You Are What You Read

Everyone’s heard the phrase “You are what you eat”. As they try to combat cancer, obesity and stress, many people have come to believe that the foods that they put in their bodies are worthy of a lot more thought than we have given food since Ray Kroc opened his first MacDonald’s in 1955. As an alternative to mom’s home cooking, the nation started flocking to the novelty of MacDonald’s “fast food” orientation and we’ve never looked back – with devastating consequences to our national health. Go to a shopping mall sometime and see how many people there actually look like a Big Mac. It gives one pause to see what’s happened to the physicality of our population and, as a result, we’ve finally begun to give healthy food a whole new appreciation.

Is there an analogy when it comes to the health of our minds? What is the fast food or junk food equivalent of a Big Mac? For some time people said it was too much television; today people might say it’s video games, Facebook, or the internet in general (“if it’s on the internet, it must be true”). Before television we read a lot more books. If we were not reading books we were sitting at the dinner table or on the front porch listening to the stories our parents and grandparents told. These stories were part of the mental foundation of our maturation. In The Rhythm of Life, Matthew Kelly writes:

“If you want to know how our nation will be different tomorrow from the way it was yesterday, find out how the stories our nation is listening (today) are different from the stories of yesterday. If you discover that the stories we are listening to have less meaning, contain more violence, and, rather than inspire us and raise our standards, appeal more to the lowest common denominator, you can be sure that in the future our lives will have less meaning, more violence, and be more focused on the lowest common denominator.”

We need a healthy diet for our minds just as much as we need a healthy diet for our body. The ideas we feed our mind today will form our lives tomorrow. Unfortunately, unlike food, which we readily agree is essential for our survival, we don’t see ideas as a survival need. The Rule of Three (you can only survive three seconds without oxygen, three days without water, and three weeks without food) doesn’t seem to apply to cerebral activities. Our intellectual needs never seem urgent, so it’s easy to overlook them. When was the last time you said to yourself, “I urgently need to read a good book today”?

Some would argue that the average person knows more today than at any time in history. More people have college degrees, more people work in hi-tech, as opposed to steel mills and coal mines. But the knowledge that we accumulate today tends to be very work-related and specialized (computer coding, genomic testing, nanotechnology). These are all good things to know and can benefit mankind tremendously, but does knowledge of these things actually make us any wiser? There is a great line from the movie Jurassic Park where Dr. Ian Malcolm, when arguing the wisdom of recreating dinosaurs after millions of years of extinction, says, “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. We all know the disastrous results from not listening to Dr. Malcolm’s point of view.

The kind of brain food that is missing today seems to be the stories and books that force us to confront the most profound questions and truths about the world, humanity, spirituality, and our own personal journeys through life. We seldom get this kind of intellectual fodder from television, sci-fi, video games or the internet. Even good magazines like The New Yorker, The Economist, or Atlantic Monthly cannot fill the intellectual void caused by not reading the great philosophers, the writings of spiritual leaders past and present, or the scriptures. The works of Sun Tzu are as relevant today as they were 2500 years ago. They give us the perspective, wisdom, and the 30,000 foot outlook we frequently need from which to intelligently view life.

Reading bumper stickers or regurgitating sound bites just isn’t the same.

We must continuously task ourselves to move beyond our intellectual comfort zones and embrace books and writings that challenge us to ponder the deeper questions, truths, and mysteries of our existence. Only if we do so will our minds not get intellectually obese. And only if we do so will we be thriving in our lives instead of just surviving.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” Mark Twain

Point to Ponder: When was the last time you read a “good” book that was not on the New York Times best-seller list?

Question to Consider: Why does the U.S. lead the world in murders per capita and incarcerations?

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