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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Curating the World

Here’s a riddle. In a world filled with amazing, admirable people and despicable, greedy people, why do the bad guys get so much more of our attention than the good guys?

I’m asking a question of curation. Two questions actually. One is, what are you focusing on? Two is, who’s deciding what you’re focusing on?

This is pretty basic if we’re serious about finding new and better ways to get along. Our minds and spirit are nourished just as our bodies are. We ingest everything we see, read and hear. Content matters. Information has nutritional value. Because we’re now inundated with information, it’s more important than ever that we understand this.

The internet illustrates the point perfectly. Clickbait is fun and insubstantial, like junk food. Spend too much time gorging on it and you’ll end up feeling worse than when you started. Pornography has probably never been more titillating or cheap, and if you wonder whether its consumption is impacting lives, check out Quora where scores of young men are sharing the extent of their porn-induced debilitation. Ideologues and conspiracists proliferate online. Hang out with them virtually and see if your political views don’t change. ISIS and Breitbart get this. You should too, since it’s happening to you also.

That’s correct. This isn’t about extremism. Whatever information you consume becomes the foodstuffs of your mind. This is so basic we overlook it. If your habit is to take in the nightly news, or NPR, or Facebook, or movies, or your parents, or gossip, or your workmates, or the opera, or the person who cuts your hair – whatever your brain is exposed to – that’s what your brain has to work with. So my first question is easy to answer: You’re focusing on whatever and whoever you’re listening to, reading and watching. There’s an ocean of information out there but whatever you’re taking in is just a teeny fraction of the sea. That’s worth remembering.

The second question is more interesting. Who’s choosing your information diet? It probably seems that you are, since you’re the one deciding to click on Twitter or tune in to Rachael Maddow. But it’s not that simple. Again, we can analogize to food.

When you’re in the grocery store, you probably feel like you’re making all the choices about what to buy and eat. If you’re a reader of this blog, however, you know that many other “deciders” penned you in long before you showed up with your cart. Con-Agra had something to say about it. JPMorgan Chase had a hand in it. Government officials played a big part. The corporation that owns and runs the grocery store has a board and management team. All these players put that inventory on those shelves. Only after those powerful currents buffeted you into place -- NOW can you swim around a little. Now you get your freedom to choose.

There’s no getting around this, nor should there be. At risk of wearing out the analogy, it’s a damn good thing that species don’t have to adapt to the entire marine environment; how could all that information be successfully processed by a single organism anyhow, and what would be the point of it? That’s not how life works. For all that wispy talk of our inter-dependency, look no farther than the freezer section of your local grocery store. The choices are there for you because of thousands of other people making choices. It’s wonderful and also sobering. We are, each of us, infinitesimally small.

But within this limited freedom to choose what we ingest, we must exercise choice. Because when you start thinking about curation, you begin to puzzle over why anyone would want to spend a minute listening to people like Donald Trump. Maybe we like cheap thrills. Maybe we can’t help ourselves from gawking at a car wreck. I get it, but remember too that you are what you eat.

Curation has been much on my mind the last few weeks, following my decision to unplug from the national news. That choice arose from a pair of reckonings. The first was visceral. For some reason, the Harvey Weinstein scandal sickened me more than I would have predicted, likely because it revealed to me that men abuse women as a matter of course. For men and women everywhere, my stomach turned. That our country would bestow the honor of its highest elected office on a fellow perpetrator revolted me again.

The bigger component of my choice to drop out, however, was related to my blog subject.

My conversation with Wendell Berry’s granddaughter, from the summer visit to Kentucky, has stayed with me. When I asked about her grandad’s prolificacy, she explained that he didn’t own a TV -- hardly a surprise for a farmer/writer/philosopher. I didn’t linger on the point back in June. Since then, however, every time I chose to distract myself by messing with my phone or channel surfing, instead of reading a book, writing, working or talking with others, I knew I wasn’t following Wendell’s example. I didn’t feel like I was failing, mind you. But I did come to see that I was repeatedly making a choice. The behavior became conscious. And that awareness, rushed along by an increasing sense of disillusionment brought on by the daily news, finally tipped me into choosing differently.

Unhooked from the intravenous drip of information curated by god-knows-who, I’ve found more space and time (also called freedom). This must be how people feel when they go off the grid. It seems a radical move, but the effect isn’t radical at all – it’s mellow. It’s surprising how normal life remains after unplugging. One might expect a terrible darkness to descend, but no. The ocean is really large – larger than any of us can imagine. Options for mind-nourishment are almost limitless.

It’s not difficult to find inspiring stuff, beautiful stuff, fascinating stuff and comforting stuff. People are remarkable – not every single one of us perhaps, but so many of us. In recent posts I’ve mentioned how one podcast alone – Team Human, brings someone on every single week worth emulating.

I’m beginning to wonder whether we aren’t overlooking one of the simplest things we can do to make a difference, which seems to be everyone’s preoccupation: First, take control of what you're feeding your mind. Then, find your Harry Caudill.

Wendell’s piece A Man of Courage Constant to the End in It All Turns on Affection is a short recounting of his profound and lasting affinity and respect for a fellow Kentuckian, Harry Caudill, who seems to have had the same effect on Wendell that Wendell has on me. “I studied him with the attention and respect that a young man pays an exemplary older one, and I was aboundingly repaid. He was in every way rare.”

Like Berry, Caudill was a professionally educated man who returned home to become, “not an exploiter of the land and people, but their advocate and defender.” All that separates these two men, as far as I can tell, is 12 years and about 200 miles of Kentucky River. Living well upriver from Berry and practicing law in the county seat, Caudill was in daily view of the Cumberland Plateau and the companies whose strip mining activities there he called “man’s most thorough and total assault on his planet.” Over his too-short life, Caudill went after those companies unremittingly in state government, in the courts, in books, in magazine articles, in letters and articles in newspapers, and in hundreds of speeches and interviews. Berry says “he never quit and he never flinched,” despite knowing he was risking his very life by fighting this fight. He was, Wendell says, the most courageous man of his time and place.

Apparently he was jocular and self-amusing as well, but I don’t need to go on about Harry Caudill. If you want to learn more about him, he authored several books, including two that made indelible impressions on men as redoubtable as Wendell Berry: Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and a sequel called Watches of the Night. These books are, in their way, as important as Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring and as germane today as anything you’re going to hear on the news. By 1976 he observed that the Cumberland region was destroyed, but that the lives of its people were even more obliterated. He saw and wrote down what happens when a succession of ever more efficient machines replaces “fathers, sons and even grandsons with their intricate and valuable skills so that they simultaneously lose their livelihoods and all claims to status and standing.” Sound familiar? 1976!

But you’ve never heard of Harry Caudill, and that’s the important point. He’s nobody to you and me. He was everything to Wendell Berry. The world is full of these people – good guys you don't yet know. Thanks to the internet (not all bad!), they aren’t hard to find anymore. But you have to decide what you’re going to focus on. That can't be handed over to MSNBC. Nor Twitter. Nor Apple.

Intentionality of this kind -- the curation of your mind’s food supply, can be a practice. I think it's essential to living in hope and grace, and it's a practice that can be learned. Part of the reason I chose my teacher, Wendell Berry, is because he so carefully and conscientiously chose his. Read enough Berry and you start to recognize the names. Read enough Berry and you start to understand his need for teachers and friendship, and his gift for attending to both. People fixate on his not using computers and televisions. But I think they miss the point. The peculiarity is not in his rejecting these things; the lesson is revealed in what can happen when all those screen-sucking hours are replaced with a chosen life.

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