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.”

 

 

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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.

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.

Travel and the box of daily experiences

New post category coming your way: I’m going to be writing about some of the things I read. Specifically, longer pieces and books that go beyond daily hot takes for an in-depth view of things that matter. In today’s 280-character culture, this is my tiny rebellion.

On New Year’s Eve this year, I was sitting in a hotel with a group of friends, waiting for the fireworks to start. As we chatted and passed around drinks and food, I talked with one friend about my persistent restlessness that’s gotten worse over the past year.

“Don’t you ever feel like there’s something you need to do, but you’re not sure what it is?” I asked him. “Like you should be going somewhere or doing something different but you don’t know where to even start?” He looked at me like I had a separate head “Not really.”

But he went on to say he believed people who were restless were often driven and ambitious; that it could be a good thing to feel that way, because it could lead people to try new things, search for different experiences or step outside their comfort zones. I agreed. If only my feelings were productive and useful!

Today I read one of the best essays I’ve seen all year (although to be fair, I’ll probably say that about most of what I post here.) It’s called Travel is No Cure for the Mind, by the poster More to That on Medium.

Travel, the author contends, is the cure for the malaise that ails us. Or so we think.

It’s the answer much of us look to when we feel the automation of life. The routine of waking up, getting ready, going to work, eating the same lunch, sitting in meetings, getting off work, going home, eating dinner, relaxing, going to sleep, and then doing it all over again can feel like a never-ending road that is housed within the confines of a mundane box.

The problem with continuously seeking travel, or any type of new experiences (relationships, places, jobs) as a way to fulfill our restlessness is that it doesn’t really cure the problem. Usually. Sometimes it does; if you’re in a genuinely unhealthy relationship or an unfulfilling job or you’ve never pursued your dreams, the feeling might be real. That is, it might be cured by pursuing a new version of these things. But a lot of the time, it won’t.

The author calls our everyday life ‘the box of daily experiences’ and says most of us seek to get outside it.

The boundaries of our box define our present-day situation, so when we dreamingly gaze toward the prospects of an exciting future, we look outside of it to experience emotions like wonderment, amazement, and inspiration. Our current box is okay and livable, but the world outside of its boundaries is where our hope really resides.

That’s an interesting reminder in our social-media saturated age. It’s not just you; everyone is unhappy. That’s right. Okay, not everyone, but it’s highly likely the person whose life you are currently envying is sitting in their life right now, with all the stuff you want, and they’re not enjoying any of it.

What they’re doing is wishing for someone else’s life. Their box of daily experiences is just as lame as yours. It might have nicer stuff, or something your box doesn’t have (maybe a marriage or kids or a name-brand school or a fancy job title) but guess what – that isn’t making them happier than you.

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Credit: MoreToThat

All is not lost; there’s a solution for that. And it’s not more travel, or someone else’s life. Although I personally love travel and do as much of it as I can afford, I never want it to become routine, or something I do to fulfill an envy-shaped hole in my life.

I remember growing up without much money and hearing my wealthier classmates complain about the vacations they had to go on with their parents. All I could think was that I would trade almost anything to have that kind of privilege. They were so lucky and they had no idea.

That’s how the box of daily experiences works. It takes special things and makes them mundane. They become simply things to be endured.

The author suggests looking inward, not outward, for the ultimate solution to the box. Not adding more things to the box, but fixing the box itself. To change the outcome, we need to work on changing our minds.

That sounds easy enough, but what does it actually mean? How can we concretely appreciate the little things in life? That sounds like one of those things people say in self-help books that’s hard to live out.

Two places to start: Books (and other creative works) and the minds of others. Becoming more curious about the potential all around us in people and in creative works like books and music and art is one of the best ways to learn to appreciate what exists right in front of us.

Books are pretty much my favorite. Someone famous has probably said this in a quote, but I don’t remember who: reading a book is like having a wonderful conversation with someone who lived in a time and place you can never get to. But somehow, because you read the book, you can. It’s magic.

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“This ability to be captivated by the minds of others is also widely available in the form of our loved ones and friends. However, it’s the people closest to us that we often take for granted. We tend to think we know everything there is to know about them, and our inquisitive nature is often reserved for strangers and small talk.

But when we genuinely become curious about our relationships, we discover that we have only touched the surface with many of the people we hold dear to us.”

“This sharing of stories is one of the great joys I’ve experienced over and over again with people,” the author says. “There is always an interesting story behind every mind — and hearing it widens the health of our own.”

