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A Map of Sorrow, Part II

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.

The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes,

ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,

“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.
What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun;  all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, v. 3-14

Part 1 of this post is here.

Sometimes on Saturday mornings I like to read the obituaries. This is a perfectly normal hobby (said no one ever) but I like to read them for what I think is an unusual reason. Hear me out. The little details of people’s lives always interest me; the places they’ve traveled, where they moved before arriving in my city, the jobs they held and names they gave their children; the small things that make us human. When I visit cemeteries, there is nothing left of this.

This is one of the things that bothers me most about death, when I really think about it. Not even the sadness and immediate loss of someone who was so alive and present, but the flattening of a person.

The transition from a vibrant and multi-faceted being into a list of dates and characteristics has always seemed like a disservice on top of a loss. I feel this way about people I know, and about people I will never know; almost as if I’m mourning the loss of whatever made them them, and the process that makes it so.

I don’t think this is a very normal thing to worry over, but normal is just a setting on the dryer anyway.

Reading the obituaries, even if they’re a bit flat (they usually are) or paint the person as some type of saint (they usually do) is one way I get around this.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about death, which prompted me to write these two posts. Not in a morbid sort of way, more as a reflection on the circle of life. I’ve just noticed how we handle it and don’t handle it in society (usually we don’t).

I first noticed it when an acquaintance died a few years ago in a recreational accident. What I realized about his death was how utterly unnecessary it was, and how ridiculous it was to be angry about this. Yet still, I was.

Before his death, I’d always had the idea that at least if we had to die, it would be better if it happened in the service of some type of worthy cause. I know how silly this is; thousands of people die every day from heart attacks and unintentional injuries. Still, like most people, I looked for some meaning in his death, and finding none, I was incredibly frustrated.

The years I’ve spent editing the world news sections of the local paper should have prepared me for these types of moments. One can only edit so many versions of ‘Suicide bomber attacks wedding party, kills 57’ before becoming a bit numb to the whole business of death. But it didn’t. I still felt something, if only an impotent rage at the inanity of it, the waste of someone’s life spent so early.

Who am I, you might be thinking, to determine if someone’s life is wasted? It’s a good question. If someone dies doing something they love doing, isn’t that as good a way to go as any? After all, most of the time death doesn’t mean anything, like it does in stories. It’s not saving someone from burning building or a speeding car, usually. It’s mundane, or slowly agonizing, or an emptiness so sudden we don’t realize it’s there until we pick up the phone to call someone who can’t answer.

To save this post from being completely sad, although I don’t believe in fake happy endings, I’ll leave with a bit of a poem, one that’s stayed with me ever since I read it. All we have are the moments right in front of us, with those we have now, because there are no guarantees about getting an interesting obituary.

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

(Ellen Bass, If You Knew) 

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A Map of Sorrow

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed) 

Part II of this post is here.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written. This has been a busy year, with a new job and a lot of work to take on. I felt this week, though, that I needed to write this post.

I had a conversation with someone recently that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. This person had a loved one die, and we talked about what it was like to grieve in today’s society. Namely, that it is difficult, because people who grieve are generally expected to move on quickly from their feelings and resume normal activities and attitudes, as though grief were a temporary illness one could recover from in short order.

My own experience with grief has been nothing like that. I am not an outwardly emotional person, but I feel almost a kinship with sadness and grief; these emotions are familiar to me for reasons that don’t always make sense, but they often seem as though they have always been part of my life. I feel a deep grief for relationships or possibilities that might have been, or ones that once were treasured and meaningful, but no longer hold what they once did. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, as it seems pale compared to the grief of those who have lost someone physically. But the loss is there, all the same.

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Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

One of my favorite authors died this week. For a while after I heard of this, I sat in stunned disbelief at my desk, unable to process the news. She was so young, the age of my friends and I, who are in our mid-30s. Her death was completely unexpected.

What I never feel about grief, at least at first, is sad. It’s the suddenness that gets me, every time. That phantom-limb feeling, that the person is actually still there, surely they’ll call or post online or pop up at the next family gathering. This is all a terrible dream, isn’t it? I just saw them. They can’t be dead.

