Life Isn't Lived on a Screen
Immediacy, distractions, and thought intrusion
I sat in our new rocking chair we bought in preparation for our baby, angled so my view was directly outside. I was hit with flashbacks to my grandpa's ranch in rural Missouri. The patio faced endless rolling hills as you’d see in a Bob Ross painting; dotted with bison, patches of forest, and ponds splotched in the valleys. Chunks of my childhood summers were spent here, but in my memory I feel as though it was my true home.
Born in the early 90’s, I was destined to grow up around computers and video games, but my dad was wise to the implications. I did not have a gaming system until I was maybe 12 years old, and our computer time was quite limited. Both of my parents kicked me out the door like a Calvin & Hobbes comic and fully expected me to come back completely dirty and scraped up from play.
I remember climbing our beautiful birch tree, centered just past our slatted gazebo overhang in the backyard. The bark resembled dirty snow and had texture like construction paper coated in flour. As I wrapped my mitts around the trunk reaching toward a wooden tentacle, I escaped the evil villains trying to chase me down. My imagination embraced the earth and they danced together every time I climbed that birch tree.
The Immediacy Dilemma
Now, this isn't going to be one of those stories preaching that the good old days are over and modern day is dreadful; I’m not that pessimistic. I will, however, allow my memories of simpler times to teach myself and hopefully anyone reading this a few valuable lessons.
A study done at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that “the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning” (UT Austin). They go on to say “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process — the process of requiring yourself to not think about something — uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”
Another study, that which I cannot remember the source but will divulge the data it is not of my own production, showed that those who had their phones within reach actually felt as though they had more knowledge on various subjects than they actually did. This study sheds light onto the feeling of being “lost” when someone has forgotten their phone.
The immediacy of information, the immediacy of connection, the immediacy of having constant distraction at the tips of our fingers is addictive. It becomes a part of ourselves, a part of every conversation, interaction, decision. Think about what is being lost at these junctures, what opportunities for meaningful human connections and experiences are squandered.
The ability to know has snuffed out the opportunity to discover, in a sense. The mystery of the people in your circle, what they are up to and what they have experienced since you last met is already known to the world. To me, reuniting with friends or family as a kid and hearing about their lives over the past weeks or months was like a surprise party. The art of storytelling was rich and captivating, and all information falling on my ears was that of new impact, not heard until that moment.
To summarize in a single sentence, it’s like sending a meme to your friends with high hopes of sparking laughter, only to get the response “I’ve already seen this one.”
A Lesson From Stoicism
"We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind - for thiings have no natural power to shape our judgment." - Marcus Aurelius
The stoics believed that it was essential for humans to be selective about what they chose to develop opinions on. This is a skill that seems to be lost on most of us. Given we are completely interconnected and have every possible issue going on the world streamed through a rectangle in our pockets, it’s a skill most voluntarily sacrifice.
Why must we have opinions on every single thing? What purpose does an established opinion regarding something that does not directly affect one's life serve? What if we allowed ourselves to witness events as they happen and take them as they are, as if they were leaves floating down a meandering brook. Your thoughts on those leaves won’t stop them from floating down the stream.
Personally I have found liberation in answering questions on various current events with “I don’t know”. It’s draining to keep up with the things that truly have zero effect on my existence. All of us have a cap on how much energy we can put forth, and if this energy is spent on things outside of our control, we sacrifice inner peace. Our compulsion to have opinions about every little thing prevents us from attaining peace of mind.
Distractions and External Thought Intrusion
There’s something to be said about the saying “Ignorance is bliss”. In the age we live in now, we’re all easily aware of the treachery that takes place across the world. We have access to disaster, dread, and mayhem on a nightly basis. Twitter feeds refreshed show videos of violent riots that have been taking place in many cities across the country.
It’s important to note I am not advocating for complete dismissal of what is going on. Staying up to date is important, but the volume of repetitive video, images, and headlines we can readily consume is at neurotoxic levels. It’s like dumping an entire jug of gatorade on your head in an attempt to cure your thirst, when a simple sip would do just fine.
This flow of information is like roaring rapids, continuously flowing without reprieve. Distraction after distraction after distraction. How is one able to simply consume a single idea and think on it? Scrolling your social media does the opposite, you digest nothing by consuming everything.
Distractions like social media can easily overtake our days - minutes turning into hours as the sun goes down and another day is gone forever. What was the purpose? What point did that day serve in your life?
Among these distractions are the thoughts and opinions of others. Some are in our network, some come from those we respect or admire, others from those we simply do not care for. Regardless, the thoughts of other people easily permeate our mind and sink in, shaping and forming our thoughts behind the scenes. This can prove beneficial, if you are concentrated on growth and learning, but can be detrimental if you do not pause to assess your consumption. I go into depth on this subject in this article here.
Time to Toss My Phone in a Lake?
Well, the moral of the story is not as complex as one might think, which is a bonus if you feel as though your screen time is overtaking your one and only life. The answer is not to completely drop off the face of the earth like Ron Swanson, but a more concerted focus on your immediate surroundings and truly important things in your life.
When you take a step back and think about the world, your time here as a visitor, and what you devote your attention to, the opacity of meaning decreases. Taking the brevity of life to heart makes me want to slap my laptop closed and climb that birch tree again, sit on the back porch in Missouri and watch the sun come up, and completely sink in the moment.
Get out there and leave the phone behind for a little while.