Our homes are overrun by machines. Our days are filled with the digital. The real is replaced by the virtual, and the natural by the artificial. Our situation is serious.

One might ask: but what is really wrong here? And why do you call this ‘serious?’ In short, I’d put it this way. We have missed a key truth about ourselves. Human life is better in person, in the context of the real and the natural. And this truth has concrete implications.

Does this mean technology is bad? Technology in itself, of course not. But technology should serve true human life. So when it runs amok and in fact undermines the real and natural rather than serving it, it has become a problem; perhaps a very serious one.

This problem can be addressed. It’s a matter of choice. This choice needs to be informed, savvy, and strong-willed. It will also have to be realistic and flexible. We could call it a preferential option for the real and natural. This requires a shift in our thoughts and practices. I think there are two parts.

Step One: Start by taking a skeptical stance toward anything that in the name of efficiency, ease, or comfort would replace the older way of doing something.

This skeptical stance is not a rejection of the new but rather an application of a higher level of scrutiny. It means taking a hard look and really considering the pros and cons, bearing in mind the bigger life picture.

This stance is not against appropriate ‘innovation’ and ‘improvement.’ On the contrary. It will empower us to discern the good from the bad, to distinguish real improvement from its counterfeit. Our current practice has swung to an extreme of unthinking acceptance and indeed prejudice toward the new and ‘efficient’—an approach that often undermines quality of life. In our rush forward we have lost basic forms of rich human life (think, among many examples, of shared work of the home, and porch time with family, friends and neighbors). Taking a skeptical stance toward the new is not going to the ‘opposite extreme.’ Rather, it is an exercise of a great Aristotelian principle: if circumstances push us toward one extreme, then we prudently lean the other direction, precisely to achieve the golden middle. This is no ignoble retreat; it is a movement to higher and better ground, a place from which really to move forward.

Step Two: Prioritize the in-person and the natural. This positive step can take myriad forms. It means choosing certain practices or activities precisely because they are in-person, in-the-flesh, engaging body and mind, especially in interaction with natural substances and natural world.

Here are two examples. Make a fire; grow a garden. From time immemorial these could almost be called standard features of human life. They are deeply real and natural. They engage primordial powers of the human soul and of the earth. They bring people together in meaningful and pleasant engagement. They also enhance silence and solitude. They have multiple and diverse fruits, and many forms of enactment. They are right there for the choosing. Yet in our modern context we could easily skip them both, permanently.

I am well aware that this two-step preferential option for the real and natural might be harder than it sounds. But I am convinced it is a fitting and very practical response to our current situation. I also know that it is in our power, each according to his own circumstances, to make real strides, even if by baby steps. And the fruits will be well worth the effort. ~ ~ ~

Here is a little peek at the gift of fire:

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