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.