Turn off the white noise to fully ex­pe­ri­ence life

The Province - - Editorial -

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.

Mark Milke OPINION

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