Levin replied, “It seems to me that [these new institutions] are useless, and I cannot feel interested in what you wish me to do …”
— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
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Have you ever been called a “nerd”? If so, take heart: you are not far from the kingdom of heaven.
Not all nerds are Pilgrims, of course. But it would be fair to say that one can’t very well be a Pilgrim without also being a nerd. In an important sense, pilgrimage and nerdiness go hand in hand.
Just what is a “nerd” anyway? If you’ve never heard the term adequately explained, you may be interested in what Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has to say about it:
nerd \nerd\ n [perhaps from nerd, a creature in the children’s book If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel)]: an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; esp: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.
This definition is instructive on several different levels. Let’s dismantle it and examine its component parts.
We can begin by noting that the epithet “nerd” is most often employed as an insult. If this weren’t already obvious from the snide tone in which it’s generally applied, one might be led to the same conclusion by the dictionary’s use of the negative modifiers “unstylish,” “unattractive,” and “socially inept” to describe the “nerdy” individual.
There’s an important corollary here. The compilers of our dictionary are apparently working on the assumption that stylishness, attractiveness, and social aptitude are good and desirable attributes. If “nerds” are frumpy, ugly, and socially “out of it,” it follows that “non-nerds” are the opposite – that their “coolness” is measured in terms of trendiness, good looks, and sophistication.
“Slavish devotion” is another quality that leaves the “nerd” open to derision. No surprises here. In a society that prides itself on skepticism, cynicism, urbanity, street smarts, and high-browed contempt, “devotion” (let alone “slavish devotion”) to anything but self is usually looked down upon as foolish and naive. Most of us are above that sort of thing nowadays.
Finally, this “slavish devotion” is especially odious when it attaches itself to “academic or intellectual pursuits.” Why? For the simple reason that “intellectual pursuits” are not particularly conducive to or compatible with “slavish devotion” to pop culture. And since pop culture is the standard by which all things are measured, anyone who fails to take a keen interest in it must necessarily be viewed as a moron, if not a public enemy.
If the Pilgrim is not invariably “intellectual” in outlook, it must be nevertheless be conceded that he is often what people today describe as “religious,” and that is something far worse. After all, the dominant religion of mass culture cannot possibly brook any rivals. Those who direct their attention to aberrant pursuits like prayer, reading, and scriptural study while neglecting such cultural staples as Twitter, YouTube, CNN, professional sports, and Saturday Night Live can only be regarded as a threat. They have to be labeled appropriately – as “nerds” – and relegated to the margins of collective life.
In the last analysis, a “nerd” is simply a conscientious non-conformist. In the case of the Pilgrim, he is someone who chooses remain outside the sphere of the kosmos and the assumptions of the present age – someone who has been radically transformed by the renewing of his mind.
That’s what the life of the Pilgrim is all about.