This past week, my wife and I sat in the doctor’s office, staring at a black and white image on the screen. The grainy images of an arm, a foot, and eventually a profile of a head filled us with smiles inside and out as we finally put a somewhat-face to the growing little person that will be joining the ranks of our growing family. It was an odd moment. One might think it might feel routine at this point. This’ll be our third child, after all. We’ve been through this all before.
But, this time, staring at that screen, we felt…connected. To the baby, to each other, to the moment right then and there.
It’s something that, perhaps, we didn’t allow ourselves with our first two children. It’s not meant with any disrespect or disregard for either our son or daughter. It’s just that we now realize how much of their pre-arrivals were spent worrying so much about the future, planning what was to come, what had to be done, how would we handle things, that we failed to be in the moment, living in the present as we should have been and would have liked to be.
Sitting in the waiting room between sonogram and the appointment with the doctor, we were both on our phones, taking pictures of the sonogram and sending it to family members.
In the course of any given day, I check my smart phone device constantly, scrolling through Twitter and thinking if I have anything funny to say, checking email to see if anyone’s gotten back to me about the house we’re selling or one of the myriad of book queries I’ve put out there, checking in with the virtual beings whose lives I lord over in Sims Freeplay, or checking my Google Keep app for the numerous to-do lists it allows me to make, organize, add to, and check off as I complete things in the never-ending, always growing list of tasks for work, home, creative pursuits, etc. It’s constantly ongoing, and I keep it that way. I constantly think of things that need to get done and add it to the list. Or I check to see what i can cross off. Some are more pressing than others. Others aren’t necessary at all. But I check obsessively regardless. It’s as fruitless as trying to keep up with email.
“Looked at in terms of flowing and static information, the email inbox is one, big, unfinishable loop,” says Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. “It is not a book or document that can be successfully completed. It is a flow. Sure, we can mark or move emails that are important, create priorities and sorting routines. But the initial choice to have email at all is to open a loop.”
I put off taking risks, following pursuits or making changes in life because I’m constantly waiting until something else is done. (I.e. In a year I should have my master’s done, so I’ll wait to search out other jobs until that’s done; I have 24 more payments left on both my student loans, which is two years, so if I can just hold off until that’s paid off in that time, THEN I’ll give dream/risk/pursuit xyz a try.) Always looking ahead, planning, sometimes to the point of excuses, rather than living in the present.
I think of not too long ago, the guilt I felt when my son asked me to play and I was too busy looking at something unimportant on my phone that I told him I couldn’t at the moment, only to find a few minutes later that he had moved on, leaving the lyrics of “Cats in the Cradle” running through my head and a desire to try and not allow myself to follow down that path due to such easy distractions.
As we talked later that morning, holding pictures of our soon to be third child, my wife and I both acknowledged how rare it is to feel like that, to truly feel present like we did in that room.
We’re not alone.
Even as I wrote this blog post, I found my hand casually moving over to the mouse and bringing up tabs of Facebook, Twitter, and before I knew it, sucked down the rabbit hole of online interaction. Though I wasn’t interacting. I was just scrolling. Scrolling through like a mindless motor function without any true purpose. Was there anything pressing I needed? Was there information I had to have that very moment that I took myself away from the focus of writing – something that I struggle to re-focus on and get back to once I’ve been pulled away. No. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I had nothing to say. I’ve just in many ways become conditioned to get distracted. It’s something I admit I desperately want to stop doing.
“Catching up with Twitter is like staying up all night to catch up on live streaming stock quotes from yesterday,” Rushkoff says. “The value was in the now – which at this point is really just a then.”
I have come to feel that I often spend so much time worrying about and trying to plan for the future and various ways in which it may occur, that I’m rarely ever actually living in the present anymore. The moments pass with no appreciation as I’m constantly looking for how to take care of what comes next, or what will or could come next.
