Sunday, November 26, 2017

The dangers of social media

Every new technology brings, along with its benefits, side-effects, dangers, or problems, some often not immediately recognized.

In a recent piece in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan singles out studies that show that eighth graders who use social media extensively can increase their risk of depression.   "Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide," he writes.

Smartphones in particular have increased isolation and anxiety in an entire generation while also impairing cognitive functioning.  The article doesn't mention the risk to ADHD youngsters, but I am told by an expert that over-reliance on such devices can be addictive.

A striking insight provided by Sullivan: even when people are avoiding the temptation to check their cell phones, the mere presence of these devices impacts their ability to listen and learn.

The problem of being distracted also concerns Richard Rohr, the Franciscan guru whose daily online meditations I read.  He is concerned about obstacles to being present to the moment and to others.  He says that every religion values the sanctity of the now since reality (God) is to be encountered only in the present.

Today, says Rohr, we have more obstacles to authentic presence than at any time in history.  We carry them in our pockets, "vibrating and notifying us about everything and nothing. . . .Most of our digital and personal conversation is about nothing.  Nothing that matters, nothing that lasts, nothing that's real."  It's possible to waste years in our lives doing such nothings.

I would conclude that we must, as with everything else we invent, use the new media in moderation.  Otherwise we risk missing out on what matters in our own lives.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Making Friends with Death

November in Florida is deceptive: trees show little or no color, and although some leaves fall, most trees (oaks) shed their dead leaves in January but the branches are quickly replenished with new buds, a sign that death and life are inseparable.

But wherever we are, November for many Christians is the month of All Souls, of remembering those who have died, especially in the past year. So my thoughts are reflective, but not morbid, as I try to sort out death as a rebirth.

Stars are constantly dying and being reborn, astronomers tell us, as are cells. In nature the cycle of life and death is played out on every level.  Plants and animals seem to accept this, along with the change of seasons.  As Shakespeare writes, "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."  His character, Hamlet, has a hard time accepting this ultimate aspect of nature, as many of us do.

As Richard Rohr says, "Nature fights for life but does not resist dying. Only one species resists this natural process: humans."  Why is this?

The most obvious response is that animals don't know they will die; they live in the constant present, neither looking back nor thinking ahead.  They cannot imagine losing what we have: an ego--and a store of memories and experiences that will vanish when we leave this earth.

Death for us remains a mystery: we wonder what exactly happens and how and when it will occur. No matter how many deaths I witness vicariously in books and movies, no matter how many people I know pass away, my own extinction seems as unique as my self and is the ultimate source of fear in my life. I don't know what kernel of myself will live on--some essence of me will live on, I know--but the true self or soul or whatever we call our spiritual center is a mystery.

I want to believe, with the theologian John S. Dunne, that some super-consciousness will remain as I enter the long sleep; but I can only hope that this might be so. I must face the unknown, ending "the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to" (Hamlet again) for an eternal something in which, I trust, my identity will survive, even without my body.

How to know all this intellectually and be okay with it emotionally is a great challenge.  Every day we hear of death and easily assume it is happening to others; we forget that death is all around us, not merely waiting at the end of the road, but as a presence within us, an inherent part of life; it coexists in the nature we share with the universe, as we see in the trees of autumn, dying now to be reborn again.

Somehow I have to come to accept all this and be comfortable with it. I have to make death a friend and not my ultimate enemy.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Fake news and false "facts"

I recently received an email, forwarded by a neighbor, about Japan. The opening statements seemed to be true, but as the list of "interesting facts," as they were called, went on, I saw some surprising statements about Islam in Japan--things like Japan does not give permanent residency to Muslims, the Koran cannot be imported, etc.

Suspicious, I checked at once via Google and found two fact-based websites that were responding to the viral falsehoods about Japan and Islam being spread on the Internet and swallowed by those who like conspiracy theories, false news, and anything that suggests that immigration by anyone with an Arabic or Muslim background should be stopped here in the U.S., as (supposedly) in Japan. 

It turns out that the Greater Japan Islamic League was founded in 1930; today there are about 100,000 Muslims in that country who attend about 30-40 mosques, where one assumes the Koran is used. The University of Tokyo has a Department of Islamic Studies; experts there have denied the list of "facts" in the viral email.

So the email's "interesting facts" were not factual but propaganda of the worst kind since they deceive and distort truth with a malicious intent.  Without truth and trust, how can a society function?  This is the dilemma we face in the age of Trump, where fake news and lies proliferate.

I was glad to see in yesterday's New York Times an article about schools in Italy taking the lead in teaching children to recognize fake news.  The leader of this movement, Laura Boldrini, is quoted: "Fake news drips drops of poison into our daily web diet and we end up infected without even realizing it."  She wants kids in schools to be able to defend themselves from lies.

Bravo for Italy!  Even Pope Francis is dedicating World Communications Day to fake news.  Italy is not alone is try to grapple with the lies that sow confusion in the public sphere and undermine the credibility of powerful institutions, such as the US Government.

