Saturday, March 17, 2012

The dark side of technology

Practice makes perfect
Virtues are a bit like skills. Both require practice. If we want to become proficient at a particular skill, we need to work at it. Elite athletes, for example, do not magically become stars. Star status, if it comes at all, follows years of practice, skill development, good coaching, and sacrifice. Natural ability alone does not guarantee success. As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect.

We could say the same about virtues. If we want to be virtuous, we need to practice making good choices from an early age, and we need good examples to guide us along the way. Family, religious tradition, education, and the cultural milieu play a role in shaping our moral character.

Technology not all its cracked up to be
Today’s technology, with its ubiquitous use of smart phones and social media, can powerfully influence the development of a person’s character. While technology has many good uses that benefit humanity, it also has a dark side that can negatively impact child development. Sexting, webcamming, and the easy access to pornography that technology makes possible are part of this dark side.

While sexting and webcamming appear to be more popular with girls, pornography is more popular with boys. It has become trendy for elementary school aged boys to view pornography on their smart phones while riding the school bus.

An overtly sexualized culture
These behaviors are symptomatic of a much larger problem. Western culture has gradually become overtly sexualized. A 2011 BBC survey concluded that overt sexualization has become the norm in the television, film, and music industries, in electronic and print media, and in marketing and advertising.

We are being bombarded with sexualized marketing, and it is influencing attitudes about sexual behavior, and relationships. Sociologists and psychologists are expressing growing concerns about the hyper-sexualization of girls and the hyper-masculinization of boys. At increasingly younger ages, girls feel pressure to dress and act in a sexual way in order to be liked, while boys feel pressure to become tough and aggressive in their interactions with girls and with other boys.

A generation is in danger of losing the old-fashioned virtue known as chastity.

Recovering a sense of chastity
Chastity is often misunderstood as prudery. Although practicing self-control in any area of behavior is virtuous, the concept of chastity far exceeds the repression or denial of sexuality. Chastity is the ability to accept our sexuality, and to embody it appropriately in our interactions with others. Chastity enables us to affirm the dignity and worth of others. Chastity supports the healthy psychosexual development that makes good relationships possible between spouses, family members, friends, and co-workers. The opposite of chastity is sexism, which denigrates others and seeks power over them.

Today’s culture frequently treats human sexuality as recreation, entertainment, and a commodity for profit. These societal presentations of sexuality divorce it from its interpersonal context, and insult the innate dignity of the human person.

Since children have little context for many of the attitudes and images that bombard them about the human body and sexuality, sexting, webcamming, and viewing pornography present a serious risk to the development of their moral character. These activities, especially if they become habitual, desensitize the person to the goodness of human sexuality, and impair the individual’s ability for healthy, supportive, and loving relationships in the future.

We do not need to wring our hands helplessly because pop culture trivializes sex. We can help young people assimilate the virtue of chastity in its broadest scope as the respect for self and others. We can become moral coaches, not by preaching, but by our example.

We model chastity for young people when we treat others respectfully, when we eschew bad language and suggestive jokes, when we avoid sexually explicit media, and when we promote the goodness of the human person through acts of charity and justice.

Parents and others who are directly responsible for the nurturing of children can monitor the use of technology. They can ensure that the television and films a child views, and that the music a child listens to are age appropriate. They can use the teachable moments to communicate healthy messages about human sexuality and relationships.

The overt sexualization of our time distorts the good of human sexuality. The promotion of the virtue of chastity offers a corrective. We do not magically become people of virtue. Habits, good and bad, develop with practice. Let’s ensure that our children develop virtuous habits.

Photos courtesy of
"Young kid in action" by photostock
"Couple watching TV with children" by Ambro

Friday, March 2, 2012

Cleansers for the soul

The sun came streaming in the windows of my kitchen. I wanted to sit and bask in its warmth, and revel in the promise of spring. Unfortunately, all that brightness spotlighted the smudges on the cupboards, the dust on the kick plates, and the rain spots on the windows. It was hard to relax when my deficiencies as a housekeeper were so clearly evident. It was time to get out the spring-cleaning supplies.

Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer
The liturgical season of Lent is like the sun streaming into the window of our souls. We might say that Lent is the equivalent of a spiritual spring-cleaning. Its cleaning supplies are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Fasting helps us clear the clutter to make space for God. Fasting does not have to be limited to food. Fasting from social media, for example, can free up time for God. Almsgiving and works of charity move us away from our naturally self-centered inclinations. They help us develop a greater sensitivity and a more generous response to the needs of others. Prayer is essential to entering into that intimate relationship with God that informs our relationships with others and with creation. This triad of spiritual practices expresses our sorrow for sin, and nurtures our desire to grow closer to God.

More than a "thou shall not" mentality
In my recollections about Lent from childhood, Lent was a time to make reparation for the bad things a person had done. We accomplished this through our Lenten observances, which seemed geared to “giving something up”. A “thou shall not” mentality permeated our behavior. The general attitude was that if a person did no harm, then the person could successfully avoid sin. The way to goodness was to avoid badness. We gave little consideration to the flip side of “thou shall not.” We rarely considered that the good we had neglected to do could also be a type of sin.

More than a "me and God"friendship
The understanding of Lent today is more broadly attuned to the social dimension of human interaction than in the past. The personal piety of repentance thrusts us outwards. Lenten spirituality goes far beyond saying a few extra prayers, spending more time in church, donating money to a good cause, giving up chocolate, or limiting computer time, although it may include all of these things. Lenten spirituality is directed outward towards the world, not inward towards the self. Lent reminds us that our relationship with God is much bigger than an exclusively “me and God” friendship.

If we have any doubt about this, we only have to listen to the words of Jesus who pointedly told his followers to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Lent challenges us to reach out to those in our families, communities, and in the world who are in need, physically, psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually. When we respond to the needs of those on the margins, we embrace a “thou shall” approach to Lenten spirituality.

Lent re-orients us to the good
Lent is a time to re-orient our lives to the good, for the purpose of reflecting God’s radiant love in the world. Our penitential practices do not simply remind us of our failures and deficiencies. Nor do they simply help us correct the error of our ways. While it remains important to repent and to avoid doing wrong, it is equally important to actively practice doing good. Spiritual practices during Lent help us embody the spirit of goodness long after the Lenten season has ended.
Like the rays of sunshine that spotlight the smudges on the cupboards, our Lenten practices illuminate the areas of our life that need some polishing. It is not that we are poor housekeepers. It is just that houses always need cleaning. It is not that we are lousy people or terrible sinners. It is just that we are always in need of conversion.