Then, though I have forgotten the reason, there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss. Like in those dreams where nothing terrible occurs—nothing that would sound even remarkable if you told it at breakfast-time—but the atmosphere, the taste, of the whole thing is deadly. So with this.

I see the rowan berries reddening and don’t know for a moment why they, of all things, should be depressing. I hear a clock strike and some quality it always had before has gone out of the sound. What’s wrong with the world to make it so flat, shabby, worn-out looking? Then I remember. (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

For a long time, I have grieved the loss of my relationship with my father. He is not dead, but he’s not part of my life and other than a few visits during my childhood, never has been. I used to think that I could not mourn something I never had. But sometimes, in weak moments, I do.

I see other people with their fathers and I wonder what it would have been like to know him. To have him come to my wedding and my graduation and see the milestones in my life that other dads cry over and chronicle on social media, as though they are meaningful events that they would like to remember. I don’t often think of this, because it smacks of self-pity and has little use. But sometimes, I wonder what that would have been like.

I grieve for the death of my favorite author because I think she provided me with something few people have; a sense of truly being understood, and welcomed despite my broken pieces. I am fortunate to have acceptance and love from many members of my family, and that is valuable beyond words. But sometimes, it is hard to feel that anyone, even those who love me, truly understand my darkest places. At the heart of that feeling is the fear that if anyone did understand, they would not like what they see. After all, isn’t that what most of us fear?

This feeling is something I grapple with on a monthly and yearly basis, not something to be gotten over and neatly put away in a drawer, as seems to be expected of people experiencing grief. That’s the thing; there is not a textbook version of how to grieve.

Many people are grieving for someone who is still alive. It may be someone they walk past every day, who is as far away from them as if they were living in another country.

If the person you’re grieving has died, it’s not as if things will be the same again, usually. A person may recover from their most painful sadness and emptiness, but the death of someone deeply loved, or the loss of a truly beloved relationship, is not something to be papered over, sanded down and forgotten.

Each person who means something to us acquires that meaning by changing some piece of us. That piece doesn’t go away because they do.

We’re resilient creatures. We’ll get up again and keep going, because what else can we do? It’s alright to remember that people who truly mean something to us will probably leave a hole in our lives for a long while. Perhaps forever.

We may move on and be happy again. We should be happy again, if we can. Or content, or pursuing something that fulfills us, because happy is a narrow definition of happy. It’s alright to admit that loss has changed us, no matter what kind of loss it is.

To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’

But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. His whole way of life will be changed.  At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again. (C.S. Lewis) 

Learning the art of solitude

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
Or as, when an underground train in the tube stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

T.S. Eliot

East Coker, The Four Quartets

 

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Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

It’s been a while since I added to the ‘things I’m reading’ series.

This essay by Zat Rana, called The Most Important Skill Nobody Taught You, is about the work of mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal. It’s incredibly thought-provoking and I wanted to share it with you. The whole thing is worth reading.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” Pascal famously said in his book Pensées.

I had a lot of time to do this as a kid. Being an only child has its advantages, and this was one of them. I learned early and often that only boring people are bored, so if I wanted something to do, I had better figure out how to entertain myself.

It wasn’t that hard. I read a lot and had a really weird set of air castles. I’ve said this before, but this skill turned out to be valuable later in life.

“Today, more than ever, Pascal’s message rings true. If there is one word to describe the progress made in the last 100 years, it’s connectedness,” Rana says.

“Information technologies have dominated our cultural direction. From the telephone to the radio to the TV to the internet, we have found ways to bring us all closer together, enabling constant worldly access.

I can sit in my office in Canada and transport myself to practically anywhere I want through Skype. I can be on the other side of the world and still know what is going on at home with a quick browse.

I don’t think I need to highlight the benefits of all this. But the downsides are also beginning to show. Beyond the current talk about privacy and data collection, there is perhaps an even more detrimental side-effect here.

We now live in a world where we’re connected to everything except ourselves.”

Nobody taught me how to be connected to myself. I learned when I was young what it was like. Then for a while, I forgot. But somehow through the years, I remembered that feeling. Something in me liked and missed it.

I think I’m weird in this, my enjoyment of hours of silence. Most people I know dislike being alone. We instinctively run from it.

Even I feel uncomfortable with myself at times. Much of my solitude is spent with the company of nature or books, rather than truly alone with myself. Often I don’t like what I see there.

