The Lost Art of Introspection

One of my students told me recently that a friend of hers was planning to install a TV behind plexiglass in his shower.  He said he was getting bored in the five minutes it took to lather and rinse and wanted a little entertainment as part of his morning routine.  I was shocked by this brief anecdote and obsessed over it the rest of that day.   I know that most people aren’t quite that extreme.  But just in the six years I’ve been teaching school, I’ve watched the electronic world start controlling more and more aspects of my life and the lives of everyone around me, and I’m worried.

Technology has given us so much.  I love seeing my sisters’ facebook status updates and feeling, in a limited sense, like a part of their everyday lives even though I live 1,500 miles away.  There are certainly huge advantages to having instantaneous communication and access to worlds of information that were once beyond our reach.  But what has technology taken away?  What did it replace?  Modern inventions did not fill a pre-existent void.  It wasn’t like people used to sit for hours looking at their hands and wishing for small rectangular boxes that would play music for them or enable the to communicate with friends; they lived full lives.  So what did we lose?

There are many possible answers to that question, but one of the most tragic casualties of the modern world is the lost the art of introspection–the ability to think deeply about all of life.  Thinking has become a utilitarian process designed to “get us through” school, work, life in general.  There is no time or space for reflection when computers, phones, and televisions are dictating every minute of our days.  We think we are the ones in control; after all, we press the power button, we click on the link, we send the text.  But the opposite is happening. Because we no longer have built-in pockets of time that force us to reflect–we have multiple digital worlds available to fill our minds at any given moment–we choose not to reflect.  Electronic devices, from computers to phones to TV’s, are like a drug.  Rather than being forced to fill our own minds, we have someone else to do it for us.  We sit back, take the injection, and enjoy endless hours free from worry, annoyance, fear, or pain.  Once we’ve developed an addiction to electronic input, we feel a void whenever there is no one else to do our thinking for us.  We have lost the ability to form our own thoughts, and we fear silence.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not somehow above all this.  During a recent layover in Milwaukee, I was sitting alone at a cafe eating a turkey and brie croissant.  Because of my greasy fingers, I couldn’t read my library book, and within seconds I was bored.  In response to that boredom, I found myself reaching for my electronics; my Ipod and cell phone were within tantalizingly close reach.  I chose instead to sit in silence and see what happened.  At first, it felt like my mind wandered all over the place, searching for something with which to fill itself.  Denied electronic input, my mind started creating its own input.  I thought about the book I was reading, about my trip to Italy last year, about my school’s accreditation process. I started mentally working on my course outlines and solved a problem I’d been mulling over for a week.  I looked around me at the people in the airport.  No one was just sitting there.  Nearly all of them had a cell phone in hand and were talking, texting, or listening to music.  I had solved a simple problem at work in just a few minutes of quiet think time.  Were any of them capable of making a much greater discovery or breakthrough, but were too occupied by Twitter updates to make it?

In an interview during a tour of Auschwitz, holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel looked at a pile of shoes once worn by victims of the Nazi gas chambers and lamented,  “How many Nobel Prize winners died at the age of one? Two? And whose shoes are here? One of them could have discovered the remedy for cancer, for AIDS…the great poets, the great dreamers.”

I think about the billions and billions of dollars in electronics that people own–cell phones, iphones, ipods, laptops, TV’s, DVD players, stereos, radios, Blu-Rays, BlackBerries, Xboxes, Wii’s, PlayStations, and innumerable other electronics and think, “How many would-be Nobel Prize winners are too busy with trivialities to ponder the deeper things in life?  How many potential scientists, poets, and great dreamers go to their graves having their need for accomplishment satisfied by high scores in a video game?”  My hope is the eventually people will grow weary of the cold utilitarianism of the digital world and that the pendulum will swing back the other way.  We desperately need to return to more authentic relationships, deeper thinking, and real-world accomplishments.

Interestingly, a few days ago I heard another story about a guy who got bored in the shower.  He noticed the way the water flowed over his hands and was struck with the idea that if transistors could be coated with just the right substance, moisture would flow over them in a similar fashion.  He then thought that silicon dioxide would be the perfect substance for coating those transistors.  This man was Jean Hoerni, whose shower-inspired invention of the silicon chip made him a billionaire and changed the world as we know it.  He used some of his wealth to start the Central Asia Institute, which is now educating thousands of underprivileged children in the most hostile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.  What if Jean had been watching TV in the shower instead?

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10 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Introspection

  1. WwMrs. Wilson: you are absolutely right! Last night I was reading a book and discovered that I couldn’t get through a page without checking my phone to see if friends had texted me back. When did I, an avid reader, get to the point where reading filled my time in between texting and Facebook? A friend( the same friend who wants a tv in his shower) once joked that I’m more addicted to my phone than the girls on 90210. I brushed it off at the time, but now its making me think. The cellphone that was supposed to help me connect with my friends and my family. It wasn’t supposed to enable a disconnect in myself.

  2. Well said, Anna! There is so much irony in the fact that these devices, which are meant to help us connect with others more quickly, actually isolate us. There were so many more directions I could have taken this blog; I feel like now that I’ve discussed the effect of electronics on the life of the mind, now I need to discuss the effect of electronics on relationships.

