Note from CM: On this final week of IM, we will be hearing from some good folks who have made contributions of excellence to this blog. We start today with one of my dear friends, Damaris, one of the most gifted and eloquent people I know. Thanks for sharing your wonderful writing with us over the years, Damaris.
By Damaris Zehner
I know a teenaged boy who hasn’t gotten out of bed for days. He used to. He used to play football on his high school team, but now football is canceled and he’s been told to stay home. Despite his youth and strength, society has made it very clear it has no need of him. His only value is the negative one of not spreading disease or causing trouble. He might as well stay in bed.
He is emblematic of the larger crisis of meaning that’s been revealed by, though not caused by, the pandemic. As newspapers, governments, and businesses talk about essential workers, it’s become clear that most of us are not “essential.” Few of us work at jobs that lead directly to the well-being of our families and neighbors, except through a paycheck. Most of us have been told, like my teenaged friend, that the only thing we can contribute to the greater good is to stay home and watch Netflix—oh, and shop from local businesses if they’re open, but since they’re not, then make Jeff Bezos a little richer instead.
This is an unusual and dysfunctional response to a crisis. During the Depression, unemployed people worked outdoors to create campgrounds, bridges, shelter houses, and other public goods. During World War Two, my mother was a high school student in Long Island but also a trained plane-spotter posted on the roof of her school, as well as a messenger skilled enough to navigate during black-outs. She received a certificate from the federal government thanking her for her work after the war. My husband’s grandfather, although he was a full-time farmer and had three sons in uniform, was also asked to work the late shift at a factory to support the war effort. People grew gardens, recycled, knitted, and cooked frugally – not just because they were good people and wanted to help, but because they were asked to.
This stands in sharp contrast to the vacuum of leadership and vision we face today. State or federal government could form another WPA and send the football teams out to repair and improve infrastructure. We could be asked to work shifts at PPE factories, or to grow extra food for local distribution to the unemployed, or even to deliver groceries and school supplies to those who are shut in. We could be asked to suit up and work alongside nurses and doctors, doing unskilled work to free them to care for the sick. Why aren’t we?
There are two reasons no one is asking us to help our neighborhoods and country. First, our late-stage capitalism and lack of leadership leave tasks like infrastructure and manufacturing in the hands of industrialists and entrepreneurs who, unless they can see how to make money out of them, ignore them. And second, in the hedonistic, consumeristic society we’ve become, sacrifice is a bad word. It is assumed that no one does anything without an immediate reward. I believe people would sacrifice for others if they were asked. Since they’re not, they do what they are asked: they stay home. And suicide rates rise and teenaged boys lie in bed because they have nothing to live for.
We see the bitter results most clearly now, but this crisis of meaning has been looming for years. Still, there have been bright spots along the way. In the last almost two decades, Internet Monk has been one place where people could come to discuss culture and sacrifice and the ultimate meaning of life. I and many like me have navigated, with the help of Internet Monk, away from the post-evangelical wilderness to a religious community that feels more authentic. We’ve formed relationships of a sort with each other. We have been blessed to be a part of this . . . community? Book club? Online class? Whatever it is, I’ve learned many things from posts and from the comments to my posts. This has been a wonderful thing, and Michael Spencer, Mike Mercer, and everyone else who has contributed over the years can and should feel satisfaction with the impact they’ve had.
Now the site is closing in a few days. What can replace Internet Monk for us? Where should we go next to find meaning in a world that encourages despair?
Not to another blog. I suggest that we bear in mind what we’ve learned here about God, others, and ourselves, turn off the computer, and find something else to do. Something meaningful, that is essential to the well-being of our neighbors and families, that involves physical objects in the physical world, that makes us get sweaty and sore and look forward to dropping off to sleep at the end of the day, instead of doomscrolling or propping ourselves up in front of Netflix. Something that gives us reason to get out of bed in the mornings.
Internet Monk has been an essential signpost in the wilderness, but it hasn’t been the road. The road is in the physical world, not the cyber world. The road is hot, cold, flat, hilly, smooth, or rough. It is frequented by people with bodies, pilgrims seeking meaning and connection – our neighbors, friends, families, and enemies. It is something that has to be walked, not just written about. Yes, signposts are essential: pilgrims have to stop to study the signposts occasionally, but then they pick up their packs and set out again.
I’ve loved much of the blogosphere and grown from my time spent on it, but I don’t think ultimately it is the healthiest thing for us. Like Chaplain Mike, I too will turn my energies elsewhere. I’ll continue to garden and preserve food, make things of cloth and yarn, play with my grandkids, and do whatever music is currently allowed for church. As soon as I can, I’ll be back in the classroom. And I’ll be working on writing a book, something that can exist in the same physical form for years and be held in people’s hands. I’m grateful for the signpost of Internet Monk. Now, with its guidance, I’ll leave it behind and get back to the road.