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From Scarcity to Overabundance
December 13, 2012
Last year we added a dog to our lives—a dog we named Lucy. Lucy is a chocolate Labrador Retriever (And yes, I know that all of the dog people just shook their heads in compassionate pity). Some people think that Labs are dogs who are loyal and kind and loving toward their owners. These people are hopelessly naive. Labs have only one loyalty and it is to themselves; more precisely, it is to their stomachs. Paul must have been looking out the window and watching canine behavior when he wrote Philippians 3:19: “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Lucy is a glutton and a thief among other vices, and I am increasingly convinced that her controlling instinct in any given situation is simply this: What is most likely to get something resembling food down my throat? Her mind, such that it is, is permanently fixed on the most earthly of things. Several times our children have been careless and have left the basement door open. Lucy has quietly tip-pawed downstairs to have a few quiet moments alone with a fifty pound bag of dog food. When we finally catch her in the act, her sides are bloated, her tongue is hanging out in the canine equivalent of the meat sweats, and she immediately collapses into a luxurious six-hour food coma. If she can’t get to her dog food, she will eat socks (whole!) or anything else that has a faintly organic smell. Her god is her belly and she glories in the shame of it all.
Aside: She and my youngest daughter are fast friends and I’m starting to wonder how Proverbs 13:20 will play into their relationship: “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” What about the companion of an inveterate glutton (and pillow thief)?
Yet Lucy kind of reminds me of me. She kind of reminds me of us. Her desire to glut herself with food isn’t so different from our desire to glut ourselves with information. Her complete naivety toward the ramifications of gluttony isn’t so different from our complete naivety toward the consequences of information gluttony.
Lucy’s instincts are toward gorging herself with food because dogs have long been faced with food scarcity. Because a wild dog never knows where its next meal will come from, it will gorge itself out of sheer survival. Our domesticated dogs get fed a cup-and-a-half of kibble twice every day and never have to be concerned about the next meal. Not only that, but a dog might be eating food that had only the barest nutritional value so that fifty pounds was required to gain any real value from it. Today her food emerges from laboratories and is densely packed with every bit of nutrition she needs. Still, those instincts control her and the vast majority of that poppy-seed-sized brain is consumed with a highly-developed sense of smell; little wonder, then, that she just can’t help herself. Where there is food to be had, she will have it all.
We developed instincts—or at least ways of thinking about information and processing it—in eras of information scarcity, when information was hard to come by. In those eras we regarded every bit as precious and valuable. But over the decades we have been adding and multiplying the information available to us, and our instincts are slow to catch up. We’ve gone from scarcity to overabundance. Our instincts are still to gorge ourselves. And we do.
The glut of information is not only causing stress and confusion; it also makes us do irrational things such as ignore crucial health information. The British Government’s latest survey on our food-buying patterns shows that while we are given more information than ever about healthy eating, our consumption of fresh food has fallen. This is partly because we are too busy getting and spending to enjoy the simple pleasures of cooking. But Catherine Collins, of the British Dietetic Association, says that info-overload is often to blame for this food-choice paradox: “We are so informed that we can’t be bothered.” That’s a fantastic slogan for the twenty-first century. We are so wired to gather information that often we no longer do anything useful with it. Instead of pausing to sift our intake for relevance and quality, the daily diet of prurient, profound, confusing and conflict information gets chucked on to a mental ash-heap of things vaguely comprehended. Then we rush to try to make sense of it all…by getting more.
You can’t train the instincts out of a dog. You can’t reason with a dog to teach her that domestication has negated the rationale for eating so much. I suppose that over many years of domestication, chocolate Labs will begin to adapt to being cared for by humans and some of those eating instincts will fade. But really, she is only a dog so the stakes are low.
But when it comes to humans—God’s image-bearers—the stakes are far higher. We can and must train ourselves to respond well to a world of information abundance. We can do it by understanding that there are spiritual, social and even mental consequences to our information diet. And we can do it by doing the lab work—by developing effective filters—that reduce the vast amounts of junk to a few pieces of information that are worthy of reflection and worthy of application. Perhaps I can write more on that subject at another time.