It's ten days from Halloween. Do you know where your attention is? The attention vampires may already have it.
Who owns you?
I know, we think we own ourselves, our lives, everything. Chances are we're dead wrong. I sure have been at times. Doesn't matter that I don't much like admitting it.
Let's start with our phones. Reading this story on a phone right now? When was the last time you put it down for more than a night's sleep, if that?
When was the last time you woke up and didn't touch your phone OR computer OR turn the TV on, never looked at a screen, your Apple watch, ANYTHING for several hours, a week? Hard for me, too.
You and I don't own our life. Other people do. I'm not just addressing work hours, if you have a job, for example. This is all about the time you genuinely consider your own. I've had to look hard at how much time I give screens, which for many of us is way too much. Imagine the cost to us, to our friends, family, our pets (who need walking, running, play time) and above all, our kids, who are all too often handed a phone instead of a hug, a phone instead of dedicated, loving time.
If you're a person who absolutely panics if you forget your phone, well....okay? You get it.
Lately I've had to look hard at this very thing. While it's a bit easier for me as a Boomer to disengage, I have watched the distraction habit grow. As a result, I've also had to do forced detoxes so that I am again accustomed to the quiet in my mind, remember how soothing it is to exist there, and re-engage the curiosity with which I watch thoughts, images and feelings march through in their colorful parades.
I learned this by studying Buddhism, at which I am simply terrible, but I put in the effort. That pays off every time.
When we cannot identify as fully human without being surgically attached to a source of distraction, well, we aren't human any more. Not in the fullest sense of the word, when our senses are robbed by entertainment which has but one single overarching purpose: to get us to buy crap we don't need, to distract us from what is really happening around us and above all, to avoid asking the hard questions life demands of us.
If you can't imagine standing in line, ruminating, sitting somewhere quietly watching the world around you, if you simply can't countenance the idea of hours on end inside your own head, you do NOT own your life.
Other people do. Or, worse, whatever demons of self-doubt or self-loathing inhabit your sub-basement do. I have a whole Army of 'em, given my sexual assault history, so I can relate.
This morning I woke up, as I always do no matter what time I go to bed, at 3:30. It's cold here, spring in the sterile, dry-as-a bone Atacama Desert of Chile. Tomorrow I dump all my electronics for a horse. Out in the desert I'll be waking up in a tent; it will be windy.
I love the low, keening sound of wind, and the way it makes the sides of the tent bellow in and out like you're inside a set of huge lungs. You can lie in your sleeping bag, read if you have a book and a lamp, or just think.
My kind of adventure. Wild, uncomfortable, vivid.
A great deal of silence, which gives me a lot of time to be inside my own head. Right now I really need that. As a 70 yo this coming January, I have a lot on my mind. I cannot think with all the noise that invades every single brain cell. That's part of why I came down here, to truly isolate myself and see what happens.
Out in the Atacama, no internet, no power, nothing. No ads on the backs of toilet doors, no intrusive demands for me to buy buy buy, no attention-grabbing headlines about (name your moron)'s latest shenanigans, wars, murders etc. etc. etc. No constant movies, shows, inane news programs and enforced entertainment to suck my attention away. What Trump said. What some thoughtless idiot troll had to say about a recent article I wrote.
Or what the junk-news pundits have to say about this crisis and Lizzo's body size and that police shooting and the latest vomit out of Marjorie Taylor Green's pie hole.
Blessed nothingness. I thrive in that. I thrive in my own brain space. I get it that these days that's not easy. Please don't hear this as holier than thou. There's a good reason I'm throwing down this gauntlet. If you're spending more time than you really want on your screens, I want you to take your life and your time back for YOUR uses, not some corporation wanting to bleed your wallet. I've had to do it myself.
Here in Calama, where the annual rainfall is barely half an inch, the plains undulate like great historic beasts. There aren't many trees. What are here are thin, spindly things, but for the few decorative shrubs which are fed precious water to offer some respite from the endless red sands and dust.
But there's a mall.
In the local mall, parents either ignore their kids while on the phone or push the phone into their toddlers' hands. The universal babysitter, the thief of always, the attention suck that has the unfortunate habit of emptying the brain. Kids don't learn to talk, to engage, to think when all they do is drink in distraction. Same for us.
Just like in America. I used to think Coke was bad. This is worse, in much bigger ways. You can recover from obesity, you can get dentures after Coke has done its job on you. But if you can't hold your thoughts, can't be with your thoughts, manage them or even manage a coherent sentence, effectively, you and I are zombies.
No offense, but kindly,
Brad Stulburg is an author and performance coach whose material I often quote. I found this the other day, and it got my attention big time:
This is perhaps the most important line out of the whole story, at least for my part, as he points out what's happened as our material wealth has expanded and our psychological health has suffered:
...all of us can be more aware of the forces preying upon (if not destroying) our attention and our ability to think serious thoughts. (author bolded)
We love to believe that we have life handled, that we're conscious, that we're in charge. However those are illusions, illusions that are maintained by the idea that of course we always have a choice - and we do. Increasingly we are choosing to be soothed and coddled rather than learn to consider, ponder, research and engage in any kind of intelligent discussion.
