I've Caught “The Bug”
I'm not sick. Not physically, anyway…
When I was maybe 15 years old, I started noticing a trend in most American establishments. I began to notice that in almost all of them, there was a TV. Or a radio station playing. It is rare that I walk into a store, a restaurant, a car garage, or a convenience store and find only the sound of humans chit-chatting. I found it disconcerting, and very concerning. Because what is it exactly that the interior establishment is attempting to drown out?
Independent thought. Inner work. Criticism of existing structures. Actual rest from constantly being fed some kind of fear-mongering media. Possibly their industrial washing machine. Ah, the drone of FOX news.
Now, now. I’m not saying it’s just FOX News. I’m also not saying that watching the news is a crime. It isn’t. I personally read or listen to the news instead of watching. I also do not watch Instagram clips to get my news anymore. Al Jazeera. New York Times. TED Radio Hour. NPR. That’s how I got my news. That’s listed from most recent to least, by the way. NPR is what was constantly in the background of my mother’s car in Southern Oregon where I spent the majority of the first 12 years of my life. Then TED Radio Hour and The Daily when we moved to Zimbabwe. Podcasts kept us connected, and the Daily was short enough that we got our current events fix on the way to school and were wrapped in cultural commentary by the time we got to the gates.
Now, I don’t listen or watch as much as I used to. Most things that happen, I learn about because I am told, because I hear of one fundraising effort or another, or because I simply go looking for them. These methods have served me well and kept me from blatant ignorance while also providing me with much-needed distance from all of the buzz and anger and drama and flash-bang-burn commentary that seems to follow current events. Oh. And no twitter for me. Nope. That blue bird is not my friend.
I’ve digressed. The news is a marvellous thing. Journalism is a fabulous art. As is photojournalism when done consciously, humanely, and equitably. I love to read, so naturally, I gravitate toward the news in written form. It allows me the space to form my own opinions, to absorb the facts, interrogate them, and to go on informed. Perhaps this is too passive for some of you. I have my own methods of action. When I am called to them, I am called with depth. And I act with it.
Now, as for the constant drone, I’m not sure I’m a big fan. But things like silent airport terminals also bring me a lot of anxiety and I find myself checking my flight information 10x more than I would ordinarily, and going to sit at my gate many hours before anyone else on my flight has even meandered from the Starbucks. So, there’s that. Yes, it is strange to suddenly be presented with silence. And to be comfortable in that silence takes practice. Again, this word practice. It’s one that I resisted for years of my youth because it meant playing the violin. And while I love how it sounds when played by real violinists. I abhorred playing it. But now, practice means making sure that I am actively and consistently involved in ensuring that my environment is one that fosters the things that I value most. It means being an active participant in my own life. It means turning off the little TV in the New York taxi because I don’t need to be advertised to when there is plenty of traffic and madness on a Wednesday to be seen outside (N.B. there are plenty of ads out there too, don’t get me wrong). It means I listen to the ambience of the cafe that (grace à Dieu) isn’t playing the music at bar volume. It means I don’t have a TV anymore. In this context, that is.
I do not wish to leave my attention unguarded. It is a phenomenal gift, and I wish to use it wisely. I spoke to anyone who would listen, ad nauseam, about Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. His book speaks to the plethora of ways that our collective and individual attention is being stolen, and the ways that we can get it back. And no, it’s not just a book about reducing your screen time, or moving to the mountains to free yourself from it all. It reveals the technological methods that were coded and created to entrap our attention spans and keep them tethered for hours on end. It reveals what is at work right now.
When I read this book, I was initially troubled by the way in which the solutions for our loss of focus were zeroed in on individual efforts that were in fact a corporate problem. But Hari dismantles this too. And it challenged me to think deeply about my own use of my devices and the people to whom I am giving my attention. Not just the phone, the screen(s) — I have too many, I actually love technology….to love it is to know its deep dark truths, to see them as they are, to carry forth with compassion, and help where you can to fight the little devils off — but also the people, the interactions, and the experiences to which I give my energy. I once read this great piece that said if you want to find your people as an avid reader, quiet fan of symphonies, and lover of hiking, don’t go looking for them at a sports bar. I think I can apply that to this instance. I’ll try.
If you want to be the kind of person who spends their energy being led this way and that by the opinions of a certain voice who profits off of your anger and complacency, your views and your clicks (I don’t just mean monetarily), then you may find it wonderful to watch the news for hours on end, scroll on your algorithm-ed app that re-affirms what you’ve just seen and believe about it. It would affirm your views of what you know, connect you to others who feel similarly, and give you more content that reaffirms further.
If you’d like to be outdoors often, connect with others in parks, on road trips, on trails, in the pool, in the ocean, and do so on a deeper level that resonates with you, you may not want to do as above. You may want to read about the best parks in your area, the best trails and waterfalls, follow people who hike near you, find them on AllTrails or on Strava, and link up to do the aforementioned. You see? If you’d like to live a certain kind of life (even if you’ve never dared, even if the idea of it both invigorates and terrifies you and yet connects you to yourself), then go to where there are others doing so. Or go to the communities that talk about your interests.
These comparisons may seem drastic and hyper-liberal. That is because they are.
It is as simple as this: go where you wish to find belonging. Now, I live in a very small town. There isn’t a massive community of show jumpers, of semi-colon discussion fans, or even many Liverpool fans honestly. If there are, I am yet to find them. But I cherish the ability to go to the places that foster the love for the things I value. I know that not everyone has that ability. I know that a lot of my friends in Harare cannot simply get a gym membership and start lifting. But they skate together outside every Sunday. And they take really cool photographs while they do it. They share them on instagram, and more people join them. Community building! Wellness and skateboarding! I love it. And I am immensely proud of them.
So perhaps I should say instead: go where you wish to belong, in whatever capacity you are able. In a lot of cases you may have to start alone, and find perhaps one other person to go with you. The story of the Luddite Club was one of those, that then amassed into a group. I would encourage you to listen to this podcast episode, it is very good. I don’t think I’m ready to give up my smallest screen just yet but the episode certainly inspired me.
All this to say, do not allow yourself to be drowned out. Silence is a deep lesson in more ways than we can imagine. I wear my headphones a lot. I drown myself out. And then I scoff at the AirPodPeople on trains and subways. But I get it. The podcast is great, the music is beautiful, the Youtube video is teaching you how to assemble a carburettor or something while you’re on your commute. I’m going to continue to wear them, but I don’t want to wear them on walks anymore, nor do I want to wear them in cars with other people. I don’t want to drown out the now out anymore.