Why does this matter?

“The less comfortable you are with solitude, the more likely it is that you won’t know yourself,” Rana says. “Then, you’ll spend even more time avoiding it to focus elsewhere. In the process, you’ll become addicted to the same technologies that were meant to set you free.

Just because we can use the noise of the world to block out the discomfort of dealing with ourselves doesn’t mean that this discomfort goes away.”

Who really cares, other than our therapists, if we’re comfortable being alone or not? I’m not going to post the whole essay here, because it’s worth a read by itself. But this paragraph really stood out:

“Almost anything else that controls our life in an unhealthy way finds its root in our realization that we dread the nothingness of nothing. We can’t imagine just being rather than doing. And therefore, we look for entertainment, we seek company, and if those fail, we chase even higher highs.”

Psychologists call this the hedonistic treadmill; this constant seeking of entertainment and highs. Many of us are on it without realizing it. Even me.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past few years, and nothing rings truer. People will do almost anything to avoid being alone, or feeling alone. Hiding from the growing terror of nothing to think about is as universal as being human.

Learn about yourself in solitude 

In that emptiness is everything we’ve been running from. Beyond it is the peace most of us are seeking. One can’t be faced without the other, and many don’t have the courage to look at both, along with everything else we face in our daily lives.

Instead, we turn to the noise of the television, the distractions of social media, the highs of whatever makes us forget how to feel. We’ve gotten quite good at avoiding ourselves. While that is the case, we can never see clearly, or move forward. It’s worth a little time facing the awkward silence to see what’s beyond it.

“Without knowing ourselves, it’s almost impossible to find a healthy way to interact with the world around us,” Rana says.

“Without taking time to figure it out, we don’t have a foundation to built the rest of our lives on.

Being alone and connecting inwardly is a skill nobody ever teaches us. That’s ironic because it’s more important than most of the ones they do.

Solitude may not be the solution to everything, but it certainly is a start.”

 

 

On friendship

I’ve been off social media for three months. It’s not a complete break, as I’ve had torrid, short-term affairs with both Instagram and Twitter, but compared to the borderline unhealthy relationship with Facebook I’ve been nursing since 2006, I can safely say it’s been… different.

Fine. It’s been weird, alright? Strange, isolating, freeing, and uncomfortable all at the same time. If that doesn’t make any sense, join the club. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me either. It’s not like the stories, where the author has some sort of breakthrough moment in every chapter.

What I can tell you without a doubt is that everyone should try it. Not because it’s the cure for anything or will fix your problems, but because only by being outside something, even momentarily, can you see it clearly.

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I’m not going to be that person who waxes endlessly about the benefits of (routine or thing they’re sure will change your life) because I know how most of us feel about these folks. You probably hide from them and so do I.

I’ll keep my posts about being offline brief and sporadic, but I will at times make them, because what’s the point of doing a weird, uncomfortable thing if you never tell anyone about it? Is there any reason for doing the thing?

This attitude, the idea that things are only worth doing if other people notice them, is another reason our performance-obsessed culture has messed us up without most of us taking note, but that’s a topic for another post.

One thing I thought about a lot during my time offline (I had more time to think, and that was weird too) was friendship. Other people have written extensively and well about how friendship in the social media age has changed, not necessarily for the worse, so I won’t repeat their arguments much. I can only say what I have noticed in my own life.

At the beginning of this year, I was reading an essay by someone who decided to try giving up texting. She noticed an immediate difference in who contacted her. I’m paraphrasing, but her essay said something like this: “Only a few people bothered to reach out once they had to call or stop by. The rest, I discovered, wasn’t friendship. It was just noise.”

I thought about that a lot. Honestly, the same kind of thing happened to me when I was off Facebook. Lots of folks have my number and email, but mostly, the way we keep in touch now is through Facebook. Once I wasn’t there, I didn’t hear from most of them.

I stopped getting event invites, unless I heard about them from someone else on Facebook. It felt like a huge segment of people ceased to exist, or had forgotten me.

I can’t blame them for this, because I’ve become the same way.

At first this made me angry. My initial analysis was something like this: we’ve become a bunch of lazy people, sitting inside our bedrooms on the Internet instead of getting out and making real friends.

