When my wife Susan and I walk down our neighborhood’s sidewalks, we often face the specter of some much younger person so focused on their cell phone, they almost run into us. Of course, we are old, so invisible. But usually they are oblivious to us because they are texting, and we avoid collisions with our fellow pedestrians because we step out of the way or interrupt these people’s concentration with a cheery “Hello.”
Nevertheless, it was still shocking to see that the same week Time magazine used several pages to map out our compulsive use of technological tools, The Week popped the question: Are we addicted? The answer, apparently, isYes we are.
Some 29 percent of Americans say their mobile devices are the first thing they look at in the morning and the last at night. And 68 percent acknowledge that it goes by the bed every night. And we aren’t even the worst. Americans run a good 15 points below the average of the rest of the world in the incessant use of our tools. In South Korea, 48 percent say they spend too much time looking at their mobile devices and not enough looking at the world around them.
So are we addicted? The operational definition of addiction is anything that replaces our sense of self. That’s why 12 Step programs are so focused on getting down to something at the core of our being. Instead of a self, addicted people substitute alcohol, drugs, sex, food, work, fame, wealth, rage, greed, busy-ness or buying stuff – just to name some obvious things. Journalist Chris Hedges says he was addicted to the adrenalin high of reporting from war zones. I know people who are “political junkies,” people who are only focused on issues or political campaigns. I’ve been there myself.
Okay, so are we all addicted – to something? Well, yes, in this country and others too, I guess, a person has to develop a serious strategy to stay centered in a deeper place of self. Without a quiet place within which we can go, we risk circumscribing ourselves into one-dimensionality, a life flat and void of feeling. Even our relationships become mechanical, calendar-driven shells of their potential.
Which is why we need to put the technological tools aside from time to time and retrieve a sense of awe. It is why working people added vacations to their demands for decent working conditions and more than a day off a week. Wallace Stegner wrote, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed…We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”
To remain in touch with our humanness, we need to see it.
I also think it matters to have a sense of purpose about life. When psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl reflected on his experiences in German concentration camps, he realized it was the people who had a clear sense of purpose who made life endurable, even if they ended up losing their own. It also turned out they were the most likely to survive. I am a great fan of purpose statements, and I have one that I say to myself every morning to remind myself what my life is about, so I don’t forget or find myself distracted and off track.
It also helps to feel my life as part of a web of other lives. Networks of relationships make for a healthier life. Not just family – immediate and at a distance – but people who I know and trust and care about in my work life and in fulfilling my commitments to justice in the world outside of myself. A community holds me to my commitments and keeps me faithful to my self, reins me in when I get off course, pulls me back from ragged edges of excess, and sustains me over the long haul.
Which is why I try to use technology rather than have it use me. I do not want a “thing” to be the substance of my life or a substitute for my life. I want to live in touch with the felt-life experience that roils up from within the core of myself. When I live that way, I can actually give myself to a cause or a person, because there is something there to give. And really, it helps a lot to look up from the screen.