Thursday, August 29, 2013

To Be There, Both in Mind and Body

I love email. I really do. I love how I can use it to leisurely compose a letter, edit it repeatedly, eventually send it, then wait for a response, to which I can pretend I didn't get for enough time to brainstorm an acceptable reply. 

I love it most when I use it as a tool to blunt blows, like emailing a refusal after a painful date. Even an intimation of conflict leaves me gibbering in a closet, and avoiding uncomfortable situations is my modus operandi. Bless you, email, for allowing me to type rather than voice my objections, as I can be firmer via textual communication as opposed to in person. 

As a self-professed hater of smartphones, I suppose that I must concede that my arbitrarily drawn line (email OK, texts must die) cannot apply to the world at large; I still attempt to broadcast the importance of safe texting as much as I can. 

For added eloquence, we have Jonathan Safran Foer, "How Not to Be Alone." His prose is so beautiful that the article should be read in its entirety, but I shall slice and dice as usual. 

He echoes my earlier source that the distraction that technology offers dulls our sense of meaningfulness, as everything is experienced on the surface. The brain doesn't register deep emotion immediately the way it does pain, and a flickering screen prevents the synapses from firing fully.

The PBS show Call the Midwife takes place in 1950s London. In Episode 8 of Season 2, when Fred is handed his newly born grandchild, he muses aloud to the nurse, Chummy, who happens to be fretting that when her child comes, she will not have much to give it.
Fred: I grew up in bare feet. Me dad spent more on beer than he did on shoe leather. I used to think, "When I have kids, I'm gonna give them shoes, hot dinners, happy home." And I managed all three. Till Hitler intervened. When the bomb dropped, I weren't there. And that's what makes you a parent, Nurse Noakes: Proximity. They don't sell that in the shops. 

To be present and available, that is what is important. Back to Foer: 
Everyone wants his parent’s, or friend’s, or partner’s undivided attention — even if many of us, especially children, are getting used to far less. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
Technological communication, Foer writes, shrinks experiences to mere shadows of the original import; while phones and computers have made it possible for those who are separated by many miles to interact in the same room, there is always a downside. 
The problem with accepting — with preferring — diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little.
Interactions can be messy, unpleasant, and draining; they can also be enjoyable, fulfilling, and invigorating. One cannot occur without the other. Since birth I have suffered from "crippling empathy," a curse of feeling too much, even to the point of immobility. But I think I would prefer the depth of compassion as opposed to superficial numbness. I am human, and should be able to place myself in another person's shoes. 

Foer reminds his audience that our time on this earth is limited; precious moments should be experienced, and certainly that which is memorable is never via a phone or computer. 
We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.


Nechama said...

Ooooh, I like that! Always one to prefer phone calls and Skype sessions to chat, chat, chat. After getting a smartphone I was just so thrilled with the ease of communication, particularly whatsapp groups overseas. It took me MONTHS to recover! I have become so conscious of how technology has eroded communication. Almost like a plague except that there are incredible benefits, when used within moderation.

Princess Lea said...

I have observed that in the case of alcoholism, or gambling addition, there is only one method: complete and total abstinence. In the case of technology, or eating, when one has to maintain a careful balance, it is waaaaaay harder.