By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
This has been a crisis week for me. A lot of things have been on my mind. They involve three words--frustration, contemplation, and distraction. I have been revolving those three things in my brain for days now. I now need to write it out.
I am frustrated as a writer. I swing back and forth between wanting to do more versus quitting it entirely. So, I gave up being a writer this week. It didn't last long because I can be a failed writer or a frustrated writer. So, I contemplated frustration as a permanent or persistent state of being. The simple conclusion I have reached is that frustration is a normal thing. I have been heartened by watching this video about other people who endured similar frustrations. Leonardo da Vinci was a loser for most of his life.
There are three paths you can go down in life. The first and most basic is to abandon your projects and settle into a life of working to pay your bills and then spending the rest of your time sipping beer while watching televised sporting events. I have never found that sort of life to be appealing. The second and most fantastic path is to have an amazing stroke of luck where you get paid big bucks to play as a professional athlete, musician, or actor and then spending the rest of your time snorting cocaine off the naked bodies of the whores and bimbos you attract into your life looking to parasite off of your unearned success. I don't find this sort of life appealing either. The third path is to make peace with being a talented loser toiling in obscurity. This means working a day job to make money and working the equivalent of a second job as a writer.
I don't really do leisure. I think I enjoyed it briefly as a child, but I am geared more for work than play. Writing is work. It is like a kid who chooses to let the other kids go play baseball down in the sandlot while he stays home to rake leaves. As an adult, people watch television and movies. I sit down and write for hours.
When I think of giving up writing, I think about what I would do with the time. I have fantasies of other projects, but I suspect that I would just veg out in front of the tube or play games on the iPad I don't own.
Frustration has to do with the payoff. For instance, the medical student is the one who chose not to party in college but to study, make the grades, score well on his MCAT, and spend his years carving cadavers and reeking of formaldehyde. Eventually, he gets a well paying job as a physician. Yet, if he is a good physician, his workaholic ways continue. There is no payoff for him in that regard. That is the untold story in the untold story of that video. Work is its own reward.
You have to love work for its own sake. I've never been a fan of doing things for the sake of some other end. I learned this in college. When you begin school, the goal is to graduate. But if you think that goal is enough motivation to sustain you through those years, you would be mistaken. Ultimately, you have to love learning. Once you have that, the goals take care of themselves. The takeaway is that I am not a goal oriented person so much as a process oriented person. Usually, when I work, I enjoy the work while I am doing it. When the work is completed, I have already forgotten it as I move to the next project.
I am not frustrated in my work as a writer or in my opportunities. I am frustrated with the fruits of the labor. Somewhere, I lost my process orientation on things. I need to get that back. So, I will continue to write because I enjoy it.
I am back on Twitter again. Yes, it is ridiculous. But my return has been as the end of some reflection after being off of Twitter. This reflection has come as a consequence of reading this article from Andrew Sullivan. That piece of writing has been on my mind for an entire week. It probably would not have been had I been on Twitter. The irony is that Sullivan went on Twitter to discuss what is essentially all the reasons you shouldn't be on Twitter. That irony is precisely why I decided to come back to Twitter. This will be a long one, folks, so hang on for the ride.
Basically, Sullivan blogged for 15 years solid. Unlike me, Sullivan was a successful blogger. He brought in more readers in a single day than I have for the past four years with my blog. Of course, the guy came to the point where he was posting every half hour. That is insane but understandable if you aren't holding down a day job. I remember posting up to three times a day at one point in my own blogging career. Now, I am fortunate to post three times in a week.
Andrew Sullivan had a meltdown last year and abandoned his blog. He was tired of the mental and physical toll the project was taking on him. Like Arianna Huffington with her sleep gig, Andrew Sullivan seems intent on a new career of warning us of the dangers of the internet. Naturally he will use the internet to warn us of these dangers.
The internet has happened! It can't unhappen. This is why anything Sullivan or anyone else says about chucking the internet will make as much sense as unscrambling the egg and cramming the genie back in the bottle. Sullivan does a remarkable job in diagnosing the problem of internet distraction, but he fails in giving a definitive solution to the problem. But he does point the way to a possible solution to the problem.
Distraction existed before the internet. It was called television. Before that, it was the radio and mass market publishing and movie theaters and Gutenberg with his printing press. The difference between those old forms of distraction and the internet is that those things had a certain end. Stations signed off by playing the national anthem. Books had endings. Movies did, too. The internet is endless. With the advent of smartphones, that infinity has added ubiquity to its saturation level. Naturally, this has led to mass distraction, short attention spans, and an urge to purge the world of the offending thing. But I think it helps to look beyond the technology to the issue of distraction itself.
