On Noise and Meaning

giving up the radio for lent benjamin robertson

Part four in our Lenten series on technology and spirituality.

This year, I gave up the radio for Lent. It’s not the first time I’ve given it up, but I always find it to be a beneficial experience. Like most Americans, I spend a decent amount of time in my car alone and most of the time the first thing I do when I get in is switch on the radio and flip between my favorite stations. It might be the morning news on NPR or the Mountain Morning bluegrass program or my favorite alternative station. Sometimes I find that I never end up landing on a station. I might flip stations every 30 seconds on my commute to work, never to land on one that I like.

Having gone three weeks without my car radio, I’ve had to resist the urge every day to get in the car and turn on the radio. As a result, my time in my car has become a little more meditative. When I find myself reaching to turn on the radio, I stop and then examine what I want to listen to and why I want to hear it. Am I just looking to hear some upbeat tunes to get me pumped up for a day of work? Am I curious about the latest update on Malaysia Airlines flight 370 or other current events? Often this is the case and for these reasons I’m looking forward to revisiting my radio again after Lent. I miss discovering new music and staying up to date in the morning.

But I also realize sometimes when I reach for the radio I’m not looking for any kind of meaningful sound. Sometimes I’m just looking for background noise. Sometimes I’m tired and don’t want to think–but I need to fill the silence. These are the times when I would normally just flip through the stations throughout my drive, never finding something that I want to listen to because ultimately what I’m looking for isn’t on a radio station. I’m looking for something that isn’t there and I only end up with noise.

It dawned on me the other day that the radio isn’t the only medium where I have this habit of mindlessly switching through the stations. How many times throughout the day do I open up Twitter or my favorite news sites or Facebook or check my email? I’ll grant myself that I sometimes have a purpose when I do these things, but just as often as not, I end up scrolling. I won’t land on something to read or watch, not because there is nothing interesting there, but because I’m ultimately looking for something that isn’t there. Just like when I flip through all my radio stations on the way to work, I’m looking for something meaningful, but only finding noise.

What I’m really looking for, I think, is peace and meaning. I turn to the radio on my drive or my Twitter feed at work not for any pressing need but that I’m bored. I’m bored because whatever task is at hand or whatever I’m on my way to do feels meaningless, so I try to distract myself with a quick shot of meaning–from a song or a news story or a link.

When I look for meaning in those places though, I only find noise, because how much meaning can a news story really give my life? It gives me a quick, well-crafted narrative that may tangentially affect my life, but ultimately disappoints. Lent always reminds me to stop disappointing myself. Lent reminds me of the necessity of grounding myself in prayer and solitude because only in practicing those spiritual disciplines do I find true meaning, true purpose. Only by placing my life in its small place in the long narrative of salvation history does my life really have meaning.

I think it’s important for us all to examine the ways we use technology. Something like the radio can be so enjoyable and even powerful, but when we aren’t grounded in the spiritual disciplines we have a tendency to look for meaning in our technology. When we do that, we only find noise.

I’m looking forward to listening to the radio again after Lent. I’m looking forward to the bluegrass music and the human interest stories on NPR. But I’ll be free to enjoy them because I’ve found meaning in solitude and prayer. I won’t be looking for something that isn’t there.

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About the Contributor

Benjamin Robertson

Benjamin Robertson
Benjamin Robertson is a founding editor at Second Nature. He has worked in advertising for the Chicago Tribune and Gannett, and now is a web developer at Up&Up. He studied Communications and Media Studies under Dr. Read Schuchardt at Wheaton College in Illinois. He has presented papers on Marshall McLuhan, media ecology, and Christianity at the Media Ecology Association, National Communication Association, and the McLuhan's Philosophy of Media Centennial Conference in Brussels. He lives with his wife, Ruth, in Greenville, SC. His personal website is benjamingrobertson.com

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