Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Addiction and digital media

Are we hopelessly hooked on digital media?  People like me, who have cell phones but seldom use them but check email and rely on the internet daily, are not; but all around me I see people obsessed with their smartphones.

Americans spend about five hours a day on their digital media, most of it on mobile devices.  Students at Baylor University, according to one survey, said they spent ten hours a day using their cell phones, but that number may be low.

On average, Americans check their phones 221 times a day; and a Gallop Poll last year reported that  people checked their phones less often than their friends.

The data comes courtesy of a review-article by Jacob Weisberg (in the New York Review of Books) on the latest book by Sherry Turkle, the MIT researcher who has been studying the psychological effect of social media on behavior, including conversation.

Reclaiming Conversation (Turkle's important book is not anti-technology but presents a wake-up call to the 21st century, contending that the communications revolution of the past two decades has degraded the quality of human relationships.  We all know about parents distracted from their children or people driving while texting or eating dinner with the smart phone replacing live talk.  I remember teaching a college literature class where, as if to avoid eye contact with me, most of the students were looking at their laptops, perhaps checking emails or material unrelated to the discussion. We were in separate worlds.

The effect of the smart phone on dating is one of the many areas of concern to researchers like Turkle: how can young people develop a relationship if they are mainly absorbed in the messages and music of their cell phones? If they feel disengaged from busy parents and teachers, they might also be alienated from friends and partners--and from solitude.

As Jonathan Franzen has written (in a piece praising the work of Turkle), conversation requires solitude because "in solitude we learn to think for ourselves and develop a stable sense of self, which is essential for taking other people as they are."

So the issues raised by the addiction to digital media are serious: a loss of solitude, of empathy, of self-reflection, of genuine relationships. I was shocked to read in the Weisberg review that many young people never speak to one another on smart phones: they prefer to type text messages.

How sad that fear dominates communication, hampering interpersonal connections. People walking down the street prefer to look at their smartphones, thus avoiding eye contact with others and feeling safer, presumably.  Are they so fearful of human interaction--or so bored--that they need the constant reassurance or stimulation of their ever-present mobile devices?

Seventy percent of those under age 25 contacted by the Pew survey said that cell phones make them feel freer, and fifty percent said they use their phones to avoid contact with others.  I would think they would not feel freer but enslaved. I worry that their inner lives, lacking time for empathy and unable to be present to others--to listen--will never develop in a mature way.

No doubt it's too early to draw too many firm conclusions from the current technological revolution, but the danger signs are clear.

Franzen, who calls Twitter irresponsible, echoes Turkle's thesis that it's time to act like adults and put technology in its place.  This means that the devices we create are at our service; we do not serve them. And that people of any age must make time to be alone, to be personal, to be human: that is, to be fully present to those around us.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Positive lessons for Lent

For Christians, Lent is time of introspection and penance; it begins with Ash Wednesday ("Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return"), a sobering reminder of our last end.

But the daily meditations I have been receiving by email from Richard Rohr and his Center for Action and Contemplation this year are, not surprisingly, upbeat. I have known for years that Father Rohr is uniquely gifted and a major spiritual master. He combines in a powerful way the best of many worlds: Franciscan spirituality, mystical theology, Jungian psychology, and Biblical reality. The result: dozens of books and retreats that provide a refreshingly hopeful and holistic view of the Bible, Christian belief, and human behavior.

In today's reflection, he typically singles out the problem of dualistic thinking that results from a misreading of the Bible and of religion as dealing with right or wrong. Rohr, seeing the big picture, provides a needed corrective to the negative emphasis of much religious practice because he makes connections others often miss.

He begins today's email newsletter (available at free of charge) with a quotation from D. H. Lawrence about how greatly we fear new things and changing old patterns.  Authentic religion is supposed to challenge us to deal with our own self-renewal and help us change our inner lives, even though human beings do all they can to resist change.

Can we change our perspective on sin, a big issue in Lent?  Rohr says Yes! We all make mistakes, but we are also "sinned against as the victims of others' failures and our own social milieu."  Think, for example, of racism and other prejudices. This for Rohr is what St. Augustine really meant by original sin. The negative notion that has haunted Christianity for 1500 years is that we have inherited a sinful nature. That, says Richard Rohr, was never Augustine's point; rather, it is that we carry the wounds of our ancestors: our sins are not entirely our own. We are, at the core, inescapably good because we come from and are connected to a Creator who is good.
No wonder, he says, Jesus was never upset with sinners; he was upset with people who didn't think they were sinners. His basic message was one of loving understanding and mercy toward our failings since he knew that each of us is essentially good. As Rohr writes, the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good because the soul carries the divine spark of God's essential goodness.

So the Gospel is a hopeful, optimistic text. Those who read it carefully,with the wide-angle lens of someone like Richard Rohr, see that the ones Jesus wishes to exclude are those who exclude others. No wonder Pope Francis and Donald Trump clashed this week in an interesting dust-up: Francis preaching inclusion and mercy, the Donald seeking more publicity as he rants against immigrants.

