Oct. 16—Years ago, I read Rod Dreher's "The Benedict Option," which calls for Christians to intentionally withdraw from 21st century society. It's too destructive, Dreher says, so like St. Benedict, who started monasteries in response to corrupted Rome, American Christians should consider an alternative way of living in America, but not of America.
"The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business as usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing even more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly counter-cultural way of living Christianity," writes Dreher, editor at The American Conservative.
Now, both my conservatism and Christianity are different than his; however, his book continues to resonate with me.
I keep quietly wondering:
Can I leave society?
For me, society feels like a large, reckless apparatus that pumps out so much noise, cruelty and inanity. The media machine, with fear and headlines, the never-ending hunger of capitalism, a chronic busyness that feels like we're going everywhere but nowhere, all of it propping up what is meaningless but disguised as meaningful.
In response, desert fathers went to the caves. Monks and nuns to monasteries. Thoreau, a cabin in the woods.
To leave society means to cultivate other qualities, to put down energy, roots and intention in other more nourishing grounds.
Because if we stay here, we'll starve.
Don't you feel it, too?
In his essay "The Braindead Megaphone," George Saunders gave a good analogy. It's like we're all attending a party, he said, with reasonable, calm and thoughtful conversation. People mingle, laugh, contemplate.
Then, some fool with a megaphone shows up. He cranks it up loud. He wants attention and gets it by talking controversy, exaggerations and lies.
"His main characteristic is dominance," Saunders writes. "He crowds the other voices out ... In time, Megaphone Guy will ruin the party."
The party-goers, once grounded and calm, are now restless and agitated.
Soon, I would add, everyone wants their own megaphone.
"Their conversations will, in a very short time, take on his agenda and the more crude and stupid his bellowing becomes, the harder it will be for more sophisticated arguments to be heard or even conceived by those around him. The megaphone, of course, is the American media, run entirely for profit, so that titillation becomes more important than truth, analysis or information," Stephanie Merritt summarizes in The Guardian.
Society feels like ten thousand megaphones.
I'm tired of it.
And I'm tired of being tired.
When I was younger and doing things I shouldn't, I would often marvel at the lone conscientious individual or two who, when things got ugly, would up and leave. Peer pressure be damned.
Their leaving made a statement.
This is Dreher's point.
But it shouldn't be only for conservative Christians. Any of us finding modern society empty can ask ourselves:
How do we leave the megaphone society?
And where to go?
"When I'm viewing a tree instead of an advertisement, I'm leaving society," declares novelist Tao Lin.
In a recent LA Times book review, Scott Burton speaks with Lin, whose new book "Leaving Society" is about man trying to heal.
Lin gives a model of leaving that suggests we don't actually go anywhere.
"When I'm meditating instead of ruminating on negative thoughts, I'm leaving society," he says. "When I'm asleep and dreaming, I'm leaving society. When I'm working on my garden or playing with my cats, I'm leaving society. When I'm working on my immune system through natural means, I'm leaving society. When I'm making art that is informed by the partnership model, I'm leaving society. When I'm being kind or patient or compassionate or tolerant or calm or rational, I'm leaving society."
If we cut our mass news consumption, are we leaving society?
If we shut off social media, are we leaving society?
If I sit in silence, listen more, argue less, confront my own fears instead of running from them, am I leaving society?
This is not meant to be negative, all this talk of leaving.
In fact, leaving means you see more beauty in this world. The megaphones don't talk of trees and rest.
"I am tired of absolutes and extremes and the angriness of this age," James Rebanks writes in "Pastoral Song." "We need more kindness, compromise and balance."
But where to find it?
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at email@example.com.