While travel does expand and stretch the horizons of what we know about the world, it is not the answer we’re looking for in times of unrest. To strengthen the health of the mind, the venue to do that in is the one we are in now.

It is location-independent, and always will be.”

Thanks for reading about my reading! Here’s to slowing down, thinking more and learning from the brilliant people all around us.

Cheers, Liz

A place to start

Turns out, though, we are still on earth, and every cell in my body has not been excruciatingly flattened into pure math. It just feels like it. (Lindy West)

It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds. The attempt to develop a sense of humor and to see things in a humorous light is some kind of a trick learned while mastering the art of living. (Vicktor Frankl)

Some days are hard. Is anyone with me? There’s a lot to be down about right now. I’m right there with you. Like Lindy West says, “During my morning routine of opening my laptop, clicking on literally anything, and just screaming and screaming,” it often feels like too much. It’s not that things have gotten worse (except when they have) – it’s just that we know about it more.

Our world, at least in the realm of information, has expanded at an unprecedented rate in the past 150 years. The amount of information available to us is greater than it’s ever been, but our ability to do anything with that information has not kept pace.

How we got here

This isn’t an accident. We’ve created a world so full of data, one that moves so fast and changes so quickly, that we haven’t left much room for thoughtful analysis, or to step away from the constant flow of news and information. In our continuous quest for improvement, we’ve created new vulnerabilities.

In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, author Neil Postman discusses how the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s changed the way we think about news.

“Telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make “one neighborhood of the whole country,” Postman says. It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse.

Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in Walden that “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Postman calls this change the ‘information to action’ ratio – the idea that data’s usefulness is related to what we can do with the knowledge we’ve received. When we have too much information, we get into an ‘information glut’ which leads to a diminished ability to act.

We receive more data than we can possibly act on, and that leads to a feeling that we cannot do anything to change any situation around us. Faced with that feeling, many of us withdraw altogether. We don’t vote. We don’t go to meetings or talk about issues that matter. We pursue entertainment and pleasure, not for fun, but to avoid our feelings.

Again, it’s important to note this didn’t come about by accident. As a nation, we purposely adopted this strategy, because it was profitable. As the news environment has changed, this trend has accelerated.

“The foresighted among the nation’s publishers were quick to see where the future lay, and committed their full resources to the wiring of the continent,” Postman says.

“It was not long until the fortunes of newspapers came to depend not on the quality or utility of the news they provided, but on how much, from what distances, and at what speed. James Bennett of the New York Herald boasted that in the first week of 1848, his paper contained 79,000 words of telegraphic content – of what relevance to his readers, he didn’t say.

Only four years after Morse opened the nation’s first telegraph line in 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to crisscross the nation. Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods- became the content of what people called “the news of the day.”

“As Thoreau implied, telegraphy made relevance irrelevant. The abundant flow of information had very little or nothing to do with those to whom it was addressed; that is, with any social or intellectual context in which their lives were embedded. Coleridge’s famous line about water everywhere without a drop to drink may serve as a metaphor of a decontextualized information environment: In a sea of information, there was very little of it to use.

A man in Maine and a man in Texas could converse, but not about anything either of them knew or cared very much about.”

So what’s a well-intentioned news consumer to do?

See it for what it is. Be a smart reader. Recognizing this pattern is the first step to breaking free of it. As a journalism major, I believe it’s extremely important to follow the news and to stay aware of both current events and long-term trends. But it’s also important to filter the news. If we don’t actively control what we are reading and watching, it will control us.

Today’s content is designed to be addictive, attention-grabbing and flashy, but not often substantive or useful. It can be biased, sometimes through overt discrimination and the perpetuation of stereotypes and other times because it simply leaves voices out of the discussion.

People who are not at the table are not missed, because they never get up to leave. When consuming news, ask yourself: “Who wrote this? Who is not being discussed or interviewed? Who benefits from this story/situation?”

Analysis and longer stories might be more worth your time than hot takes or reactive pieces. This is not to say good writing can’t be found in short amounts or good information on video. But ask yourself – how easy is it to present a complicated situation, like a war, in a minute-long segment? Are you getting the whole story and the context? Probably not. Read more.

It’s okay to take a break. Eat a pint. Drink a pint. Laugh. Watch bad TV. Self-care is how we keep from going over the edge. Don’t go away forever. We need people who care to be involved. If all the committed, involved, and compassionate citizens stay home, who will be running things? Whoever shows up. More often than we’d like to admit, simply being present is a qualification. It gives you a voice.

