Picture everyday life, but without anything permanent.
You wake up in a different bed on Thursday than you did on Tuesday. Your house, in one zip code last weekend, is a few miles elsewhere today. Your morning commute changes every other workday: interstates some days, unfamiliar back roads other days. The people at your job constantly shuffle in and out of your life. One week your cubicle mate is somebody, then the next week it changes. Relationships in general shift around you. Things may stabilize for a little bit but they are sure to change soon. Life has no discernible rhythm, just endless novelty and transition.
Most people would not be able to live like this. There are lots of films and books about the anxieties of boring life, but this is true only because human nature by default looks for repetition and permanence. Nobody wants all new friends every two weeks. Nobody could function if their daily experiences of life were always shifting. There’s something life-giving about the same bed each morning, the same faces to wake up to in the same house. Permanence is an anchor, and while anchors are heavy and can be hard to get away from, they keep us from being lost at sea forever. Life without permanence is hardly life.
This is true for daily life, and it’s true for intellectual life.
My days are filled with words. Between my job in publishing, my writing, my editing, and my intake of newspapers, blogs, magazines, and social media feeds, I face an onslaught of words every day. These words change every day. Particularly online, there’s something new to think/worry/get angry about every hour. New voices every week, new issues every day, and new phrases every minute. This world of words is endlessly transient.
We are still learning how this kind of intellectual ecosystem affects our minds. The best indications so far are that the consequences aren’t good. Attention is not a limitless resource, and thoughtfulness is subject to a law of diminishing return. The internet’s tyranny of the Now can hijack our emotional and spiritual life and overload us with information. Even worse, this overloading can become addictive, and we can develop an impulsive need for more and newer words to keep up the neurological rewards we get for discovering new stuff. In this phenomenon, meaning is destroyed. What matters is keeping up the frantic but satisfying pace of new things to know.
But what I crave, at least when the chemical highs of internet life abate for a minute, are permanent words. Just like I want a permanent bed to come home to after a day of new people or new challenges, and just like I need the same rhythms of morning and evening to cope with life that shifts all around me, I need words that don’t change. I need to hear phrases and sentences that aren’t whimsical or subject to the tyranny of Now. I need permanent words that stand on the page and on my heart like the walls of our home. Permanent words are words that don’t get rebooted like a comic book franchise. They don’t get subjected to the whirlwind of public debate like a Twitter thread. Permanent words aren’t the outrage of the day or the fad of the week. Permanent words are here when everything else is scattered; they’re stone pillars in intellectual sand dunes.
This is why I love the Bible. In Scripture I find words with real permanence. They’re corporeal and fixed, not ephemeral and guesswork. I’m not pretending that the Bible needs no interpretation, or that one can never grow or shift in understanding of Scripture. My point is that there’s a restful eternality in the words of Scripture that heal the relentlessly temporal state of my mind.
I read many good things online, but even the best of them tend to be weightless. Timeless books are better than articles and blogs. But even then, many of the books disagree, or age poorly, or are simply wrong. I try to read widely and, as Alan Jacobs advises, at whim. This is rewarding and enlightening for me, and there’s delight in it. But the billions of pages I could live in for a few moments do not add up to even a fraction of the sheer cosmic density of the words of Scripture. The Bible does not blend into the crowd, and that’s what makes it permanent. That’s what makes it strong. And that’s what makes me strong.
Temporal words can color life, but permanent words are the beams of light behind the color. Life is diverse and seasonal, but that diversity and seasonality is only welcome if there’s somewhere to lay our head down at the end of the day. My mind and heart need permanent words. Thank God they have them.