Herculean effort (2)

If memory is the problem — carrying on from yesterday’s post — it may be the solution as well — the solution, I mean, to the dis-ease with the changes in our lives and their new temptations.

(I’m setting aside — for now, to focus on now — speculations about how younger and future generations may adapt, how “singlemindedness,” as Alan Jacobs puts it, will test and/or play out for them…)

The path I see may or may not be herculean, but is certainly connected to memory. It’s the path of sabbath-keeping. Nothing particularly original about this; it’s also a current conversation. (See, for example, this at Rumblings.) But it makes sense. Taking sabbath breaks, weekly or in bigger chunks in occasional “sabbaticals,” may be motivated for some of us by memory of pre-internet days, but these will then produce fresh memories of the experience of freedom.

How sabbath-keeping in relation to internet technologies might unfold in practice will surely vary from person to person. I’ve been inspired in my own (fumbling) attempts at it by Marva J. Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: ceasing, resting, embracing, feasting. (I come at sabbath from a spiritual perspective, but the work-rest rhythm is important, I think, whether a person is religious or not.)

It seems significant to me that the command about the sabbath is the only one of the ten with “remember” in it. Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy… We take a break, shut down, turn off, read and connect in other ways, rest.

The space in which we turned out backs on strivings technological and internet-driven will be unique. We’ll remember the day, be strengthened to come back to that place again.

In the renewed practice of an old-fashioned habit like sabbath, we may be able to keep the memory of a kind of singlemindedness alive.

Herculean effort (1)

I was struck by the phrase “herculean amount of self-control” in reference to what it takes to live and work the way we used to before the internet. It’s over at Alan Jacobs’ blog, Text Patterns, which considers “technologies of reading, writing, research, and knowledge.” The specific context of the phrase (which is found in the comments) is a personal reflection from Jacobs’ friend who’s taking a sabbatical from blogging. This allowed him to sink into reading for an extended time, to give himself over to it, all of which, he says, had become rare in his life.

Conversations like this are ubiquitous in our culture. We’re aware that things have changed, and how drastically — in the way we read, in the way we pay (or don’t pay) attention. It worries us, of course.

It seems to me that the notion that self-control in these matters is both necessary and good (Hercules being a hero, after all) is largely motivated by memory. Isn’t it? It’s those of us who have lived long enough to remember what it’s like to be absorbed in a book at length, to work with singular focus, to not be restless over essentially minuscule concerns such as whether there’s a new message or tweet or status line to read, who try to fight back.

The change is real, and so are the memories. The effort to return is therefore herculean. Confession: I know the siren call of  “is there something new?” The aimless wandering and clicking to seek it. It’s like a nervous tic. I also remember yesteryear’s rituals of once-a-day mail delivery, the once-a-day newspaper, the expectation that if I need to be interrupted, the telephone will ring. I know the difference between those habits, those interruptions, and this compulsive distraction. Or, at least, the temptation to distraction. It annoys me that barely ten or fifteen minutes into reading a wonderful book I’m getting itchy to check something on the computer, to move my mouse over the desk to bring the screen to life, to click on something. It annoys me that resisting this (because there’s nothing I need, really need, there at the moment) is such hard work.

But maybe, as I said, it’s the memory that’s the problem and when old ways are forgotten, the discomfort will disappear as well. Perhaps subsequent generations, those who grow up with these new habits, will adapt just fine. They’ll be what they’re accustomed to being. They won’t need to expend effort in something they didn’t know, and thus don’t remember, any more than we expend effort in reading scrolls instead of books or staging family dramas in our houses instead of turning on the television.

More tomorrow….


A couple of things came together for me today.

One is a column by Catholic writer Ron Rolheiser I’d stuck into a file folder some years ago, about the need to admire. “One of the defining traits of human maturity is the capacity to admire,” Rolheiser writes. He quotes Thomas Aquinas who said that to withhold a compliment from someone is a sin — because we’re withholding food a person needs to live. But, adds Rolheiser, admiring others is also food we need. Admiration opens us to others, it sees clearly those who do as well or better than we. As per Hugo of St. Victor’s words, which Rolheiser also quotes, “Love is the eye!” (Read the whole column here.)

The other is realizing anew the amazing capacity of the internet and other electronic media to connect us with people. Consider links, for example. The computer cursor moves over a word that also exists as a link, and click, another world opens, and there, more clicks await to take us to other places and people if we wish, and on it goes. I know this is old, old stuff by now. But what’s involved in considering if and who and what to link to in a blog? And in the time it takes to create the link? Sometimes a link is simply there as a short cut to information, yes, or as a way of setting up a bit of an argument or response. But I think links can also embody a kind of admiration.

Such admiration of another person or their ideas, or at least attention to them, is always implied, of course, in writing that references the work and stories of others, and in scholarly work will be properly footnoted. But the way the internet is increasingly able to link to sources directly, and to those who build into one’s life (for me, the bones I borrow, and borrow), the admiration is not only more immediate, but deeper in a risky sort of way. It’s like introducing a friend to someone else at a party who may be much more interesting than you are, leaving you sipping at your drink with no one to talk to!

Another example comes my way via Facebook. One friend updated her status by speaking of her discouragement about an art project she was working on. Some time later, she returned to find a whole row of encouragements and also admiration for her work. “It’s truly amazing,” she wrote, “that Facebook (which is derided by so many) can reduce me to productive, cleansing tears.”

There is plenty to critique and to worry about in contemporary electronic communication — its addictive nature, its effects on attention and time, and so on — but there’s also room in it to practice life-giving admiration. Food for others, and food for ourselves.