Giving Ourselves What Technology Can’t

My book, The Opt-Out Family will land on your stoops and library shelves in a few weeks, which means I’ve finally arrived at the universal publishing milestone in which an author wakes at 3am and realizes she’s forgotten to say something that needs saying. In all honesty, the book is 320 pages long and has already blown through all manner of word count limits (brevity has never been my strong suit), and so, I suppose I’ll rest easy in knowing that what lands in your hands is precisely what it needs to be. Truthfully, I can’t wait for you to read it.

But until then, the thought that awoke me today was this: my book boldly and precisely outlines how to give our families what technology can’t. But what about us? How can we also give our selves – our souls, our minds, our hearts – the gift of an existence untethered by the distractions and conveniences and disenchantments of a digital world?

And so, because I am the type that can’t leave well enough alone, consider this an afterword, or I suppose a foreword, or what I imagine my publisher would love for me to call a “bonus chapter,” but in truth, is simply a collection of musings that are keeping me from sleep this morning…

FORGIVENESS

I’m convinced forgiveness is the key to a life well-lived, and yet, our digital world has been constructed in a way that regularly prompts us to act otherwise. Online, we are offered deliberate buttons for a specific, immediate course of action: Follow, Ignore, Comment, Block, etc. But our world was created to engage in many different ways, and certainly not at the speed of a swipe. Where is the action that prompts us to consider the content we just received, to think deeply of it, to reflect and assess the reasons for our offense and what that might mean for our relationship? Where is the button that allows us to forgive our online neighbor for her hot take against our beliefs – or forgive ourselves for being offended in the first place? Where is the contact form to seek counsel and wisdom on reconciliation?

The short (easy) answer is that there can’t (shouldn’t?) be, because a parasocial relationship isn’t a prosocial one. Many of us don’t have a personal relationship with our favorite TikTok follow, and certainly not the type that warrants a public or private apology if we’re offended by his life. But what if we see pictures of his dog daily, and we’ve grown to rely on his herb garden tips, and we just saw a reel of his grandmother’s funeral and commented “I’m so sorry for your loss” and received a series of heart emojis in return? Have we been invited into a relationship worth reconciling, albeit a one-sided one?

And so: the longer (more difficult) answer is that it is complicated. Relationships are tricky enough to navigate offline as it is, and once we factor in the burgeoning amount of opportunities to share our opinions in the public sphere, we are increasing our likelihood to offend or be offended, to build distance or bridge it, to cancel or be canceled.

And what is cancelation if not the determination that one can be made replaceable? That a relationship is not worth reconciling, that bypassing forgiveness is a button or swipe away? Online, there is no trust, context or accountability to seek first the health of the relationship. And without trust, context or accountability, the question begs: is there even a healthy relationship to seek?

Try This: Practice forgiveness  in your everyday life by asking a simple question of the people closest to you: Is there anything I can apologize for? Listen without defense. (You know what to do next.)

PATIENCE

In most areas of life, consumption takes far less time and effort than creation. Consider the American tradition of Thanksgiving dinner – a 72-hour minimum of macerating cranberries, smoking turkey, curing meat, chopping vegetables and setting pies – only to have the whole parade of calories devoured in an average of 23 minutes or less (especially if you allow Uncle Bob to give a long-winded grace).

Technology didn’t create this tension, but it certainly did exacerbate it. We are churning through life faster and farther than has ever been – or perhaps should be – humanly (humanely?) possible. As Rebecca Solnit wisely notes: “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

In patience, therein, lies an antidote. Taking the long way home. Peeling an apple in the woods with a borrowed pocketknife. Soaking in the tub until toes prune. These moments offer both consumption and creation simultaneously – the consumption of energy, rest, delight. The creation of mercies anew.

Technology cannot possibly compete with its flattened sensory experience, its speedy delivery. As it turns out, there is no shortcut to the wild giddiness that arrives after patience (trial, error, trial again) is hard-won. Can TikTok build the slow, zesty anticipation of your grandmother’s lemon bars browning in the oven? Can Twitter offer the spectrum of beauty available in the setting sun? Can YouTube accurately deliver that long, heavy, peaceful throb of your calves after a day spent crouching over zinnias?

Yes, we are beckoned. No, we are finding out.

Try This: Start a slow (on purpose) project with your hands. Embroidery, whittling, watercolor – the possibilities are indeed endless, as are the fruits.

SOLITUDE

Of the many bygones technology has bid farewell to, I believe the one we’ve underestimated most is solitude. The makings of a quiet life are often (later) the markings of a heroic one, and I wonder what will become of a collective world in which we no longer recognize the rhythm of a heartbeat stilled.

I often grow weary of apps that promise increased headspace or meditation know-how without acknowledging that the medium in which said enlightenment is earned has stolen it in the first place. It is my personal belief that, if we seek a quieter life, there is no room to barter or bargain with the ping/ding/ring of a smartphone. We must spend large swaths of time refusing to hunch over our pocket Gods or we will never know what it feels like to bow to anything greater.

