Seventy years ago, in the wake of WWII and under the newly-perceived threat of global communism, British author George Orwell wrote the book 1984. It envisioned a futuristic world of only three nations. One of them, run by the shadowy Big Brother, set out to create a nation of lemmings incapable of independent thought who would blindly believe whatever contradictory nonsense the government chose to dispense on any given day.
Orwell suggested that, in theory, it really wouldn’t be that hard to pull off.
No, I’m not going political here. I promise.
Orwell figured out that to control the way people think—or, more correctly, to keep them from thinking—you have to do two things. The first is to create a society of non-stop noise. From the moment people wake up until they finally fall asleep, they must be subjected to a never-ending barrage of squawking hullaballoo; made possible (in the book) by constantly blaring loudspeakers in public, and large video monitors installed in everyone’s home that are impossible to turn off (or turn down) dispensing endless propaganda and drivel.
Orwell’s second ingredient to achieving effective thought-control was to dumb down the language. Orwell called it newspeak. Its goal was to eliminate words that expressed intelligence, deep thought, and even emotions. If such words were no longer used, in time society would lose the ability to express the ideas they represented. If the word ‘rebellion’ disappeared, in time people would forget its meaning. If the word ‘love’ was dropped from books and dictionaries, the emotion would fade.
Combine a shrinking and simplistic language with the constant screech of background noise and people’s minds become so focused on superficialities that they don’t even realize what they’re losing.
Well, the good news is that our government could never get sufficiently organized to pull off any of this.
But the bad news is they don’t have to. We’re pretty much taking care of it ourselves.
I think historians will one day dub our times the Age of Distraction, where we could entertain our eyes and ears with whatever we want, whenever we want, for as long as we want. Kind of like the rats in the lab that keep tapping the button to get another dopamine hit. Today’s dopamine consists of equal parts flashing lights, loud noises, anger, and titillation. It seems we can’t get enough of the stuff.
In a world of endless stimuli, we feel less and less compelled to actually think about what’s constantly hitting us right between the eyes and ears. We can recite the lyrics of a hundred popular songs, but never consider what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech means to us today and what we should be doing to make it a reality.
I guess it all comes down to pondering—a word that means to think about or to consider something quietly, soberly, and deeply. It’s not something we necessarily look forward to, but, like breathing, it’s one of those things life occasionally requires, and that we ignore at our peril.
Pondering is how we decide who we are—the unique we, not the mass merchandised we. Pondering is how we decide who we love, what we love, how we fit into the universe, what our goals really are, what will help us achieve them, and what’s getting in the way of our success. Pondering is how we finally see the needs of those around us. Pondering is how we decide what really makes us happy—as opposed to what everyone tells us will make us happy. Pondering is how we realize we’re wasting our time by being satisfied with the superficial.
Warning: Pondering, like exercise, is occasionally painful.
These days it’s entirely possible to cruise-control through your life without having to do any of that pesky pondering stuff. There’s more than enough noise to keep your brain endlessly occupied, and, like, plenty of, y’know, short words so you can order burgers and burritos. What more do you need?
Spoiler alert: If you’re not sure how to answer that last question, it’s time to start pondering.