Don’t buy the lie that you can’t do anything. Remember the information glut. Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.

One of the ways oppression works is that corrupt people in power try to keep other people from thinking they have any agency. It makes their job a lot easier, because they don’t have to keep you down. You keep you down. But you have power. You have a voice – a circle of friends and family who listens to you. You can be part of collective action. Small kindnesses add up.

To put myself through college, I worked as a nurse’s aide. I earned minimum wage. I wore a pink polyester uniform and I dealt with the elderly and the dying, ignored people who went years without seeing a loved one, who died alone. When I speak of this job, I never impress anyone. I am not understood to be a virtuous person. Rather, I am understood to be working class.

I loved this difficult, low-paid work not out of any masochistic sense of personal elevation through suffering. I loved it because I physically and emotionally touched people every day, all day long; I made them comfortable; I made them laugh; I challenged them; they rose to meet the challenges. In return, patients shared with me the most precious commodity in the universe: their humanity.

I’m protesting the fallacy that to be virtuous, one must be on TV, one must be off to a meeting on how to be a better person, or one must have just come from a meeting on how to be a better person, but one can pass up every opportunity to actually be a better person.”

(Danusha Veronica Goska)

Lonely in a crowd

Notes from a social media addict:

It wasn’t until the fifth day offline that I noticed a difference. I was sitting in the mall waiting for a friend and I realized I was one of the only people not using my phone. The others who weren’t were very busy. I saw an older man at another table also not using a phone. We briefly traded glances – it seemed like we were the only two people there. I believe I could have gotten up and danced naked through the mall and no one would have noticed. That’s how intent everyone was on their business. No one looked around. No one made eye contact.

In the fifteen minutes I sat there, I saw three people stop and watch the piano player, who was making beautiful music in the middle of the plaza. The intricate holiday displays and lights could have been dust for all the notice taken of them. Maybe I’m doing these folks an injustice – they could have seen them. But no one stopped to take them in, or paused for even a second to savor it; the weather, the day, the people around them. Everyone rushed or stared at devices.

When I see a beautiful picture or an interesting article, I immediately feel an urge to share it. I love to have discussions about things that matter to me, and hearing other points of view is one of the better things in life. But if I’m being honest, that’s not the reason I do most of my social media sharing.

Leo Babauta, one of my favorite writers who authors the blog Zen Habits and has written several books, has a great post about social sharing that addresses this dilemma. He urges us to question the need to share our photos and thoughts.  Why is this moment not enough, without the need to share? Do I just want to brag, or is there a good-hearted motivation there too? What am I so afraid of, that I can’t refrain from sharing?

The last one gets me the most. What am I so afraid of? What are we afraid of, that we can’t just be? Does everything have to be curated, hashtagged, made funny for an audience, posed, properly lighted, quipped and finished with a lesson? What if it doesn’t neatly end? What if no one laughs or likes? Does it still matter? Do I still matter?

If you ask anyone what their greatest fear or their greatest hope is, they’ll give a lot of different answers. But they’ll likely all be a variation on the following – people don’t want to be forgotten. We want to be loved, respected, remembered; to be seen. To do something that matters with people who matter. To be truly known is a rare gift. In such a connected world with more ways to talk to each other than we’ve ever had, many of us are deeply lonely.

Social media offers us that connection. Kind of. A crowd of our peers talking to each other in a virtual room is fun, but it isn’t always what we need, because so often, no one is talking with us. Instead, we talk at and over one another. No one has come to see us, to ask how we’re doing, to visit and pass the time with no performative outcome in mind other than knowing the heart of another person.

It offers a legacy of likes, that immediate validation we’re all seeking, if we’re honest with ourselves. That we’re seen, we matter, someone is listening. In the 2 a.m. moments when we’re not sure if we’re enough, we can scroll through a feed and be reassured.

It’s not accurate to say “the friendships I have in person are good, and the friendships I have online are bad or insufficient.”

The friendships I have online are good, but often they provide the illusion of being more than they are. Having them makes me feel good. I think I know my friends better than I actually do, and that feeling prevents me from doing more. From seeking them out, from calling them or from setting up a private chat, or from inviting them for coffee or a drink after work. From doing the messy, riskier work of being in-real-life friends. The connection we have is just enough to sustain me, but not enough to fulfill me.

Like so many others, I often feel lonely in a crowd. Sitting in the mall, just the older man and I, I could have been on an island instead of in a sea of my fellow humans. I could have turned to Facebook to see what my friends were doing, but in that moment of clarity, I know it wouldn’t have helped.