All this right about the time we so desperately need to talk to each other, not just because of Covid quarantine and isolation (which exacerbated this to the nth degree) but because the issues facing our world demand it.
If you've missed it, the mighty Mississippi is drying up. Oh, you haven't heard? But you can discuss Netlix's new Dahmer biopic in detail?
You see my point.
Our brains are hijacked.
All we have to do is go stand in line. Sit on an airplane. In a waiting room. Everyone is eyes down, absorbed and distracted.
Fans of George Carlin, and we are legion, often quote his social commentary because it is forever relevant. You can lift most of what he had to say and import it to 2022, as many do online, and it has the same piercing quality it always did.
He said once that he was a "bad American" because he asked questions. That was decades before social media, which he would thoroughly skewer the same way he did pretentious people who simply HAD to answer their phones in public and impose their conversations on others. That's mild compared to today.
He's missed. For in today's world, so full of material for a brilliant social commenter with a rapier wit, he would point out what Stulberg has but with a scalpel. As a species and a society, too many of us have largely handed away so much of what really matters: our ability to think critically, ask hard questions, assess the answers, ask where we are being dishonest with ourselves and others, and have the kind of competent debate that doesn't leave people dead on the floor.
In fact, today's debates aren't debates. They're blood baths. Stripped of our ability to comprehend a disagreement, wholly unable to countenance anything outside the sick echo chamber of our social media and television world views, for too many people, anything outside that echoing womb of validation feels like an existential threat.
These days such debates don't even take place. Someone decides who is the enemy, grabs a automatic rifle and starts shooting at anyone and everyone seen as not agreeing with us. That's just one example of how much our ability to think, comprehend, assess and weigh varying viewpoints has been stolen from us via a steady stream of mindless entertainment and distraction.
This troubles me the most when it comes to the mass killings:
We aren't talking to- or more essentially with- our kids. Kids who feel ostracized and ignored can lash out. These days, well. Headlines say it all.
As an underscore to that, the fact that the Netflix show about Jeffery Dahmer has inspired not only Halloween costumes and memes but also families to parade their children on Twitter dressed like Dahmer is about as clear an indication of the utter lack of empathy, the tone-deaf nature of some in our society. The families of the victims are being repeatedly re-traumatized, but how important is that compared to the fact that YOUR son is being retweeted all over the Twittersphere dressed as Dahmer and holding a power drill?
Do you think that might influence that child to actually do something with that drill to get even more attention, if he's not getting it from his family?
Just asking. It's a hard question but it deserves exploration. Because kids who are bitterly unhappy and who have access to firearms and other weapons are doing more and more damage. The name Kyle Rittenhouse leaps to mind, a damaged child elevated to hero status by equally deranged people for killing people said deranged people don't like.
When we speak to each other, engage each other, notice each other, LISTEN to one another, we erase that terrible need to be noticed. We learn, expand, and become bigger, more able to cope with challenges. For in conversation we are growing. That is how we are constructed. This is such a fundamental human function, a need, that when we have replaced it wholesale with distraction, we create monsters. Just look around. The blood is on the floor, and the blood is also on our hands, and it's not fake.
When we as a society prefer Dahmer, who was a very real monster, to dedicating ourselves to our kids, our neighbors, our friends, and above all to ourselves, we are failing as a species.
Life IS entertainment. We simply need to engage in it more fully. That begins with making friends with the space between our ears (mine contains considerably more empty space than most, just saying), learning who and what inhabits our inner world and learning to trust and enjoy being in there with ourselves.
That is indeed hard work, as recent research has revealed:
While we may be wired to find inner reflection unbearable (I patently disagree, but I'm patently nuts to begin with, just saying), this fundamentally hard thing is one that you and I really do need to flex to real strength, in order to deal with the demands of our times.
In other words instead of watching Denzel Washington be the hero because he thinks things through, let's us be the hero because we can think and act more responsibly. The world needs billions of everyday heroes, not a real-life version of World War Z.
Finally, let's get to the how-to. That's not for me to suggest; that's for the experts. To than, then: writer and performance expert Steve Magness wrote a book which delves into ways of getting comfortable with our thoughts, which is the heart and soul of Do Hard Things:
Resilience, which we are watching being drained away, is regained when we get comfortable with our inner worlds. That truly is superhero work, available to each and every one of us. That allows us to be superheroes for ourselves, our families, our kids, everything we care about.
We don't even need a cape. We just need to be more capable.
Not surprisingly, Stulberg and Magness have co-written a book on peak performance. Their beliefs overlap. They share this concern about our society's, our species' ability to cope not only with the tough times in our own lives but also with the considerable challenges of climate change, flailing Democracies, racism, ageism, all the -isms and idiot politicians and so much more. We are in chaotic times.
Chaotic times need resilient, thoughtful, capable people. Everyday superheroes.
That would be us.
You and I have that capacity within us, as do our kids. We have to teach it and model it. Of course it's hard.
That's precisely why it's worth doing.
That's what makes us heroes for doing it.
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