This past Saturday evening, I found myself standing in the middle of the kitchen with a stick of butter in my hand and absolutely no idea what I’d intended to do with it. This was concerning to me, given that not thirty seconds before, I had opened the fridge with no clue what I was trying to retrieve from it. Apparently, I had remembered—butter!—and then forgotten again in the time it would take a competent adult human to spell a-m-n-e-s-i-a. “What am I trying to do?” I wailed to Dan, who was busy preparing dinner. He looked at me the way one might regard a self-cannibalizing pet*, equal parts concern and WTF?!
*We once had a hamster named Pickle who gnawed his own leg to smithereens. Better, I suppose, than our mouse Minnie who, despite her chummy name, ate her two little terrarium-mates one weekend when we were out of town. We don’t have the best track record with rodents.
Brownies. I was making brownies. I couldn’t seem to hold that thought still in my focus for longer than twenty seconds though. After re-finding my place in the recipe, I deposited the butter in a double boiler and then looked around the kitchen feeling lost and fragmented. All I really wanted to do in that moment was pull my smartphone out of my pocket and retreat into the lull of social media streams. The impulse was so strong, so insistent and sudden and reactive, that it startled me more than my memory lapses had done. Was I really about to soothe my disengaged mind by disengaging further?
I finished baking in a kind of unsatisfied stupor.
/ / /
On Sunday afternoon, a friend texted me saying she’d noticed we weren’t at church that morning, and was everyone well? I read her text and then mentally added it to the long list of messages awaiting my reply. Of course I should have written back immediately. It would have taken a single minute of my time and then been off my mind, plus it would have communicated my very real gratitude for her concern. Texting for me, however, has always taken on a form of Gestalt psychology in which my reply is weightier than the sum of its parts—the minute of time it takes, the choice of wording, the motion of my finger on the touchscreen. Entering a conversation requires my presence.
[Cue the overwhelm.]
Text messaging. WhatsApp. Voxer. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. Instagram. Each one a little universe full of people I care about, people to whom I want to give my full energy, attention, and emotional engagement. It’s not possible though, at least not considering my personality** and the creaking slowness with which my brain changes direction. I want to be present for all, but I can’t, and my extremely unhelpful coping strategy is to check out. Use social media to escape rather than engage. Let the faint interactive buzz of clicking “Like” substitute for the warmth of hard-won connection.
** ISTJ for you Myers-Briggs folks, Type 4 for you Enneagrammers. Basically, I’m an introvert who overthinks everything, including which personality test highlights this the best.
Tucking all these potential conversations away into spare pockets of my brain for later retrieval only serves to make me more fragmented, but the more fragmented I become, the more compulsively I scroll through social media in search of distraction. It’s the worst kind of loop, the kind that leaves me guilty and tired and replaces a section of my brain with Swiss cheese every time I pass “Go.”
I still haven’t replied to that text.
/ / /
Everyone and his Great Aunt Ruth knows that to make it in the online world these days, one needs to be both proficient and prolific in social media. This has a way of freezing my fingers cold on the keys.
If I can’t generate frequent snack packs of content throughout each day in addition to these slow-cooked posts, then am I in the wrong field? How are other writers able to be “on” for so long and in so many places each day without flying into a billion brittle bits?
I know the answer, of course, or at least some of its nuances. I know that personality and temperament have more of an impact on us than we often realize (more on this in an upcoming post) and that some good folks derive energy from the very things that sap mine. I know that a tremendous amount of work is often tucked into the archives of success, that diligence has its reward and its cost. I know that the sacrifices behind the scenes of others’ art might put my small concessions to shame. I also know that one size was never meant to fit all, no matter what the business experts claim.
Still, opening Twitter feels like smacking myself repeatedly in the face with a flunk card.
/ / /
I confess that while part of me feels snubbed every time a friend announces that he or she is sick of social media and wishes to get rid of it forever, another part of me completely understands. It’s not from the social media itself that I want freedom but from my own responses to it, the stress and disconnect and addiction and guilt, the impulse to self-soothe by scrolling through contacts’ photo streams, the wild-eyed withdrawal from conversation. I’d like to think that this is what my friends have meant as well—that we’re sick of the versions of ourselves we encounter when we reach for our smartphones.
This confession doesn’t come with a moral or with a list of tidy solutions. I will still be a terrible texter and a flaky Facebooker when the sun comes up tomorrow. (If you’re one of the ones waiting on a reply from me, I am sorry and can offer you contrition brownies if you come over.) Rather, this is my way of looking the beast in the eye and owning the reflection of myself I find there. It’s a truth-telling exercise. It’s a return to engagement, slow-cooker style.