Try This: Make your phone a phone, not your phone. Here’s how.

BOLDNESS

I noticed something after leaving social media (and largely, the Internet): an increased boldness. I was no longer reading between the lines, thinking of how a particular message might be received, or what could be misconstrued when offering a certain set of words on any given topic. I was no longer harboring a spirit of timidity or watering down a lived message to please the palettes of an Internet hate forum. Gone were the days of disclaimer after disclaimer. And as it turns out: when we think less of how our words will land, we can think more of how they might lift.

There is something encouraging about refusing to tiptoe for fear of what our words might sound like when shouted from someone else’s megaphone (or, in the case of the Internet, RT’d with a series of eye roll emojis). There is freedom in not knowing what will offend everyone at any given moment, or being unable to read the tea leaves because you haven’t consumed anyone’s spilled tea.

In the absence of strangers’ opinions, we are (finally) able to form our own.

Try This: Check out of Internet culture for a week (social media platforms, newsletters, content aggregates, blogs). Bask in your newfound freedom from the things you didn’t know you didn’t need to know.

SELF-CONTROL

I have heard it said that self control is like a muscle: every time we use it, we’re burning a limited resource. (On the other hand, if we don’t, we atrophy the practice entirely.) This theory is likely why many of us have found ourselves scrolling, scanning or shopping some nights because we’re “too tired to do anything else.” In the fast-paced, modernized society we live, we’ve exhausted our self control capacity before 9am, which leaves us slogging through in the name of will power for the duration of the day – until, of course, we don’t.

We know by now that practicing self control in the hands of tech bros is a bit like practicing the tango on the edge of a skyscraper. Once we tire, the consequences are heightened. When we trip, we fall.

The truth is this: technology adds much convenience to our day, and also, much carelessness. Our digital world makes it easier to deposit a paycheck, and also, to spend it. Easier to send an encouraging text, and also, to receive a discouraging one. Easier to furnish a home, and also, to neglect one.

Try This: Experiment with a commitment to borrow first, buy later. Delete your shopping apps and open your text threads – who do you know that might have the thing you need? Ask, receive, and all that jazz.

COMMUNITY

My own definition of community has always been “someone I can deliver a casserole to.” It means many things to me: proximity (it is within my means to travel to you swiftly), relationship (it is within my means to know what feels heavy for you this season), and service (it is within my means to show up with something – anything – tangible). But also, it means context. It means I’m aware of those mundane details that are required when providing a meal that will nourish, not burden, i.e. your middle daughter hates cheese and your husband is allergic to shellfish. It means I’m aware of what time you dine, whether or not the squirrels will steal the bread if it’s on your stoop, whether or not dessert should be peach cobbler or make-your-own sundaes.

Likewise, it means we know each other deeply and have an understanding of each others’ lives, limitations, and leanings. It means we are accountable to one another. It means we will learn lessons alongside each other spanning many moments and years, and it means, together, we will become the trusted voices we most seek.

Try This: Before you listen to a podcast episode, (1) pause and meditate on the episode topic, and (2) ask a friend or mentor to speak into that area of your life. (Buds > earbuds.) Now: do you still need the added voice?

HOPE

Believe it or not, I am wildly, unabashedly hopeful for the next generation – and for ourselves in generations to come. We have feasted daily from the fruit of Apple. We are sick and unwell, and we know the cause(s). And now, we get to decide what comes next.

Do you remember what it was like to be a child, powerless at the hands of your authority figures? For the past decades, Silicon Valley has offered us their own version of authority figures – more data-mining platforms, more emotionally unstable tech bros, more subscriptions, more automated withdrawals, more algorithmic news feeds, more crowdfunded trends.

But we are wiser. We are no longer children. The Internet is the same age as I am: 40 years, give or take a few months. And we have lived alongside each other long enough to recognize that what fed us in infancy cannot sustain.

Indeed: there’s something better over the hill.

Try This: Opt out. Report back.

 

p.s. If you find yourself reading this and thinking, “But hey! You’re on the Internet right now!” – you’re right, and I like your style! If curious, stay tuned for a short list of boundaries I keep in place for any and all tech usage. Want to make your own? Start here.

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  • Thank you for the honesty that this post brings. I spend a few hours every day with my grandson and if he could speak full adult sentences, he would ditto your words. He explores and learns so much when we play. I get to remember how important in-the-momentness is extremely important. And often I’m learning too.

  • If only these stunning, crucial and absolutely essential words could go “viral” for all of mankind to see…

    In your beautiful slower life, I hope that this book gets the press it deserves and you are on every talk show imaginable so the ones who don’t know your truths will have a chance to discover them! ❤️

    • Oh Holly, thank you! What a gift your encouragement is for me today. Always honored to share what I’m learning along the way!