We’ve let our existing friendships slide and atrophy, subbing in ‘likes’ and conversation threads instead of actual visits, because who wants the awkwardness of in-person discussion? I know I often shy away from it.

When I thought about it a little more (I told you I had a lot of time), I realized this wasn’t entirely accurate. On Facebook, I have more than 600 friends. In high school, I had maybe three close friends, and in college maybe four or five, with a larger circle of acquaintances, but the entirety was never larger than 15, maybe 20.

Somehow between my various social media accounts, I’ve accumulated close to 1,000 friends and followers, and I’m irritated that these people aren’t all calling me up to get coffee. Something is wrong with this picture. It’s not them; it’s a lot me, for having those kinds of expectations of people I’m not really close to, and probably never was. It has nothing to do with who we are; we simply haven’t put the work in to become close.

And it’s a little about the culture we’ve built, the kind that says quantity is value. Friendship isn’t achieved by sweating through hours of awkward conversation to find that one person you really click with. It’s just literally clicking. Do we wonder why the results aren’t the same?

In this culture, it doesn’t really matter if you’re awake at 2 a.m. feeling that no one actually understands you; that you’ve been lonely as long as you can recall; that being in a crowd makes you feel more alone rather than less. What matters is how many likes you get on your latest Instagram selfie or baby picture or political meme. For a while, that feels like enough. If you never take a break, it can feel like enough. Until it isn’t.

I know, I’m not really selling you on the the break thing. “Try it and see how alone and weird you feel” isn’t working, probably. But feeling bad isn’t the point. Realizing your good feeling was fake, shitty frosting a lot of the time is worth checking on.

As much as I’d like this to be a simple ‘get out of your room and connect with real people’ take, that can’t be it, because of course, the people on the other side of our keyboards are real people, just like the people living not in the heartland of America are real Americans.

I think it’s extremely dangerous to start saying ‘this is real and that is not real’ and when we do that, we better be pretty darn sure who is not real. That is a step to dehumanizing people and saying they do not matter. There’s enough of that lately. Online friends are real. Some of my dearest friends now live far away from me and I mostly connect with them online or by phone.

I think what I’d like to say is that being off Facebook made me think a lot more deeply about friendship in general, and how little effort I put into most of it. I feel dissatisfied with the state of my adult friendships in many ways, not because of the kind and wonderful people I know, but because I don’t know them as well as I’d like to.

I am positive I’m not alone in this, mostly because of the dozens of posts and articles and conversations I’ve seen and heard from my peers on friendship and loneliness.

We all have a lot of acquaintances, but most of us, especially more introverted folks, have few good, trusted friends, people we can tell the hard things to at weird times of the day or  night. Being more connected hasn’t really helped with this, because forming rock-solid friendship takes time. Hours. Hundreds and hundreds of hours and uninterrupted attention most of us don’t give to anything anymore.

That’s a good place to start on friendship, isn’t it? Knowing however alone you feel, it’s not just you? C.S. Lewis has one of my favorite quotes about this.

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So now what? As usual, the first step in fixing anything is just to notice it’s happening. I think my Facebook break helped me notice something that had been happening to me for a long time without my notice. I needed it. Maybe you do too. It’s your call, of course.

I’m planning to approach my friendships with more care and intention than I have for a long time, because I realize now how much I value them, and how rare good, true friends truly are.

How about you?

Finite games

All human activity is such an exercise (can one resist the word “ritual”?) in squaring the circle. We first produce the world by symbolic work and then take up residence in the world we have produced.

Alas, there is magic in our self deceptions.

(James Carey)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about time. Time as we know it was invented.

When clocks became widely used around the mid-1600s and into the Industrial Revolution, they changed the way we think about almost everything; work, play, rest, even the morality of time. It’s certainly changed the way the workplace operates.

“By the fourteenth century, the common understanding of what time was had changed; it became a grid against which work was measured, rather than the work itself being the measure.

Clock towers funded by local merchant guilds were erected throughout Europe. These same merchants placed human skulls on their desks as memento mori, to remind themselves that they should make quick use of their time.

Photo by David von Diemar

The proliferation of domestic clocks and pocket watches that coincided with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century allowed for a similar attitude toward time to spread among the middle class.

