Turn off the white noise to fully experience life
In a world where many people have instant text-messaging, multiple email accounts, several phones, the still-ubiquitous TV screen (now with several hundred channels) and a smorgasbord of unlimited web information, life’s challenges in 2012 are not the ones faced by our ancestors.
Our world requires a conscious denial of opportunities; theirs was about finding a way to eke out a slightly better life than one’s narrow circumstances allowed.
Think back 100 years. With the exception of the tiniest sliver of the population, most people faced daily scarcity. The food they ate was necessarily local (and which limited the possibility for a healthier diet); communication beyond one’s immediate surroundings was restricted to letters and in-person visits. Even for those with phones, long-distance calling was prohibitively expensive, as it was for most families until the 1970s. Scarcity was a fact of life As for vacations, if taken at all, they were close to home or at the relatives. Only the rich could spare the money and time to see exotic locales that many now assume as an annual rite and right.
Such generations, to say nothing of the ones that preceded them, knew scarcity as a fact of daily life. In contrast, today, while poverty still exists at home and abroad, in some places more severely than others — North Korea and sub-saharan Africa are examples — much of the world endures a new predicament rarely considered: abundance.
That’s a better “problem” to face than chronic shortages of food and opportunities. Still, for anyone who wants to live out what Plato called “the good life,” the challenge is to face this fact: if you want a better, more rewarding existence, you have to say “no” more often than “yes.”
Fail the temptation offered by abundance and the waistline explodes, the mind atrophies and the deepest potential joys — discovered through conversation and contemplation and by mastery of some skill, sport, art or career — is sacrificed to a twittered and inconsequential life.
An advantage exists for those who choose the better over the banal. Those who can shut up and shut out the unhelpful distractions long enough to let the useful thoughts and activities into their soul can then accomplish something valuable.
While counter-intuitive, the world will never belong to those who engage every distraction. The world will not build future shrines to those who email, Facebook, text, Twitter and talk their lives away but never had anything useful to say in all their virtual activities; they never took the time to ignore the frenetic present long enough to learn from the past or from some still small voice.
It is not that modern means of communication are without value. Those who can organize others avail themselves of the revolution in communication and technology to raise money for charities, win political campaigns, take down tyrannical governments and even, apparently, disrupt computers in Iran connected to that country’s nascent nuclear program. That is generally positive.
To simplify one’s life away from the endless distractions, it is not that one must become a technological Luddite.
The trick is to avoid letting desire — “appetite” as the ancients called it — descend into the depths of instant gratification that undermines critical discrimination. It is the choice to say “no” to the white noise, to the constant plugged-in life. Forget to do that, and you’ll never hear the real music of life. For example, what would be the point of trekking into the great outdoors but with little music “buds” stuck in your ears and then missing the roar of a river or the call of one bird to another?
The most profound books, the most sublime symphonies and life’s rare beautiful moments result from those who choose to say “no” to life’s many siren calls of opportunistic distractions. Such men and women also have the most impact on the world around them precisely because they found their own solid centre. It is from that solidity that they can then offer others something unique.
Case in point: Had Glenn Gould been raised in the Internet age and succumbed to every possible distraction the world would have missed out on the full actualization of his talents; the world would also have been poorer.
In much of human history, men and women necessarily devoted every waking moment to scratching out a basic life of subsistence. In 2012, our challenge is to block out the avalanche of cheap opportunities that can make us satiated, content, oblivious and dull.
Mark Milke, the director of Alberta policy studies at the Fraser Institute, is a columnist with Troy Media.