The battle against digital deceit has to begin by reminding everyone not to share unverified news; to ask for sources and evidence for statements that seem to be more opinion than fact; and to remember that the internet and social networks can be easily manipulated.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Guns in America: Is there hope?

In the wake of the horrific shooting recently in Las Vegas, in which a lone gunman was able to bring more than 20 weapons into his hotel room, the media have been full of desperate pleas to curb gun violence since those in Washington do nothing but lament.

America seems to be alone in the world in its gun culture; even Australia, which also has a frontier history of independent citizens, was able in time to pass laws that allowed the government to buy automatic and semi-automatic weapons and destroy them, followed by strict gun control laws. The result? a sharp drop in gun-related deaths. Obviously.

Why is America different?  Is our culture not amenable to change?  Is the NRA gun lobby so powerful that strong that lawmakers are afraid to make the changes that common sense demands?  Many experts say that the problem is not the Second Amendment ("the right to bear arms") but the gun lobby.  Yet consider how this country moved from a society in which smoking was widespread in the workplace and elsewhere to the present: in a matter of a few decades, smokers are now in the minority, shunned for polluting the atmosphere.  Somehow, the powerful tobacco lobby was forced by the courts to concede concessions to issues of health.

If smokers claimed freedom of expression as their legal right, they were defeated by the fear of cancer. Yet the gun owners who claim that their freedom under the Constitution is at risk with more control of handguns fail to admit what really is at issue: fear.

The fear of losing one's land, independence and freedom to the federal government is a very powerful culture force inbred in millions of white, male Americans, especially in rural and Western states. This has been exacerbated by the changes in society brought by the civil rights, gay rights, women's rights, and other movements since the 1960s.

Men are usually reluctant to admit how deep-seated their fear of the loss of the "security" that guns provide them is, and this fear seems stronger than any rational argument about the second amendment and the senseless killings made possible by the sale of weapons.  Politicians lack the courage to stand up to this powerful force, embodied in the National Rifle Association, which supports the lucrative gun manufacturing business.

So I am not sanguine about changing cultural attitudes toward guns, although I would like to think that the anti-smoking campaign offers an analogous solution.  Fear in this case is deep-seated, and apparently, sadly, tragically, neither more massacres nor rational arguments for gun control will change the minds of gun supporters.  Ours remains a violent society.

I hope I am wrong. I hope and pray that a commission of our former Presidents Clinton, Obama, and Bush, along with influential people like Michael Bloomberg, might put together the money and muscle for a long campaign that would limit the sale of assault weapons.  But it will be a long campaign. And the political establishment would fight it bitterly, fearful of losing their power.

How does trust gain power over fear?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Loneliness in the Workplace

As one of the many minor victims of Hurricane Irma as she blew through Florida recently, depriving us of power for several days, I found myself relying on silence, relishing the absence of the media, but missing the Internet. Gradually, I became restless and anxious (When will this be over?). Perhaps the main feeling was one of isolation. No one could telephone us for more than a week.  I again realized how much we humans are social creatures who need communication.

So recently when Linkedin sent me a discussion of a topic raised by the Harvard Business Review about the serious problem of loneliness at work, I immediately identified. Even without the benefit of a power outage, I know that a writer, and anyone who spends much of the day looking at a computer screen, has a life of isolation.  Often solitude is essential for the creative spirit, for contemplation. So we need some solitude, some private time and space.

But being alone can also lead to the sad feelings of loneliness, of being dis-connected from others.  And many people I know either teach online or work online or, like the many employees I encounter in stores and restaurants, have no opportunity to have a real conversation.  I think of mail carriers, lawn cutters, and cleaners as well as the many widowed and elderly people who live alone, isolated from a community or family. Some say they barely speak ten words a day to another person.

The Linkedin discussion brought up some interesting reasons for our "epidemic," as the original HBR article called it.  Matthew Giarmo, a psychologist, writes that we value the number of connections we make with people on social media and elsewhere rather than the quality of these connections. They are often not real relationships.

In the workplace, he says, we are told that the less you speak, the less you risk "inappropriate self-disclosure" and "boundary issues" designed by the law to protect our privacy. In addition, the work itself is often scripted and designed by software and is more mechanized than it used to be. As a result, we are often disengaged from our work and our fellow workers. 

Another writer, an extrovert, tired of eating lunch alone, feels isolated because his job in IT involves forced relationships or the kind of artificial connections made by Facebook.  Another person writes that the demand for productivity and efficiency leaves little room for social interaction or thoughtful interchange with others. Corporate America fails to recognize that innovation is the result of the exchange of ideas, yet many companies have employees who feel unheard, lonely, and undervalued.

Add to this the fact that few people have more than one close confidante, one real friend who has the time to listen to them.  And the over-reliance on electronic devices, which, however useful, are no substitute for person-to-person exchanges.

