During the Christmas holidays I purchased some bagels at a bakery in Ottawa, and now on a website I regularly use, pop-up ads for this company have begun appearing. Not long afterward a couple of my online inquiries for flight information triggered an onslaught of on-screen notices for airlines and trip sites offering me deals.
Not only on our computers but everywhere and during almost every one of our waking moments, we face unrelenting attempts to direct our choices and our lives. We consciously but mostly unconsciously walk through an environment saturated with well-tailored calls seeking to grab some of our money, time or concern.
Consider for a moment the myriad of small choices we must normally make on our daily rounds. Can you feel yourself being poked and prodded by the “invisible hand” to act in a particular way?
“Well, it’s a non-stop blitz of advertising messages,” ad executive J. Walker-Smith noted in a CBS News article I ran across. “Everywhere we turn we’re saturated with advertising messages trying to get our attention.”
Walk down any store aisle. Social psychologists to economists, product designers to copy writers all have a hand in choosing the host of factors from label colour, print font and message to shelf placement to give their items the most effective chance of stopping us in our tracks to grab them. Even the overall floor layout of megastores has been carefully crafted to influence our choices. The longer we spend wandering in front of their shelves, they know the more we buy.
Endless repetition of products has seen the average number items stocked in a grocery store rise from 5,800 items in the late 1950s to over 42,000 items now, according to the Food Marketing Institute. The same exponential growth is evident in our exposure to ads, billboards, labels, flyers, pop-ups, jingles, TV commercials, etc., as well. We are psychologically awash in these messages calling out for our attention.
How can we possibly hear God’s call amidst all this cacophony? The siren calls of consumerism and the cant of corporate and political honchos drum incessantly for this system and the profits it generates. These threaten to overwhelm all other sensibilities.
Isaiah in the first reading, awestruck in the presence of the Lord, cried out: “Woe is me, I am lost.” This could be our lament as well, but in the face of these contemporary false gods and their promises.
On critical reflection all of us can think of key decisional points in our lives. Eva and I over our now 40 years of marriage can look back and see the pattern in the choices we made. It often seems that only by looking back can we see the options we picked that moved us forward to where we are today.
Our decision to join a community that moved us from Morris, Man., to Melfort, Sask., then to strike out on our own buying a house in Prince Albert, shaped our lives. Joining St. Joseph Parish there after a time of alienation from the formal church marked another major turning point. Answering the invitation to consider a job possibility in the Yukon dramatically altered our life trajectory. Bishop Thomas Lobsinger of Whitehorse coming to our new home there and asking for our help certainly was a call. From the mundane to momentous, can we see the hand of God in these moments of our lives? Did we answer the call?
The year of the death of Uzziah or Ozias, the long-reigning leper king of Judah, marks the time of the scene so richly described by Isaiah. It is very unlikely that we can expect to hear a clarion call from the Lord like the prophet heard. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” If we did, would it move us to say, “Here am I: send me!”
We can’t have the encounter Simon Peter did with an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth on the shore of Lake Gennesaret or, as we know it, the Sea of Galilee. Listening to Jesus while keeping his boat steady “a little way from shore” the soon-to-be apostle entered into a face-to-face experience of the mysterium tremendum similar to what Isaiah had felt. The numinous engulfed each of them. Both proclaimed their unworthiness. Jesus told Peter, “Do not be afraid.” Peter and his partners, the sons of Zebedee, made their choice. “They left everything and followed Jesus.”
Most of the choices we face aren’t as momentous and ultimately world-changing as Peter’s, or as spiritually profound as Isaiah’s. We aren’t privileged to have seen the risen Lord as the “more than 500 brothers and sisters” Paul speaks of. But we too are called.
Somehow we have to find a way to hear our own true calls above the daily din. To help us sort the wheat from the chaff we have aids like the Scriptures, the social encyclicals, voices both current and ancestral to give us a hand us. But most of all we have each other. Answering our call we can bring the message of Jesus alive today and then as the Catholic Worker street philosopher Peter Maurin said, “The future will be different if we make the present different.”
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.