Like it or not, we spend our days immersed in a steady drumbeat of messages, coming at us from all directions and in numerous forms, courtesy of advertisers, artists, media consultants and each other. And like it or not, many of those messages are designed to shape our feelings, opinions, outlooks and even our values. It’s nearly impossible to escape them, outside of taking up residence in a nearby lean-to—and even there you’d probably have cable.
I like to think that I’m oblivious to most of the messages aimed at me, and pretty discriminating with the rest. But I got to thinking: With all this noise going on around me, what’s getting through? What am I letting get through? How discerning am I with everything that comes my way, and what kind of impact does it all have on the person I am and am becoming? Just for fun, and in an attempt to track the hubbub, I decided to make a conscious effort to notice some of the messages I receive in a typical day.
It started pretty early. On the way to work, I was pushing buttons on the car radio when a mellow-sounding country song came on. Cranking up the romance, the singer proclaimed in the chorus, “God must have spent a little more time on you.” I’m sure he meant to be heaping praise on the object of his affections, but what’s the message here? That God works a little harder on some people than on others? That God likes some people better than others? That the other women this singer had come across were just divinely slapped together?
As I mulled that, a car whizzed past sporting a bumper sticker that announced, “No Fat Chicks.” Is this implying that “overweight girls” are unworthy of time, attention or dignity because we don’t approve of their appearance? Before that car was out of sight, I’d passed two billboards trumpeting multimillion-dollar lottery jackpots. What’s this telling me? That with a single bolt of lightning, a huge sum of money could solve my problems and fix my life? That a 1-in-135-million chance could be my ticket to happiness and prestige?
When I arrived at the office, I checked my email. Accompanying a few work-related items were several urgent notes offering me the chance to meet “hot adult dates” or use wonder drugs to deal with an apparently glaring anatomical deficiency of mine. So now the hints being not so subtly dropped are that if I’m normal, I’m probably obsessed with sex and easily aroused. There were also several chances to “consolidate your debt,” which must be why I need to win the lottery so badly.
Later, I opened a news magazine and was immediately greeted by two ads. One told me that I could live my life with “no boundaries,” racing about in total freedom in my new SUV. What responsibilities? The next one tried to interest me in a cell phone setup that “works the way you do. Like a success-driven overachiever." Oh, those responsibilities.
And I hadn’t even watched TV yet.
I’m not out to bash the producers of all these messages. They’re doing their jobs, giving us what they think we want. And to be fair, I also passed a billboard touting a cell phone company with the message that talking with family members is good and something we should do more often. But overall, few of the ideas and outlooks I saw and heard seemed especially helpful. Why is it that a huge chunk of the messages our culture puts out plant seeds that I don’t really want to see grow?
And why do I so often choose those messages? Why am I sometimes so slow, so reluctant to turn to the One whose message has remained unchanged throughout human history? Jesus’ message is the one that needs to come through to me most clearly, the one I filter all the other ones through. It’s interesting that one of the most popular translations of the Bible in bookstores today is called The Message. Jesus once said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Truth and freedom: Only one message offers that.
What are we tuning in to? What are we turning into?[Tom Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education and tries his darndest to filter the messages that come his way. You can reach him at [email protected].]