People pursue distraction because it produces the sensation known as "flow." This is that feeling of losing contact with time and place as you immerse yourself into something. It is how I feel when I am writing an essay like this one. Flow is a good thing, and I confess to committing a large part of my life to cultivating it. But flow is not the only thing. It has the adverse effect of making us unable to contemplate. This is the kernel of Sullivan's essay. We are no longer able to sit in a room alone with just our thoughts.
For Sullivan, the solution was to go on a meditation retreat. Now, I am not a fan of meditation in the Zen Buddhist sense. But this retreat served as a digital detox for the man. He goes on to talk about the salutary effects of the retreat. He regained his physical and mental health. Unfortunately, it has come at the cost of his blog. And what is to be his post-blog career?
Sullivan's retreat is like bypass surgery for a cardiac patient, but it does little to address the long time needs of the patient. We do live in an age of distraction, and I feel it all the time. The sad thing is that I do not own a smartphone and spend large portions of time away from the computer and the internet. Yet, I feel the same digital fatigue. What is the answer?
THE DIGITAL SABBATH
Sullivan points to it in his term "digital sabbath." We need flow in our lives, but we also need contemplation. I used to drink a great deal throwing back at least three Beam and Cokes on a daily basis. Feeling this was a bad habit, I swung into being a teetotaller for a decade. I remember one recovering alcoholic girlfriend who dated me specifically for the reason that I was not a drinker. I was "safe." Today, I buy a 12 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon which lasts me one month as I have three beers each weekend to unwind from the week. That destination is where I am also headed with the distraction sickness Sullivan points out.
We need what I call "contemplative spaces." As a Catholic, I find those spaces at Mass, adoration, and personal times of prayer and lectio divina. This is also what Opus Dei provides with its circles, evenings of recollection, and retreats. For the sake of your soul, you need periods where you turn off your phone and your computer and just spend time in contemplation, reflection, and worship of the Lord. This is a basic and regular part of the Plan of Life.
The antidote to distraction fatigue is to have regular times of contemplation. You don't have to give up the internet. You just have to turn it off. For me, the plan is to turn it off completely each Sunday. My wife and I refrain from work or making others work on Sunday. But I realize now that spending the day goofing off on the internet is a violation of the spirit of the Sabbath. Sunday should be a day of total contemplation. This means prayer, Mass attendance, and spiritual reading.
The distraction/contemplation thing is a syzygy which is a term I use frequently. Usually, I find the answer is not to embrace one extreme or the other or to aim for some "balance" between the two. The answer is to embrace both things at the same time. For six days, you should flow out with whatever. On the seventh day, you should shut it down and aim for total contemplation and quiet.
The Bible does not address distraction sickness directly because such things as the internet did not exist in Bible times. But it did deal with the distraction of work with the commandment to observe the Sabbath. The fact that prayer and worship were primary activities on that day are strong indicators of the contemplative nature of the day.
I am running with this new strategy. This is why I am back on Twitter. I will still eschew Facebook and smartphones for other reasons, but I am not going to waste my time trying to follow some path of moderation on this matter. I am following the path of syzygy.
A guy who I think has a handle on this issue is Rich Roll. Rich is a meditation practitioner, but he also has a huge presence on the internet as a vegan ultraman triathlete podcaster blogger whatever. Yet, unlike Andrew Sullivan, this guy doesn't seem beset by mental and physical illness despite being in the same line of work as a content guy on the internet. Part of his secret is the triathlon training, but I also realize this guy's daily practice of meditation is also a big part of his secret. The guy literally shuts it all out every day to spend alone with his thoughts. If you add in time on the roads and in the pool, this guy spends a great deal of time in a contemplative space.
Once upon a time, I used to live in such contemplative spaces, but I quit that when I became an atheist. I did not want to spend large amounts of time alone with my thoughts probably because I knew God was lurking there. So, I turned to distraction as an antidote. I know I am not alone in this. Distraction has become a way of life for most people today.
I don't do meditation except in the Catholic sense. I think Zen meditation is a practice for pagans and Jesuits. But I can get down with the contemplative practices of Trappists and Carmelites. I feel chastened that a guy like Rich does a thing that I should have been doing all along. But I admire that he can be in both the contemplative world and the world of distraction without becoming Andrew Sullivan.
The digital sabbath is the answer. Schedule regular periods away from your devices and your distractions. I am going to try this and see what happens. And I will report back on my progress in my next SOC post.