  3. The addiction to digital diversions is an interesting thing to one with ADD such as myself. I spend my life with two or three things running through my head at any given time. Except, that is, when a tv is playing anywhere in my general vicinity. In that instance, all of my mind is obsessed with seeing/hearing what is being shown. Even when it is nothing I am interested in at all. I can’t tell you how many times I have contemplated ditching all electronics in my posession, but I can’t do it. The “convinence” is just too great. Perhaps o could take baby steps and loose the cable…

    P.S. Sent from my iPhone… 🙂

    • It’s tough. I would never want to ditch all electronics; they’ve given us so much! I think the key is just balance–taking advantage of the convenience of electronics while intentionally carving out time for reflection and relationships. Yeah, I didn’t miss the irony of blogging (on a computer) about this subject!

  4. Great blog Emily! I decided just 3 days ago before I even read your blog to take a prolonged break from Facebook, a fast to see what God is trying to teach me through various trials that have been going on for a few years now (you know which ones I mean).

    I’m not sure how long I will make it on the fast. I’ve tried this before and the longest I could make it was a full week – that’s how strong my addiction is. But my goal right now is 6 months, June 1, 2010!! 🙂 Possibly longer if God calls me to. It’s just that I’m ready to be done with these “lessons” God is trying to teach me. I don’t know if He’ll be done with me after the 6 months, but I think of all the time I’ve wasted online when I could’ve been self-reflecting, making changes and attitude adjustments that would’ve been a far healthier and more fruitful investment of my time and it’s maddening because I can never get that time back. Just one example: I’ve wanted to tone up since high school so I could be confident in a swimsuit. At my size and weight, it should’ve taken me like 6 weeks to get into shape. Instead, I’ve never made time for working out. Another example: I’ve wanted to learn guitar now for 3 years. I even bought two guitars way back then with the intent to teach myself how to play. But have I played them ever for more than a couple weeks? Nope. Too much “work.” And the reality is, in 6 months I could be good enough at basic guitar to be leading worship, another goal of mine. So how is it that I’ve had 3 years, and gotten nowhere? Issues of discipline have not only affected my physical work ethic, but also my spiritual and relational ones. I can’t blame it all on Facebook though, only myself and my addiction to escapism.

    The reality is though, the more I got into Facebook, the more it caused these feelings of discontentment and loneliness to grow. And I couldn’t see it until just this week, when I was going through my live feed and hiding everyone’s happy status updates…you know, the ones that say stuff like “so and so is now in a relationship with so and so” and “so and so is so thankful to God for so and so.” It was only after I’d had to hide almost every single person on my live feed in the hope that it would help me not feel so bitter, sad, and discontent about my singleness that I realized Facebook is not helping me, it’s harming me. I came to realize just now that the very thing I thought erased boredom and sadness for me, actually created it. The more time I spent online, the less my interpersonal relationships flourished. In fact, the more time spent talking to people online, the more isolated in real life I felt, and the more people I started to alienate from lashing out online from the feelings of frustration I myself had created!

    I decided I wanted to cut everything out of my life that was not helping me be content. I may also stop listening to secular music altogether (at least for these 6 months), watching chick flicks, and only investing time in God’s word, worship music, working out, worship dance, guitar, and self-growth books. Not sure yet, but I’m praying about it. I do know all of that stuff wouldn’t do anything but help me, not harm me, but I’m not sure yet I should go that extreme. 🙂 Oh, and I did also decide to give up dating altogether for at least 6 months just because that’s become another idol and distraction for me.

    It’s hard to admit that this is a problem for me, but at least I recognized the impact of technology on my life enough a couple months ago to return my Droid cell phone (it’s like an iPhone) and downgrade to just a regular one. Having the Droid at my hip for the 2 weeks I did became so distracting that I was hardly even working at work, but instead, constantly checking my phone. I returned it quickly when I realized that the online world could lose me my job. In fact, it has a couple times before with freelance projects: I’d get online to work and instead get so distracted by Facebook I wouldn’t get my freelance work done and lose out on money I so desperately need.

    Anyway, I just wanted to share all this to say that you’re right on. Hopefully in 6 months I’ll emerge a completely new person. Even though this is going to be hard, I am hoping at the end I will be a much happier person. 🙂

  5. Wow, thanks for all you shared, Candace, and I hope that your electronics fast helps draw you closer to God. I really liked this quote in particular: “I came to realize just now that the very thing I thought erased boredom and sadness for me, actually created it.” That is the irony of the digital world. “Social networking sites” can make us anti-social. Communication devices like cell phones can isolate us. I’m not sure either what extremes are necessary, but I know I need to separate myself more from electronics. Kudos on returning the Droid; I bet that was hard.

  6. Wow, this is very true! The world of technology has become a type of drug or addiction for us. It’s sad to see such a great thing being abused. Sometimes I do like to just think, and see what comes to mind, and it can actually be more interesting then listening to music, checking FB, or playing a video game. Very interesting blog!!

    • Hi Kelly! I know you wrote this comment four (well, closer to five) years ago, but I was just going through some old blogs tonight and saw that I never responded to your comment. I try to ALWAYS respond to comments left on my blog, so my apologies for being half a decade late. Thanks for taking the time to stop by, read, and comment. 🙂

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