To be born (yet) again

There is something about the purchasing of a new product that is exciting, and this desire for an experience of “newness” extends well beyond the latest iPhone to all sorts of purchased items and experiences. In fact, compared to purchased items like phones and cars, experiences — vacationing in Oahu, camping at Yellowstone, parasailing off the coast of Miami — may promise a greater and more enjoyable level of “newness.”

A 2014 article from The Atlantic, “Buy Experiences, Not Things,” points to recent studies revealing that “experiences bring people more happiness than do possessions.” The reason for this, the article explains, is because there is an emotional benefit that accrues in the anticipation of an experience that doesn’t for material goods. Experiences also provide a lasting benefit after they occur, since their memory can now elicit positive feelings of nostalgia. Although experiences seem to edge out material things in offering a more meaningful and lasting level of happiness, experience shows we all still fall back into a state of restless pursuit of something new.

A deeper need

Thomas Merton discusses this human desire for perpetual newness in his essay, “Rebirth and the New Man in Christianity,” from his book, “Love and Living” (Harvest, $14.95). He draws attention to man’s discontent with his “slavery to need,” and highlights man’s innate demand to transcend his own nature in the “freedom of a fully integrated, autonomous, personal identity.” In essence, man seeks to fulfill Jesus’ decree that we must be born again. For it’s in being born again, into a new life not hounded by disappointments of a fallen world, that we are able to find the newness that Christ offers.

Merton, which he did often in his writings, turns to modern commercialism with a disapproving eye, exposing its “exploitation of this deep need for ‘new life’ in the heart of man.” It’s common practice in the world of marketing and advertising to speak of creating and then satisfying a customer need. Needs that result in the purchase of some item or experience are derived, as Merton implies, from an all-encompassing and foundational need: the need for new life.

It can be easy to believe that just one small tweak to our lives — getting up 15 minutes earlier to journal, snacking no later than 8 p.m., engaging in mindfulness exercises three times a week — will make things “new” enough to satisfy our collective longing for new life. The temptation is to believe that by clothing our old selves with new habits, ideas, products and so on, that we can permanently renew our soul. There remains nothing that we find in this life that is truly new; everything turns sour, fades and loses appeal.

St. Augustine famously penned “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Such restlessness seems to account for the constant purchasing, spending, experiencing and grasping. However, there is also the constant and throbbing hum of our modern way of life.

Solitude and Christ

A 2013 New Yorker article, “Only Disconnect,” explores an essay by Siegfried Kracauer in the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper. Kracauer lamented the loss of boredom by many in his culture (this was back in 1924), since without boredom we “are pushed deeper and deeper into the hustle and bustle until eventually [we] no longer know where [our] head is.” Kracauer’s recommendation to let boredom settle has something to it, especially now. Boredom can be a first step in that it forces us to sit with the inner self, which can be exceedingly difficult. Henri Nouwen speaks of our “inner chaos” that “can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again” in his “Making All Things New and Other Classics” (Zondervan, $12.99). Nouwen understands the necessity of becoming a “disciple of solitude.”

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What would Merton make of today’s gadgets, noise and video streaming? Probably much of the same, except perhaps with bold or italics for added emphases. The point remains: The search for newness often leads to entanglement in experiences and distractions that keep us from listening to the inner yearning for the one who can give us newness — Christ. As we mark the 10th anniversary of the iPhone this year, and as another 300 hours of video are added to YouTube each minute, it’s ever more important to create space to seek him.

Chris Hazell writes from California.