Lately I’ve been feeling rootless.
I suppose that is one of the effects of spending so much time online.
Like Bilbo Baggins, after possessing the ring of power for many years: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Power and freedom are the great benefits of technology. Smart phones and laptops extend our reach, give us access to uncounted numbers of people and seemingly unlimited information.
But the price is high. It hollows out the soul, making us nearly transparent. Like the avatars we create on social media, our identities are thinned out, two dimensional. As Iris Murdoch says, human beings create images of themselves and then come to resemble the images.
The computer screen is a jealous hearth, demanding one’s gaze but returning no life-sustaining warmth.
So I turn off the computer, get up from my desk, and step outside.
Immediately I am immersed in the here and the now. I stand between river and bluff, where maple leaves are rustling in the breeze, robins are ripping worms from the soil, and lilacs are blooming in the alley.
I know that if I were to go west a short distance I would find bluegills spawning in the shallows of the Mississippi River; to the east I would find morels springing up on the forested bluffs and caddisflies emerging from the coldwater streams.
These are real things, rich with life, full of flavor, scent, texture, and the rough beauty of independent existence. It is not the environment I love, it is all those things in the natural world I have come to know over the years, things that do not know me but which nevertheless somehow make me who I am.
The trout and the trout lily, the dandelion and the fawn, the mayfly and the whippoorwill, the clouds and the moon and the stars. They ask nothing of me but fill me with life whenever I stand in their presence.
I recall the little poem by Lorine Niedecker:
“Asa Gray wrote Increase Lapham:
pay particular attention
to my pets, the grasses.”
Losing attention is the price we pay for living in a technological world. When I start up my outboard and speed downriver to some fishing destination, I do not see the way water droplets are beading on the surface of the lily pads, and without realizing it I sacrifice the richest catch of the day.
To attend to something is to wait for it with loving patience. When I attend to something outside my self, I surrender my soul to it and in this way I am enlarged. There is no other way of moving beyond the narrow confines of self-absorption.
This waiting, this surrendering of control, is contrary to every impulse of the modern world, yet its rewards are known to every turkey hunter and morel gatherer and trout angler.
As Thoreau observes, “You only need sit still long enough in some attractive spot in the woods that all its inhabitants may exhibit themselves to you by turns.”
Slowing down, waiting patiently, tuning one’s senses to the time and pace of one’s surroundings. That is not a waste of time. It is the very essence of contemplation.
On the internet, speed is everything and distraction is the goal. Website optimization, increased bandwidth, frequency of clicks, traffic volume — these are yardsticks by which success is measured.
So many of us live in this world now, but we are only beginning to see the long-term effects of it on our lives as individuals and as communities.
The common complaint of our internet-dependent society is the extreme polarization that subverts our politics and makes collaboration all but impossible.
But what do we expect when our identities are so thin and fragile? How do we find common ground when we do not know where we stand?
Freud described this condition as the “narcissism of minor differences.” When we have so little of substance to define us, we must exaggerate every point of difference or else lose sight of our own significance.
There is no going back. But there are many ways of going forward, some better and some worse.
And among the very worst is to think we can solve our social ills through technological solutions, which inevitably promise to make things better by increasing the power and speed with which we arrive at our goals.
I live in a technological world. I teach classes online, listen to music played through a smartphone, eat food packaged by robots, and consult weather forecasts generated by algorithms.
But I also live in a natural world. And when I step outside I am reminded who and what I am. This community of soil and water, wind and rain, the trees and the birds, the fish and the flowers that have blessed my entire life.
It is good to be alive on a day like this.
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