Time came to be widely seen as a finite property to be budgeted and spent, much like money. And these new time-telling devices allowed a worker’s time to be chopped up into uniform units that could be bought and sold.

Factories started to require workers to punch the time clock upon entering and leaving.

The change was moral as well as technological. One began to speak of spending time rather than just passing it, and also of wasting time, killing time, saving time, losing time, racing against time, and so forth.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an episodic style of working was increasingly treated as a social problem.

Methodist preachers exhorted “the husbandry of time”; time management became the essence of morality. The poor were blamed for spending their time recklessly, for being as irresponsible with their time as they were with their money.” (David Graeber)

Today most of us feel the effects of this race against the clock. We are busy, stressed, optimized, sleep-deprived and anxious. We are high achievers. Yet despite this, we hardly feel like we’re good enough, useful enough, meaningful enough.

People have never had more time than we have today. The same hours have always been there. And arguably people have always struggled with some of these things. So what is different?

Previously in history, lots of people’s problems were brought on or exacerbated by outside forces; wars, food shortages, plagues, high mortality rates and the like. Today, in the age of anxiety, the number one cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease.

We’ve always been good at being bad to one another. But I’m not sure we’ve ever been so good at being hard on ourselves.

We could probably blame this on lots of factors. Our culture of comparison and hard-driving ambition doesn’t reward people who choose contemplation and quiet.

It demands visibility, quick gains and a willingness to do what it takes to get to the top. The worst sin in the world today is to be an average person.

To really get to the top, what does that take, besides 10,000 hours? It means telling yourself a story, and doing everything in your life to reinforce that story.

Whatever I do in life isn’t good enough unless I’m the best. Unless I’m constantly moving upward, I’m nothing. Unless I’m the fittest, best-looking, thinnest, highest-earning person here I’ve failed. I’m in competition with everyone in this room.

That narrative changes the way we interact with other people. They’re not peers. They’re tools, or in the way.

We’re telling ourselves a story from a scarcity mindset we’ve created. It might be real, but it’s not what we think it is. We have limited time and energy because we say we do.

There’s not a magic 25th hour in the day. But no one is making you go to yoga class. If your life sucks because you’re over-scheduled, do something about it. Don’t go to that obligatory party with people you don’t even like. Do you really need to enroll your kids in six after-school activities?

We schedule things in our lives to improve ourselves, and for fun. But at some point those things just start to make us mad. They’re one more chore. So stop doing them.

That’s easier said than done, but saying you ‘have to do this or that,’ especially if it’s something you hate doing, is squaring the circle. Ninety percent of the time it’s not necessary, it’s just something you’ve always done.

We should rethink the way we use our time; at work, after work and every time in between. Time is the only thing we can never get back.

New post category: Quotes worth remembering

New/old post type coming your way: my favorite quotes. Like any eccentric collector, I’ve hoarded these for years. They deserve to be freed from their bounds of cramped journals and endless Google Docs.

They’re not 140 characters, they’re not on video and they don’t have hashtags. If you still want to read, go forward! And please do check out the authors of these books and speeches.

On thought, questioning and the importance of wonder:

Photo by Patrick Hendry

Every human person is inevitably involved with two worlds: the world they carry within them and the world that is out there. All thinking, all writing, all action, all creation and all destruction is about that bridge between the two worlds.

All thought is about putting a face on experience. One of the most exciting and energetic forms of thought is the question. I always think that the question is like a lantern. It illuminates new landscapes and new areas as it moves.

Therefore, the question always assumes that there are many different dimensions to a thought that you are either blind to or that are not available to you. So a question is really one of the forms in which wonder expresses itself.

One of the reasons that we wonder is because we are limited, and that limitation is one of the great gateways to wonder.

All thinking that is imbued with wonder is graceful and gracious thinking… And thought, if it’s not open to wonder, can be limiting, destructive and very, very dangerous.

John O’Donohue

Amusing Ourselves to Death

The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing, on the radio, or for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. Neil Postman

As a kid growing up in the 1990s, I was one of the only people I knew who didn’t have cable TV or an at-home computer. This wasn’t an aesthetic choice on our part as much as it meant we were poor. I found this to be somewhat of a cramp in my style, especially when I visited the houses of friends with slick PCs and 200 channels. But mostly I read a lot. For better or worse, kids are adaptable.

