Earlier this year, leaders from Jesuit universities and colleges around the world gathered in Mexico City to reflect on the challenges in Jesuit higher education today. The Superior General of the Jesuits, Adolfo Nicolás, (my boss in Rome) opened the conference with a challenging talk. He warned against what he called the “globalization of superficiality.”

Here is his argument: In an age when there is so much information offered to us instantaneously in so many ways, we risk becoming intellectually lazy and morally lax. With countless input from a variety of media sources, we are tempted to accept the easy answer — the one that comes to us easiest or most recently or the one rated “most popular.” With so many options given to us with the promise of instant gratification, one choice seems as good as another, and waiting seems like a waste of time. Plugged in and wired almost every minute of the day, there is little time for the solitude needed to think and pray deeply. With cell phones and MP3 players attached to our ears, we lack the quiet needed to hear the still, small voice within.

In short, we are at risk of becoming superficial human beings, spreading ourselves so thin that we never go deep enough. What is secondary becomes primary; what is a distraction becomes paramount. Our thinking and feeling — and thus our commitments — become shallow, and our mind, heart and soul risk atrophy.

Nicolás’s tough talk challenges me to examine how I teach and learn, preach and pray, love and serve. Each day, I examine my life by three D’s: depth, distraction and discernment.

Depth is only worthy of human living. Dogs can be perfectly happy living superficially (sorry, Jack), but such shallowness will ultimately make us feel empty. I find myself skimming more, a helpful skill at times. But my cursory Internet reading has translated to reading too quickly the books, articles and essays that could fill my mind and soul. I don’t savor words and images like I used to.

I’m up to 400 “friends” on Facebook (a paltry sum, I know), but that took none of the work necessary to build long-lasting friendships. I ask myself: How much do I linger and “waste time” with friends? How willing am I to invest in those friendships during difficult times of misunderstanding and do the tough work of reconciliation? Isn’t “unfriending” so much easier?

I excel at multi-tasking, but at the end of the day, I wonder: What sticks? Jesuit education is about meaning-making, not collecting experiences like trinkets to display for others as on a resume. It’s so easy, as T.S. Eliot wrote, to have the experience but miss the meaning. What did I miss today?

Discernment is to thoughtfully and prayerfully sift through the experiences and “data” of our lives, and then to make decisions based on who we are most deeply. Discernment helps us determine what is a distraction and what is a necessity. I get bothered by little things that really don’t matter much. My inbox is full of distractions. What really isn’t that important grabs my attention or incites aggravation. Too many material things in my life distract me from the needs of the poor.

Critical to discernment is going deep within ourselves, to sort through the interior reactions, feelings, impulses and desires that we experience naturally. The insight of Jesuit spirituality is that God speaks to us through our deepest desires. But to get to them, we need to sort through the data of our interior life, like a prospector sifting sand to find nuggets of gold. Sometimes our first reaction or feeling is a distraction; there’s more underneath. To discern is to go deep.

I invite you to join me in doing a regular inventory based on the three D’s. Let us strive for depth of thought and imagination as we go about the work of learning. Let us avoid needless distraction and develop a habit of discernment. As we commit ourselves to rigor in thought and analysis, let us also strive for a depth of loving, in our “friending” one another and our service to those outside our gates.

Deep living is joyful living, but it’s also hard, requiring a certain asceticism — of being alone and quiet sometimes — and a certain sacrifice when we lay down a bit of our life for someone else.

As we returned to the Hilltop, plates deep within the earth shifted and the whole East Coast shook. What is deepest has awesome power. Imagine what a depth of mind, spirit, character and conviction can do for our campus and our world.

Fr. O’Brien is the Vice President of Ministry and Mission. AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT… appears every other Friday.

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