It’s not surprising that it’s a constant source of exhaustion and anxiety, and causes me to spend way too much time on my devices that I could be spending living in the moment with my friends and family. It’s why the founders of social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, or various apps that eat up all our time, are as successful as they are. It may not be a sinister intention, but it takes aim at our internal longing to escape but feel a part of something bigger, a community, or simply to be more relevant, and exploits it for gain.
Meanwhile, so many of us are ever living outside of our lives and constantly chasing digital nostalgia (remember, nostalgia doesn’t always refer to the past. It’s a combination of Latin words meaning “longing for home.” And home can mean comfort.)
“Another definition of unhealthy escapism—escapism gone too far—is the effects it has on the essential fabric of living,” psychologist Andrew Evans writes in This Virtual Life, as noted by the February 2015 article in The Atlantic titled The Good and The Bad of Escaping to Virtual Reality. “The individual in the context of family, friends, and social commitments.”
Evans connects his definition, the article states, to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ranking love and a sense of belonging just after basic physiological and safety needs.
Then I think of the calm, the peace, the feeling of being in the now, in the present that I felt looking at the baby’s form on that monitor. It may sound silly, but it was almost akin to the feeling of being present I experience when I’m sitting alone looking at nature, whether it’s a walk through a nature trail and admiring the plants and trees, or sitting quietly in our backyard, sans digital devices, getting lost in the greenery, trees, squirrels, rabbits, birds, and wildlife going about their day.
In Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle, the author suggests using natural systems to enhance the physical, psychological and spiritual life of humans.
“Whereas technology immersion results in walls that become screens, and machines that enter our bodies, more nature in our lives offers us homes and workplaces and natural communities that produce human energy…[and] products and environments that make life more comfortable for people.”
Clinical Psychologist, Consultant, and Author Catherine Steiner-Adair, in her book The Big Disconnect, notes that our reliance on technology can often be an attempt to fill voids that we’re not getting from the physical world around us.
“Simply put, we are more sociable when we are connected to nature, and without nature we manifest antisocial behavior more regularly and rely on technological substitutes more.”
In a March 2011 TEDx Talk, Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discusses the ways in which technology connects us, yet disconnects from the people and physically around us.
“Children talk about that moment of coming out of school, looking for eye contact and instead of that moment with a parent, that parent is looking at the smart phone,” Turkle says.
A generation has grown up with technology as the competition for their parents time and attention and now that generation is older and has their own turn to live in the culture of distraction.
Turkle had been present when computers were first being implemented into home use and recalls when designers/programmers were having trouble finding ideas to keep the computer busy (calendars, contact list, etc, were some early ideas for home use). As she says, it didn’t matter in the end, because now they are what keeps us busy.
“What I didn’t see coming…and what we have now is that mobile connectivity, that world of devices, always on and always on us, would mean that we would be able to basically bail out of the physically real at any time,” she says. “To go to the other spaces we have available to us and that we would want to.”
She refers to this departure from multi-tasking as multi-lifing, and that escapism, that distraction, that other life that technology offers us is seductive, hitting us in some of the most vulnerable parts of our humanity. It is, she surmises, what has led so much of our culture to become one that would rather text or send an email than pick up the phone and talk. The technology has allowed us to dial down our own human contact.
As these bits of our humanity are chipped away, it will become even more crucial to find a way, amid a world where this technology is not going away, to revisit, revive, and instill our own humanity into future generations, for fear that they could lose it completely.
“If we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they will always be lonely.”
Like many addictions, it becomes a vicious cycle. We escape to online, we become distracted from the physical world around us, and as we cut out the real world, we more and more seek out the illusion of friendship and community without the companionship in the digital world of technology. It feeds our loneliness which just keeps us perpetually alone. But we continue to seek it out, and the media texts that it provides, out of this sense of longing for comfort, and media companies will continue to exploit with the latest social platforms, digital shows, films, apps, or games as long as we keep needing a digital place to seek out and fulfill that need of nostalgia, of longing.