see the connections among things; we are a danger to ourselves and to the planet. We are in jeopardy.

Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a prolific and thoughtful writer on environmental and philosophical issues, and a frequent contributor to Natural Life Magazine. 


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