I didn’t recognize it until later, but this experience instilled in me a lifelong love of books. More important, it gave me the ability to entertain myself for hours without electronics. I couldn’t have imagined then how useful that would be.

Today I have the money to buy a nice TV and computer. I’m writing this essay on one right now. But still, I prefer books, long form essays and newspapers (some in digital format, to be sure) to TV or mediums like Twitter.

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Photo by Frank Okay 

That’s nice, you might be thinking, but why should I care?

Because the switch from a culture based on the written word to one based largely on images affects you, in ways you may not have realized. That switch is the subject of one of the best books of all time, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), by Neil Postman.

Much has been written recently about our current political culture and the divides it creates. Still more about about the rise of technology use, the dip in attendance at traditional community institutions like churches and social clubs and how these things change the way we all view each other.

Relatively little has been written about how we got here in the first place; that is, to a place where what is valued is speed, looks and attention.

Many of us are unhappy with the way things are. Or at least we feel a vague sense of being in a hurry or on display most of the time; yet we don’t know how to make it stop. 

We’re not satisfied, yet we have not wondered why this might be. If we have, we blame it on what are arguably symptoms: (political candidates, news channels, electronic devices, work hours) rather than root causes.

Neil Postman is an exception to this norm. The author of several books and a professor for more than forty years at New York University, Postman was well-known as a critic of technology’s impact on culture before his death in 2003. He was not afraid to wonder. Amusing Ourselves to Death a bible for the zeitgeist of today’s fast-moving culture and worth re-discovering.

His witty and prophetic work is mostly about television, but it could apply word for word to the way our culture has changed following the adoption of social media, data analytics and other tools.

He argues we have failed to examine the impact of the transition from a largely written-word society to one that is mostly image-based. The invention of the telegraph, and then the television, created ‘news of the day’ (events most of us might read about but will affect few).

Attention spans shifted. No longer would audiences sit for events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which lasted hours. Most of us feel deluged by news events we can do nothing about. The cultural implications, he says, are profound and have gone largely unnoticed.

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Photo by Daniel McCullough

Think about the presidents of the United States. Most people in the U.S. would be unlikely to recognize the first 15 presidents if they passed by them on the street. No one knew what they looked like. Can you imagine?

These men were instead known for their speeches, for those who could hear them. For the rest of the country, they were known by newspaper accounts of speeches they gave, letters they wrote and whatever else the public could read about them.

Today nothing could be further from that reality. Whether or not we’d like to admit it, a large part of choosing our contemporary leaders has to to with their photogenic qualities. In your recollection, since the advent of television, have any of the presidents (or many governors, state senators, news anchors, celebrity pastors, etc) been bald? How about overweight?

In the the fields of journalism and public policy, a good discussion of ideas is not worth as much as a good haircut.

Somehow, in the last half-century or more, we’ve completely switched our paradigm for viewing leaders, and in doing so, have created a culture of celebrity that has changed the way we view the pulpit, politics, journalism and almost every public arena.

You might think this doesn’t matter to you, but science shows us we’re all affected by bias and looks and distractions. 

Postman’s brilliant critique invites us to closely examine not just the effects of these changes, as many of us have already done, but to look at the tools themselves and how they fundamentally influence our culture and conversation. 

When we make gains, (which he allows television provided, such as coverage of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights marches in the 1960s) we make choices. We bring something to trade. The error isn’t in making the trade, but in leaving the trade unexamined.

He gives the example of clocks, which completely changed the way we think about time. Minutes, hours, and seconds play a pivotal role in our lives and in the way we measure almost everything. Yet they are, like most measurements, just an invention. Before we had clocks, we had the seasons.

“Moment to moment, as it turns out, is not God’s conception, or nature’s,” Postman says. “It is man conversing with himself about and through a machine he created.”

As an artist, Postman inspires me because he is not afraid to examine the hard questions in our society. He takes almost nothing at face value, asks ‘why’ about everything and forces the reader to rethink almost all their long-held assumptions. He’s funny, for all that, and well worth the time spent on his work. If you want to know how we got to today’s media culture, Postman is an indispensable read.