You Are What You Consume -- on being an intentional consumer

Ernest Hemingway’s personal method for writing was characteristically simple and unpretentious. “All you have to do is write one true sentence” he said, Write the truest sentence that you know.”

I begin, then, where Hemingway began each time he sat down to pen his stories, vulnerably and profoundly: with an affidavit of complete sincerity. I don’t think these monthly posts will be valuable to you in the sense that I have grasped and will impart any ethereal revelations that you couldn’t discover more applicably and tangibly on your own. I do, however, hope to share a bit of my experience with you. So that anything I dig up and dust off and polish into this post that has been individually experienced will inspire you to do the same, to think more intentionally, to live more intentionally in your own way.

And that’s the thing about experience. Each new thing we experience, from moment to moment, undresses itself deeply and spontaneously for us in the most intimate aloneness, before we ever clothe it with words and ideas. We categorize and label our lives in hindsight. And it’s only after, when we recall it for someone else that we can, in mutual surprise say, “You felt that too?”

C.S. Lewis, in The Four Loves, writes,

Friendship is born at that moment when one man says to another: “What? You too? I thought that no one but myself…’
— C. S. Lewis, "The Four Loves"

Here’s hoping that the months to come hold many of those moments for us.

It is those moments, in fact, which make up the meat of this inaugural post. How do we experience them? And how does being intentional about things help us in the long run?

Last summer, Jacob and I spent some time in an old log ski lodge near Obertraun, Austria. This place was as far off the grid as we could get and still be warm and dry. It was only reachable by cable car. A massive dog that looked more mammoth than canine was one of the only other guests (it wasn’t skiing season) and he spent most of his time trying to look like an enormous, furry rug. As you can suspect, wifi wasn’t plentiful and entertainment options were scant, so Jacob and I were pretty much left with the books we had haphazardly shoved in our packs at the beginning of the trip.

Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

It was there that I read Surprised by Joy, another Lewis (yes, I am unabashedly a C.S. Lewis fanatic and yes, you’ll have to put up with an endless queue of quotes and concepts from him in many of my posts). I had never, to that depth or breadth, experienced anything quite like what I am about to describe. I hope you have.

As I read, I felt that thoughts and feelings which I had never expressed, which were almost too broad, too webbed into the network of experiences and impressions and sentiments that make up who I am to be clearly expressed were all written out neatly, concisely before my eyes. Leanings, urgencies, fears and passions which made a mockery of the words used to try and describe them and box them into communicable data, were all set out and given credence, given plausibility by someone I had never met. Someone whose lifetime didn’t even overlap mine. Someone from an entirely different period and part of the world. And yet someone who had experienced them in all their vast and undeniable reality.

And I couldn’t help but sit in elation and scream silently, “I know exactly how you felt. I know that thought, that emotion like you know an old friend: every wrinkle, every glint of the eye, every characteristic twist of the corners of the mouth, every stubborn cowlick. I know.” It was one individual mining his experience, his imperceptibly individual experience of life and piling it all before you in the silence that only comes to us in reading. And he did so, above all, utterly sincerely.

Ever since I have scrounged implacably through stacks of books looking for the same moment. The moments where in resonant and undisturbed conversation, one person genuinely unlocks their vault of memories and passions and idiosyncrasies for just you. And it is those moments which I hope to create and recreate (with a very real understanding that I may more often fail than succeed) in these small posts. As George Orwell wrote in his classic 1984,

The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.
— George Orwell, "1984"

These moments have been precious to me and have given me yet another reason (there is a long, long, long list of them that you already know) to read profusely. And here is the shocking, revolutionary, edgy exhortation that I have for you in this first post: read.

I believe that any piece of art we hold dear (I mean really love, not merely appreciate objectively) bears in its very core something which resonated strong and clear with something already inside of us. It is not so much that something brand new is shown to us, but that in our tripping, tumbling, meandering dance of experiences, we realize beautiful truths and every now and then, we see that same beautiful truth reflected in some art form. And we love it because it smells, feels and sounds familiar.

However, we live in an age of exceptionally loud consumerism. Anything and everything is more accessible than ever.

That said, this accessibility feels more like a siege. We are bombarded by things to consume. Naturally, since you are a consumer, everyone selling anything has your picture pinned in the middle of the bull’s-eye. And entertainment is the most addictive drug we are sold. Any TV show, movie, game or fill-in-the-blank time-waster that you can dream up is just several clicks away, placing a cotton-candy time barrier between you and whatever difficult task is knocking on your door next. It’s free, it’s shiny, it’s sweet and it’s easy. And this is how, I believe, some of us (myself included) have come to be unintentional consumers.

