Dangerous Instruments: Your Online Life And Your Creative Legacy

I get email inquiries all the time from visitors to my side project, CatholicBarcelona.com, which is an online guide in English to all of the historic churches, monasteries, etc. in Barcelona. People want to know which sites are closest to their hotel, or if I can recommend a particular Sunday Mass, or where they can get married. A common question involves requests for Masses in other languages.

Some months ago I received an email from a lady whom I will call “T”. T had recently moved from her country to suburban Barcelona, but she had started to look into becoming a Catholic before she had left her home country. She wanted some suggestions on joining a parish, and also whether I knew of anywhere that she could receive instruction on Catholicism, through the program commonly known as RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I gave her a couple of recommendations and wished her luck, assuming I would never hear from her again.

Then yesterday morning, I received an email from T, some four months after I last heard from her. She told me that not only had she joined the parish I suggested would probably work for her, but one of the priests there was giving her private RCIA instruction. She is thrilled and hopes to come into the Church next Easter.

Now at the end of the day, what is happening in T’s life is the working of the Holy Spirit, not me. If she hadn’t found the information she was seeking through me, she would have found it somewhere else. However I wanted to share this story with you for an important reason.

There’s no question that the connections we make via online media can be toxic. All you have to do is read the comments section on just about any blog to realize that there are a lot of bitter, unhappy people out there, who not only espouse crazy theories, they are more than happy to share them with you. Twitter and Facebook, at times, can seem little more than a flame war, while even the most seemingly innocuous Instagram account can take on a different tinge, when you look not at the images being posted by that user you’re following, but at the images that they are “liking”.

I‘ll be the first to raise my hand and declare that I’m as big and bad a sinner online, as I am in real life: the Seven Deadly Sins and I have been shacked up for quite a long time. It’s easy to think, when we look at someone’s online presence, “Wow, what a hypocrite/whackjob/jerk!” Except that if we turn the mirror around, I expect most of us will find ourselves doing the same things.   

Online media is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool: a means, not an end. It can be a tool of darkness, absolutely, for it can create all kinds of evil things. Yet it can also be a tool for good. We all, myself included, need to take a step back from time to time and ask what sort of online instruments we are.

Certainly we are all rusty, dangerous instruments when we chose to do evil. The fellow downstairs is more than happy to use us to injure others, if we let him. In the process, we end up injuring ourselves, becoming weaker and duller until we eventually snap and get tossed in the garbage.

Yet if we put ourselves in God’s hands, even in our sorry and decrepit state, by choosing to work the way that He wants us to, we can be as beneficial and healing in our online relationships as a well-wielded scalpel in the hands of a gifted surgeon. That is where, as the saying goes, the struggle is real. And it is a struggle all of us, myself included, need to be reminded of, when we are doing anything online.

Whether you are writing a blog post or tweet, sending a direct message or chat, or uploading an image or document, in creating online content you are creating a body of work that speaks not only to who you are as a content creator, but also about whom you are taking as your creative advisor. You can be an instrument for creating good, or you can be an instrument for destructive evil. Don’t let that choice go by, unexamined, in your online activities.

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"Against The Common Good" by Francisco de Goya (c. 1814-15)

The Change In Spain: Adiós Siesta, Hola Greenwich Mean Time

News broke over the weekend that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has proposed two fundamental legal changes which would have a profound impact on daily life in his country, both for residents and visitors: the elimination of the siesta, that long afternoon break which Spaniards traditionally take between lunchtime and late afternoon, and the changing of time in peninsular Spain from Central European Time to Greenwich Mean Time. At present, the combination of these two factors produces some rather bizarre results, such as the sun not actually being at its highest point in the sky at noon. However the passage of such sweeping changes will not only have a significant ripple effect in other aspects of Spanish life, but one wonders whether it will fundamentally change the character of the country.

If you have visited Spain, you know that the siesta seems, at first, to be a great idea, but as the days roll by you become sick of it. The first time I can recall feeling deeply annoyed by the siesta was around twenty years ago. My brothers and I were sitting on the front steps of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar, the most beautiful church in Barcelona, waiting to get inside. The scheduled reopening was 4:30 pm, but whoever was in charge had apparently decided that the posted time was more of a suggestion than a promise. As we sat there for over half an hour wondering why it was taking so long to unlock the doors, and watching other waiting tourists throw in the towel and leave, it occurred to me that not only was the practice of the siesta an outmoded custom, but it was holding Spain back from taking full advantage of its potential.