I couldn’t have told any of them the things I was struggling with that day, the reasons I feel most days like I am not enough, the fears I have at 2 a.m., the times I try to avoid mirrors – these are not things I can tell most of my social media friends. And if I can, I won’t tell them there. So in the end, what is it for?

The attention we give to social media, and the creativity, the thoughts and connections we might have made with the downtime we won’t have, the books we won’t read, things we won’t see passing the window of the bus because we’re too busy staring at a phone or a computer – who is to say what the sum of these things are? They can never be numbered, and it’s impossible to try to count them, but they matter.

I know they do, because I can remember my life before social media and after. Without a doubt it is different. In many ways it is more enjoyable. But some things are gone. 

I have been on a speeding train seeing a lot more things, but the train is going so fast I don’t have time to think about anything I’ve seen, or get off and walk through the neighborhoods, or wonder what is there. I have traveled further but not seen much of it.

For every minute I put into halfway things, that’s a minute I’m not putting into something else. We only have so much time and attention. It’s the one thing that’s truly ours, and it’s more limited than we’d like to believe. We’re giving it away; daily, weekly, in tiny, forgettable pieces we can never get back. Not to a person or a dog or a hobby or even a job – just to a website. That probably sounds too dramatic. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives though, isn’t it? Annie Dillard nails it.

This isn’t the kind of thing that matters over one day or one week or one year. It matters over the course of a life. Do we really want to look back and realize we spent fifty minutes of our time each day on Facebook alone? That’s more than 18,000 minutes per  year, and about 1/16 of our waking hours. That’s not counting time we spend on Reddit, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube or other popular sites.

These sites are tools. They are inherently neither good nor bad. I don’t mind their construction or the things I do while using them. I love sharing pictures and ideas, catching up with friends, discussing social and political issues and hearing new points of view. I love the availability to learn, to access online courses and find facts about history, to view photos from around the world and talk to people from other countries – the global connectivity the internet provides us is, in my opinion, a good thing.

They are tools, but they are Twinkie tools. They are engineered to be delicious and addictive. What bothers me is that they are often set up specifically to play to our psychological vulnerabilities.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Silicon Valley developers, many who helped make some of the most successful social media sites and products, expressed concern about where they’re headed and how they affect our attention span. This piece is one of dozens I’ve read expressing similar concerns.

“Justin Rosenstein, who also helped create Gchat during a stint at Google, and now leads a San Francisco-based company that improves office productivity, appears most concerned about the psychological effects on people who, research shows, touch, swipe or tap their phone 2,617 times a day.

There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”

“One reason I think it is particularly important for us to talk about this now is that we may be the last generation that can remember life before,” Rosenstein says. It may or may not be relevant that Rosenstein, Pearlman and most of the tech insiders questioning today’s attention economy are in their 30s, members of the last generation that can remember a world in which telephones were plugged into walls.

It is revealing that many of these younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: never get high on your own supply.”

The idea of likes and social approval – it’s a brilliant use of psychology. We need to be social and perform, and we need approval and validation from our peers. That cocktail keeps us coming back for more and more.  I feel enough of that on a daily basis without creating it.

Many people have made their fortunes off the idea that we are, at heart, unsure of ourselves. That idea is much older than social media, but it’s reached new heights, mostly without our notice.

Think if you were describing this phenomenon to an alien race who had no familiarity with the concept. Today, just by reaching into our pockets, we can feel on top of the world, liked, funny, sexy, intelligent or sought after, or we can feel the exact opposite. That power is all in the hands of our friends or followers, people we may not even know or have seen for years.

Everything we click on in this tool gives unknown people every possible facet of information about us, our likes and dislikes, what we buy, where we’ve visited, who we befriend and are partnered with, and anything else they’d like to know.

These people sell this data to other people who are also unknown to do with what they will. Sound like a good deal? The alien race would probably say no.

All those things matter – the distraction, the selling of our data, the psychological manipulation – it’s what we’ve traded to talk to one another in a way that’s fast, fun and ultimately a bit empty, like junk food.

But that isn’t my biggest takeaway from my social media fasts (this is my second in two years, and increasingly I’m feeling a need to distance myself from it altogether.)

 

The biggest takeaway is how lonely I still feel in a crowd of my peers – more peers than I’ve ever had before. I talk more, engage more, know more and discuss more, and somehow it is less. I am eating more, but never satisfied. Something is wrong with that picture. 

What do you think? Do you remember the time before social media? Was it different?

Cheers,
Liz