No wonder we lavish money on pets: They seem to listen patiently and are not into productivity. No wonder we have problems with drugs and alcohol. No wonder relationships and marriages are often affected by the stress of employees, who may be productive but are unhappy and often unable, I suspect, to articulate why they are unhappy, the way those responding to this article have done.

I am glad that my first experience with Linkedin has been so revealing. I hope the online conversation leads to some solutions in the workplace.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Compulsive Higher Education

In the fine TV movie of "A Dance to the Music of Time," set in the 1930s, an Oxford don asks a new student, "Are you happy?"

He replies that he is not, that too many students are there to drink and have fun. Some things never change.  I can't imagine professors today asking such a question of a college freshman, in part because they already know, in most cases, what the answer is. They can tell by looking at their bored, passive faces or reading their lifeless essays.

They know what I observed for years dealing with thousands of new students at a large state university: that most of the freshman are there because it is expected--by their parents, their past teachers, their future employers, and their peers.  Not going to college (a four-year, preferably residential school) is not cool. It is supposed to be the dream world at the end of twelve years of compulsive education.

Frank Bruni in a recent NYTimes column  (9-3-17) talks about the loneliness of many new students at universities and their tendency to drink in order to forget.  He says what many of us know: that college is over-sold to students. From elementary school on, it seems, studying hard and getting good grades will mean acceptance at a good university, which will please the family and mean a chance at a good job--along with bragging rights by all involved.  And dropping out to learn about life, to see the world, to learn a trade is looked down upon.

This results in compulsive higher education. How often I have looked at the faces of freshmen who have come with high expectations having little to do with studying. In fact, they don't read much, or enjoy the life of the mind, probably because it's unfamiliar to them.

To return to Bruni's column: he says college in America isn't merely oversold to teenagers as a rite of passage. "It's a gaudily painted promise. The time of their lives!  The disparity between myth and reality stuns many of them, and various facets of media today--from social media to a secondary school narrative that frames admission to college as the end of all worry--worsen the impact."

No wonder there is too much drinking, some drugs, too many parties, reckless behavior at fraternity or sorority houses and too much depression.

A four-year college education is not for everyone, nor is it a fundamental human right. It is for those who have a career goal that requires the advanced study that our fine universities and colleges provide.

I am glad to see more and more young people taking a gap year to learn a bit about life outside the classroom. I would like to see more high school counselors promote technical programs that don't require a four-year degree--and more parents encouraging their kids to gain some life experience rather than landing, alone, in a college lecture hall with 450 other students, most of them prepared since early childhood for the great "college experience," which sometimes isn't so great.

Advice to parents: check out the drop-out rate at the colleges your kids plan to attend and explore some of the reasons for these drop outs.  Such data is not widely advertised.

Friday, September 1, 2017

How real is the past?

I visited my 96-year-old friend Mary last week. Although her bones are wobbly, she has lost none of her faculties. Her long-term memory is especially alive with stories of World War II and life on Long Island 60 years ago, and she comes alive in telling these stories.  She finds joy in "re-living the past" without being trapped by guilt or needing to re-hash old grievances.

When she said, "the past is not over and done with," I thought of William Faulkner's famous statement: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
This seems to mean that the present is unreal, that "right now" is always becoming the past and so does not exist.

I will come back to that. After seeing Mary, I happened to find a cache of old family pictures and high school memorabilia; and before finding a new home for them, found myself being pulled back more than 50 years, thinking of friends as they were then and convincing myself, for a time, that they were as alive to me--and as real--as the images of long-gone actors on the screen, which deceive us into thinking they are still alive.

It almost like the delusion that doomed the tragic protagonist in The Great Gatsby, who was convinced he could repeat the past, that somehow he could recapture Daisy as she once was, as if the intervening years had not occurred, as if he could extend his remembered past happiness into the present.  Poor Gatsby.

Someone said that the past is always a work in progress. I think of this often when I read biographies that re-visit familiar figures from the past and bring them "to life."  What is happening, of course, is that the reader (like the historian) is re-interpreting through the imagination a new version of what the past might have been.  Augustine, back in the 4th century, saw in his reflections on time in the Confessions, that memory and imagination are related, almost interchangeable.

All our experiences are filtered through remembered events as they become part of our past.  In saying this, I am neglecting my spiritual conviction, often called mindfulness, that tells us that only the present moment is real. God, Ultimate Reality, is revealed to Moses as "I AM." 

The contemplative mind, whether following Christian or Buddhist practice, pushes aside the past, which is as unreal as the future; in this way only the present moment, fleeting as it is, can give us access to the kind of timeless present found in meditation--and evoked by T. S. Eliot in his later poetry.

Many poets have sought those timeless moments "in and out of time" that hint at eternity, just as mystics try to find words for the inexpressible moments of union with the divine.  Great poets are mystics in the sense that, for them, past events, recalled by the memory and enhanced by imagination, live on in the mind and in their art, which is impervious to time.

So I think that it is to great writers, especially poets, that we must turn for a proper response to Faulkner's idea of the past, which I think of as a work in progress; it often tries to snare us into thinking that it's real.