What You Need to Know

Posted on January 13, 2023


I’ve been working on a book that requires me to remember what happened in the past. This is usually called a “history,” or perhaps a “memoir,” or some other easily recognizable description, with perhaps some analysis added, of the past. Most of you know what I mean.

If I am going to write about “liberty” for example in our political life, then I have to go into the past to see who, for example, wrote about liberty. Someone like Benjamin Franklin perhaps? Or if I am going to express some opinion about learning today, then I need to return to how “learning” took place in the past. I think of learning, for example, an an old university professor, as an act of mastering some subject, like math, chemistry, composing, computer science, or ‘reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic for grammar school kids etc., and being measured on your progress in learning through tests, examinations, objective evaluations.

In the past I did a lot of traveling as an historian of Latin America and of Christianity. I sometimes would find myself in some relatively remote part of the Third World (you youngsters can Wikipedia that old fashioned term), waking up in a small hotel room in someplace like Guayaquil, Ecuador or Managua, Nicaragua, and wondering, “what am I doing here?”

I knew of course why I was there, but it was a different kind of philosophical question, “existential” you newbies might style it, although the definitions of existential, from the same root word of “existence” are all over the place. But one way existential can be framed is indeed, “why am I here?” Leaving aside my Christian preference for the right answer, let’s stick to the secular world for a moment.

Now, how much did I need to be in touch with the modern, instant world of information to do my work? While looking up “existential” in my Google browser, I never left this essay I composed, all on my computer screen with instant access to the world of information, which, with a tap tap of a few keys, as near as can tell, is infinite, without end. And that is part of the problem. How much access do I need to all of this?

Not much as I examined my travels into the world of Latin America for more than half a century. Did it make a difference as I rode a Blue Bird school bus over a dusty highway with a bunch of Dominican friars and their friends in Managua on our way to visit the site of a colonial era monastery in view of the spectacular volcano of Masaya that some massacre had occurred in central Africa? Below an image of Dominicans and a few seculars like me in Old Leon, Nicaragua, 2004. The pretty girl on the front row not a Dominican, but there taking care of an elderly Dominican who had come from Brazil. Yours truly in the back row on the far right.

Or was it important for me to know– as I took a bus ride from my Aunt Nora’s apartment in Santiago, Chile in 1974 to the National Archive–that the last American was being pulled out of Saigon as the American presence in Vietnam collapsed after a long war? Did it make a difference in world affairs? Indeed, it did. Did it affect my reading sixteenth century documents squirreled away in a beautiful, quiet archive in Santiago? Hardly.

You can identify or supply your own examples of how necessary it is to be almost instantly informed as we are today of why the President of North Korea launched a missile last night that overflew Japan. Or, that Elvis Presley’s daughter just died. You get the message. We are overwhelmed by the here and now, in Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, You Tube and wherever the latest instant news or viral video takes us, all across the political spectrum.

We, in fact, don’t have time to either digest or think more than a few microseconds about anything before we are hit with the next incoming round of news, videos, virals, and the vast immensity of garbage on the Internet.

When I receive my local newspaper in the mornings—other than Saturdays these days since they no longer publish a paper edition on Saturdays—I briefly scan the lead articles on the front page and then turn to both the funnies and crossword puzzle. These I carefully clip out, the comics for an afternoon siesta, and the crossword for bedtime. I don’t particularly care if California is drying up in the summertime or washing away in winter floods.

I am interested more, as a matter of fact, in listening to my wife’s recordings of Scripture in a wonderful set of CDs made by Max McLean. She had Max reading from the Book of Psalms the other night. I had finished the crossword, or what I was going to finish that night, and I turned over to sleep, but wife Louise had Max reading from Psalms. I covered by ears, but Max came on through the sheet and blankets. Then I gave up and started to listen to Psalms. I woke up later that night, having fallen asleep with the word of God in my ear.

Published on Substack Friday Jan. 13 2023 and in the Northport Gazette April 5, 2023.