It’s too difficult, too tedious to be intentional about what you engage with your mind. It’s much more convenient to let yourself be engaged by some mindless, flashy treat. After all, the world’s advertisers are throwing every conceivable type of eye-candy your way to get you to click. And while there are always exceptions, (always!), as a general rule, what is sold to us on the cheap is not some profound, reasoned search for truth or expression of beauty, it is something that’s made to sell – by being sweet and being short.

It’s a pattern that we see play uninterrupted through our lives like a strong current. What is good is often difficult, what is right is often unprepossessing, what is healthy often tastes like horse food. In the words of the immortal Youtube phenomenon, “It’s fun to do bad things”.

This rule, however, only lasts for a short amount of time. Check my facts on this, but while science (and very unscientific endeavors) have created artificial quick-releases for dopamine (one of the pleasure hormones in our brains), it is also produced naturally and reliably when we complete a difficult task. Basic survival tools.

When I first started running (to avoid becoming hypocritical, I’ll gladly admit that I haven’t been running consistently for much time at all) I did it because I knew I needed to. I knew it was good for me. And it wasn’t very pretty. After a while, however, you begin to rely on it: as a stress reliever, as a time of quiet to think, as a consistent source of feeling productive and accomplished. And health itself, upon gaining a small yet significant foothold, leaks slowly into other parts of your living habits. The trouble, as with every difficult task, is the insurmountably tall barricade of simply starting. That’s where being intentional is the most important idea.

Reading is the same way. It isn’t convenient and (unless it’s an object of pride for you and a bit of a put-on for sophistication) it isn’t glamorous. But it is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, worth it. Truth and beauty can be found in all art forms, but what makes reading so special is its conversational atmosphere. For hours, someone (and if you read well, a very intelligent and helpful “someone”) is pouring their hard work, their most conscientious musings, their most sincere concerns into the silent reflection of your mind. You have the beautiful, unique opportunity to glimpse through a shimmering stained-glass window the colors and sounds and ponderings of another person. And you get, every now and then, those moments of pure communion with someone else.

Reading enfolds you, soundproofs you, and absorbs you for a placid and engaging moment amidst a very chaotic and annoyingly obnoxious world. And obviously, becoming an intentional consumer means reading excellent books. Stupidity and uselessness is as ubiquitous in literature as it is in any other art form. But for me, getting started in general was and is the hardest part.

All of the great books in the world sit shyly on the shelf or tucked away online while everything easier, everything fattier and sweeter is placed right before us, infinitely easier to grasp. And we are gradually tricked into being intellectually fat, tired, lazy and dependent (addicted) consumers. Being an intentional consumer means a thought, an internal catch that while you’re binging on that TV show or scrolling listlessly and bored through Twitter for the umpteenth time, you have the self-control and the wherewithal to put it down and pick up a book, any book, the nearest book for God’s sake.

And after a while, when you’ve gotten past the slight agitation of having to think for yourself and work to be interested, you’ll begin to love it. The intentional consumer is the healthier consumer and, in the long run, the least apathetic consumer.

And in that purpose, I will leave you each month with a short reading list of the books I’ve been reading that month in case you need some extra gumption to get started, or to simply add some diversity to the list you’re already enjoying. Hopefully, if you’re smart, you will have already left off reading this post to turn your mind to something wiser, more eloquent and more interesting.

 Books of the Month

*Francis Spufford – Unapologetic – a fresh and very British account of an atheist-turned-Christian and the emotional (as opposed to rational) reasons for his conversion and belief. This tells the story of the Gospel in a whole new light.

*C.S. Lewis – The Abolition of Man – an extremely short, understandable set of arguments for objective truth and values in a world full of subjective talk and truth.

*George Orwell – 1984 – I’m assuming the majority of you read this in high school but I had never so I found it really interesting. It is a political commentary with incredible insights into socialism from the point of view of a writer in the mid-19th century.

Word of the Month (just for fun) – simulacrum (sim-you-lack-rum), noun, - an image, an insubstantial or fake semblance of something.

Micah Webber is a writer and aspiring teacher looking to learn, read, write and travel while helping others navigate the precarious and wonderful path of self-discovery and life’s biggest questions. He recently backpacked with Jacob through much of Western and Central Europe after studying abroad in Ireland.