I have been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of anxiety and the demands of our advanced society, of the common ground between dis-ease and technology, and of the meeting point where excess, consumption, productivity, technology, and anxiety converge.
In Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig writes,
Human brains – in terms of cognition and emotion and consciousness – are essentially the same as they were at the time of Shakespeare or Jesus or Cleopatra or the Stone Age. They are not evolving with the pace of change. Neolithic humans never had to face emails or breaking news or pop-up ads or Iggy Azalea videos… Maybe instead of worrying about upgrading technology and slowly allowing ourselves to be cyborgs we should have a little peek at how we could upgrade our ability to cope with all this change.
In essence, our Cro-Magnon brains are not built to navigate Twenty-First Century expectations.
So much of the existing technology we take for granted today was developed to make our lives better and easier. However, the developments created with this luxury in mind sometimes become tangled and complicated: not everything works as it should, new problems arise. That paths we design as shortcuts sometimes turn out to be scenic tours on a horse-drawn carriage.
Last week I wanted to move a song from the music library on my laptop to the music library on my phone. But since I have given up staying current with operating systems, this was no longer an option for me. I learned I would now have to upgrade my laptop (or, more accurately, pay someone else to upgrade my laptop) from OSX Yosemite to OS-X El Capitan (even the names make me cringe). I could already feel the smooth, involuntary muscles in my neck tense as I developed a vague plan to part with this machine on which I have come to rely for a whopping three to five business days and incur what a large part of me feels is an unnecessary expense just so I can have access to my music while I'm on the treadmill.
[An aside: When I complained about this to a friend, he asked in disbelief, “You don’t just do Apple Music?” to which I replied, “No! I don’t want to pay monthly for access to music. I want to own the music I like. You know, as if I had gone into a record store and purchased a record.” At some point I want to be able to opt out, to leave the upgrades and the advancements to others and still be able to live my life.]
So how might the current climate of ease impact us?
At best, things run smoothly and we get to function as productive little robots paying our debts on time with the click of a button (or with an automatic deduction from our accounts). And because we no longer have to gather and read bills and write out checks, we have more time.
At worst, we get sick. We develop stress-induced illness. We use that time we saved by choosing automated bill pay to work more, scroll more, buy more.
We have accidents because we are so distracted. We become anxious and irritable. We become depressed.
We take medicine in the morning to help us keep up, then we take medicine at night to help us calm down.
We drink alcohol (often in excess) telling ourselves we need it to relax. We eat unhealthy food, often beyond the point of satiation, seeking comfort and oblivion. We get addicted.
We can’t sleep. We feel so wound up that even when nothing is left to cross off our to-do lists at the end of the day we feel there is “something we’re forgetting.” We experience tightness in our chests, rigidity in our shoulders and necks.
We oversleep, either from legitimate exhaustion or to avoid the demands of waking life.
We hurry up with everything. Earlier, I was so hell-bent on speeding through my to-do list that I dropped my cell phone; now my screen is cracked, and there’s another errand to run and more money to spend. Frenzy begets frenzy.
Tim Wu, in his February 16, 2018 Opinion Piece in The New York Times titled The Tyranny of Convenience writes, “Convenience has to serve something greater than itself, lest it lead only to more convenience.” We need to fill the time we save with meaning.
Sarah Wilson, in her unique tome on anxiety First We Make the Beast Beautiful, writes, “To stay on top of all the ideas and opportunities that Modern Life now affords us we have to keep multiple tabs open in our brains, which sees us toggle back and forth between tasks and commitments and thoughts.” Which also keeps us out of touch with the reality of things. The value of a dollar slips further from our grasp. We consume more, hoping to fill the emptiness created by being so out of touch.
[This might be a good place to note that I realize that most of this discussion is one of privilege. That it is only when we have the means to scale back on some of these things that we have the freedom and choice to do so. That said, I do still believe it is an important conversation to have, and that there are plenty of us out there who need to have it.]
So what should we do? I often fantasize about moving somewhere remote like the countryside in Italy, where life takes a much slower pace. But in reality, I’m not sure that would stop the careening of this train. I am already indoctrinated in a culture that is all about speed, efficiency, and excess (and I do believe Amazon would deliver packages to my “casetta” in the woods).
I am not here to proclaim I do not see or value the positive aspects of these innovations, but right now I am more aware of the curse of the convenient. As Matt Haig asks, how do we cope and manage?
Perhaps an umbrella approach is to cultivate intentionality. This includes developing an awareness of your “why” and your “how.” It is another way of encouraging mindfulness, an ancient approach to wellbeing that has resurfaced in the mental health world in recent decades. Living with intention involves fostering clarity of your values and then engaging in behaviors that are aligned with those values. For me, as my resistance to the curse of the convenient unfolds, I follow my emerging interest in leading a slower, simpler life. Tim Wu writes that while it may be “perverse to embrace inconvenience as a general rule,” it may be an insightful and humanistic move to “consciously embrace the inconvenient” from time to time.
So here are some suggestions to help you slow down, make things a little inconvenient, get back in touch with yourself, and counter your anxiety. It is by no means a complete list of ideas; some of them were stolen from Sarah Wilson, others adapted from Buddhist philosophy, and still others invented by myself or inspired by the lifestyle of friends. I encourage you to experiment with some, and to come up with some ideas of your own:
1. Exercise: Cardiovascular exercise like running can help burn off excess energy and yoga/stretching/Pilates can help you get in touch with your body in a way that keeps you feeling integrated and whole.
2. Take breaks in nature: The longer the break, the better. Leave your phone behind.
3. Walk or bicycle when you can: This gets you moving and connected to yourself from the neck down while also slowing you down and getting you out into your community.
4. Slow down: Do things at half-pace. Speak slowly. Notice how this shifts the energy inside your body.
5. Fix things: Tears in clothing or other items don’t necessarily mean they need to be tossed and replaced. A needle and thread can go a long way; if you don’t feel comfortable making repairs on your own, a local tailor can complete the job, usually rather inexpensively.
6. Get up close and personal with an animal: Animals tend to do this thing where they live without complicating matters. Spend time with a dog and watch how she lives; that is mindfulness in action.
7. Cut back on social media or lose it all together: Social media fills our brains with so much extraneous content that our capacity to focus on what really matters dwindles.
8. Get comfortable saying no: Resist the urge to overcommit and overschedule.
9. Attempt low overhead: What do you spend money on that you could eliminate? The less your bank account is drained, the less you need to worry about keeping it full. Cancelling HBO may not make a huge difference in your daily stress level but having more of a cushion in your bank account may decrease your psychic stress.
10. Read books: Read actual books. Books with pages made out of paper, books that you hold in your hand. Get them from the library! Read books about how to manage anxiety and how to live simply. Three books I recommend are: Choosing Simplicity by Linda Breen Pierce, the aforementioned First We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson, and the above-quoted Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig.
11. Let things be enough as they are: Let your experience of watching your favorite Netflix show be enough; resist the urge simultaneously scroll through Instagram.
12. Do one thing at a time: Similar to the suggestion above, give whatever is in front of you 100% of your attention.
13. Talk to others who are on the same path: I offer a contradiction here, which is to use technology to check out the subreddit r/simpleliving.
I leave you with this: In a highly distracted state while leaving work, I forgot my cell phone on the roof of my car and that is how I drove home. Luckily I have a convertible, and the roof was folded back, so the metal frame held the device tightly in place. This happened on the day I began writing this piece, so thank you, Universe, for the illustrative postscript and most elegant reminder.