The problem is not only that the hordes of smartphone-gazing perambulators feign obliviousness as they threaten to bowl me over on the way to work each morning. It’s also their smug sense that they can walk and chew the social media fat at the same time. Here’s news: they can’t. They may not realize it, but the rest of us still exist, and our sense of mission in life goes beyond getting out of their way. My grumpiness about this admittedly minor matter establishes that I am of a certain age, but as I learn from James McWilliams in our cover story, my sense of mission also ages me. Apparently, spending every moment glued to Instagram has its downside. The more enveloping a person’s digital existence, the likelier he or she is to feel adrift and depressed, and the likelier to be clueless. In fairness, when I was in my 20s, adrift, depressed, and clueless was an apt description of me and almost everyone I knew. But being a digital captive accentuates these problems, McWilliams writes.
It would be comforting to think of this as an us-and-them sort of concern, which would not rule out feeling sympathy for what McWilliams brightly calls “today’s tapping tribe of texters.” But who among us can claim a screen-free life? All of us, to one degree or another, are in danger of falling into the self-sapping maw of digital media. In Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie, McWilliams analyzes the danger, hazards a description of what a healthy sense of self entails, and prescribes a remedy that is as easy to access as a Twitter account.
Digital devices might ever more potently endanger our souls, but the anomie of modern life can hardly be seen as something new. In a remarkable group of essays that we have published over the past few years, the poet Christian Wiman has struggled with matters of the soul. His engaging new one, I Will Love You in the Summertime, finds him wrestling his angels once again. For Wiman, the never-ending battle for meaning centers on his Christian faith, but even for those of us of other faiths or no faith at all, Wiman’s unyielding belief in the power of language to approach meaning and to create a consoling beauty lays out a path we can all follow. No smartphone required.
A wise friend used to say that you just can’t give away a good idea. This notion seems especially true in an editorial context: writers are often maddeningly resistant to my best midnight thoughts. Their caution usually persuades me to desist, but once in a while I have a thought I can’t shake. The stalemate over our feeble response to the scourge of gun violence cries out for a new approach. One midnight, I thought I had one. Turn to my editorial in this issue and see if you agree.
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