The siesta has its origins in the relationship between climate and economics, and while the Spanish version of the practice has become the most famous, other countries such as Greece and Italy have practiced their own versions for centuries. Generally speaking Spain is a hot country, and when there was a largely agricultural-based economy, farm workers simply could not toil for hours in the blazing afternoon sun, or they would drop like flies. Later as the Industrial Revolution arrived, factory workers, too, could not work in the hellish conditions of a factory floor all day, prior to the invention of modern cooling methods. Taking a break during the hottest time of the day, in order to allow the temperatures to cool down, meant in theory that Spanish workers could return to work into the evening, refreshed and revived.

Today however, there seems to be little practical necessity for art galleries or banks or shoe stores to grind to a halt in the middle of the workday. How many tourists over the years have given up on shops or sights in Spain, because even though they were ready, willing, and able to plunk down their hard-earned holiday money, merchants and custodians were too busy taking a long lunch/nap to engage in commerce? Even in comparatively more business-friendly Catalonia, where the siesta has never been quite as important as elsewhere, the notion that I have to sit around downtown Barcelona, waiting for a shop to roll up its metal door, long after I have had my lunch, seems utterly arcane.

Regarding the proposed change of Spain’s time zone, I must confess that I was completely unaware that the setting of the continental Spanish clock to that of Central Europe was of comparatively recent invention, dating from the Franco era. Prior to the Civil War of 1936-1939, Madrid had been in the same time zone as London. As a child I always wondered why it was that London time was an hour behind Madrid, given that when you look at the two cities on a map Madrid actually lies further west in the Atlantic. Granted, the cartographers among you could explain all of the political and geographic reasons as to why there can be such exceptions, but as an exercise in logic, this change seems to be a no-brainer.

There are also certain practical advantages that one can see, beyond the logical ones, of shifting the time zone in Spain. Even with the advent of 24-hour markets, I imagine that there must be benefits to investors and to the Spanish economy, if trading times for both the London and Madrid stock exchanges were to be aligned. If the Bolsa were to remain open one hour longer than say, EuroNext, would American and Asian investors find it more appealing? My finance readers will please correct me if I’m wrong on this, of course.

And then there are all the Brits living in Spain – in fact, there are quite a lot of them, as southern Spain has become the Florida of Great Britain. Current estimates of the British ex-pat population based permanently in Spain are around one million people, and a huge percentage of those are retirees. In addition, approximately 14 million Britons visit Spain every year for business or pleasure, more than from any other country, with a significant portion of that number made up of those who have second homes in Spain. As flights from Britain to just about anywhere in Spain – flying time from London to Barcelona is an hour shorter than that of New York to Miami – are short to begin with, eliminating jet lag by eliminating the time difference between the UK and Spain could, I imagine, make the journey just that little bit more appealing.

All that being said, I wonder about other things that may fall by the wayside, as a consequence of Spain redefining the experience of being Spanish. For example, what will happen to the wonderful “Menú del Día”, the three-course menu at a reasonable set-price which, under Spanish law, must be offered in licensed restaurants at lunchtime on weekdays? If there are to be no more two- or three-hour lunches, will anyone other than tourists have the time to actually take advantage of such an offering? This seems particularly ironic, given that these multi-course affairs were originally created in order to help Spanish workers who could not get home for the siesta, and who will now not have the time necessary to eat them.

And then there’s Spain’s famous nightlife, with people in cities like Madrid emerging like vampires – albeit ones with skintans – to go out to trendy restaurants that do not even open for dinner until midnight, or hitting clubs that only start to get going until the early hours of the morning. Even if you are not going out for the evening, Prime Time TV viewing in Spain only starts around 10 pm, and runs until around 2am. Will these things, too, fall by the wayside, as people rest less and work more during daylight hours?

In about a month and a half, I’ll be in Barcelona and Madrid on vacation. There will still be the siesta, and the time will still be 6 hours ahead of the East Coast. However it’s entirely possible that I’ll be witnessing the final days of things which have been part of the culture for so long, that it’s hard to imagine what things in Spain will be like without them.

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Siesta by John Singer Sargent (1905)