I need a positive corrective to the negative political propaganda I hear in the media as well as an optimistic approach to faith that does not emphasize hell and damnation. So I am grateful to Richard Rohr for providing the latter.  And for always being human.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Politics, language, and civility

Anyone following the American presidential primary season, especially the Republican candidates, is struck by a tone of negativity and pessimism about the present and future that is unfortunate--as well as by ugliness and a lack of good manners.

Much of this ugliness in language comes from Donald Trump's efforts in self-promotion. His use of crude language, in the presence of families with children, is not seen by most people as a major problem at a time when cable TV and movies regularly use the language of the street. Long gone are the days when "expletive deleted" was part of the political dialogue.

Michael Gerson in the Washington Post is one who has noticed and called him out for being tasteless. He rightly says in a recent piece that Trump's foul mouth is a cover for ignorance and weakness.  His use of the F-word and other vulgar insults seem to be based on the view that such talk is authentic, that people like to hear candidates tell it "like it is."  Yet this is a kind of pseudo-toughness that adds to the overall nastiness of the current public debate.

Profanity demeans people; it is generally cruel and aggressive. But that is the basis of Trump's vulgar style.

What a contrast to the 2008 campaign when Barack Obama emerged on the public stage: poised, articulate, optimistic.  And so he has remained, as David Brooks notes in the New York Times yesterday (Feb. 9).  Brooks is no fan of Obama's policies but praises the outgoing president's integrity and good manners in contrast to today's vulgarians.

He rightly notes that the Obama administration has been free of scandals. This president has appointed people of rectitude and he and his family have been humane and decent.  Brooks doesn't mention that Obama, unlike so many candidates today, thinks through issues and speaks in coherent sentences that require few corrections. He has shown, as Brooks says, grace under pressure, handling the economic meltdown and other major crises with coolness--and without vulgar language.

I was struck by the conservative Brooks's praise of a liberal President for his decency and "elegance" at a time when, sadly, there has been a decline recently in public behavior and speech; the result, as George Orwell long ago warned, is a decline in public life and society as a whole.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

When writers get blocked

In one of my favorite movie comedies, "Throw Momma From the Train," from 1987, Billy Crystal plays a writing teacher named Larry, who is stuck on the opening of his novel.  The movie opens with Larry at his typewriter.

Repeatedly, and with growing frustration, he types, "The night was. .  .dark," and then scraps that and goes in search of other equally silly adjectives, hoping for the perfect word that will get him going, as if a strong opening sentence will lead to another sentence, and so on.

What kind of writing teacher is Larry? Maybe he deserves the student from hell, Owen (Danny DeVito), who has a mother from hell; she must be seen and heard to be believed.  See the movie if you haven't.

Larry should know that trying to get it right the first time is pointless: there is no writing without revision, and the opening is usually one of the last things to be redone again and again. Equally missing in Larry's amusing notion of teaching is his stereotyped belief that writers must wait for inspiration, and also suffer, curse, waste paper and time, as if the perfect word and idea will magically appear.

Writers in movies often gaze at the stars, waiting for the Muse to inspire them. It doesn't work like that.

As I tell my students, it's normal and acceptable to write bad sentences; writing isn't brain surgery. It's all about redoing the sentences. The first draft is expected to be rough, and it is by forging ahead and "talking" it out on paper (or screen) that ideas emerge that can be shaped into something readable.

Hemingway, who says he revised the ending of "A Farewell to Arms" 39 times, wrote to a young would-be writer that if he completes ten stories, he throws out nine of them: only one is worthy of publication.

Even though Hemingway exaggerated a good bit, and lied, he was a good craftsman, a wide reader, and had sensible advice on the writing process, such as: Put the work aside until the next day. Know when to stop. And know that the draft will always be there for you to rework.

Writing doesn't have to be frustrating. It is not easy to think clearly, and it takes time and patience and an ability to sit still for a while. But it should be enjoyable, in the sense of fulfilling.  If it isn't, why do it?

Are the half-dozen unfinished stories, and the eight or nine finished but unpublished pieces in my files signs of wasted time? No, they were enjoyable to do because I take satisfaction in re-writing, line by line, until I have something fresh and worth a reader's attention.  I have begun dozens of articles over the years that never got completed, but the time put into them was a learning, and learning should at some level be enjoyable.

I worry about beginning writers who want to be published but don't really enjoy writing or have a sense of language; when they read, they do so for information rather than style. I suggest that they pay attention to the way skilled authors construct articles, stories, paragraphs, and sentences. Being a writer means immersing yourself for several years in the work of good writers before you even consider writing for publication.

Now, how do you know what writers are good?  Don't ask teachers like Larry, who, like Owen in that movie, is a wonderful comic invention with no clue about what writers really do.