Did I mention that sometimes I feel stuck. Stuck in my habits and distractions. I’m writing this on a fast Sunday. It’s 1pm now, I haven’t eaten since yesterday evening. I rarely make it to 24 hours, the time allotted for fasting, in fact I can’t remember the last time I did it – on my mission? I really like eating. Giving up food is difficult.
I have a phone in my pocket and 20 tabs open on my browser, two of them open to Facebook. I’m a member of a few different Facebook groups and I literally just posted something in one of the groups, and I see there’s a notification up. It’s taking all of the will power I have not to interrupt this post to check it.
In my church, we are asked to give up food and drink for a 24 hour period the first Sunday in the month. We give what we would have spent on food to the poor as a fast offering. We are encouraged to give even more generously as we have means to do so. Linking feelings of hunger to donations to the poor is no accident. There are people hungry because they have no food to eat. Once a month, we are asked to voluntarily come to know what that feels like. We are also asked to pray and direct our fast toward a specific purpose. This time around I’m asking for help with my addictions.
Now, I’m not all that interested in the technical definition of addiction. There’s a debate going on in communities I’m not a part of about whether sex addiction even exists, for example. I’m assuming there’s a debate about other types as well. Can I be clinically addicted to food? Exercise? Work? Again, not interested. I’m talking about addiction in the broadest sense of the word, in a way that likely includes most everyone. Because I think we live in the age of addiction and distraction. And I think it’s keeping me, individually, and all of us collectively, from really experiencing life, reaching our potential, and accomplishing what we could otherwise accomplish.
Or maybe the one thing we actually need to accomplish while we have our bodies is to learn how to really live in them.
I’m making my way through a collections of essays written by an author whose ideas have become somewhat of an obsession of mine, Adam Miller’s, The Gospel According to David Foster Wallace. From his chapter, Watching:
The ease and user-friendliness of TV comes with real costs. TV offers an existential loan that is riddled with hidden fees and backloaded with balloon payments. “As a Treat, my escape from the limits of genuine experience is neato. As a steady diet, though, it can’t help but render my own reality less attractive (because in it I’m just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spend all my time pretending I’m not in it) and render me ever more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasent.” (Quote from “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll never Do Again: Essays and Arguments: New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1997.)
Wallace was at his peak writing in the 1990’s, and at the time, the average American was watching on average six hours of TV per day. I’m sure, the number of hours of actually watching our furniture has dropped since then, but only because we’ve replaced it with different virtual experience pouring in at us from the web.
From the chapter, titled “Assassins”:
An addiction moves from benign to malignant when, like a cancer, the addiction starts to spread and repurpose life for its own sake rather than being one part of that life. When the addiction acquires an entrenched, institutional, bureaucratic aspect that displaces the self and cares for little more than its own preservation and extension, then the head has begun to metastasize. The key moment is when the addiction becomes circular, when the addiction starts offering itself as a solution to the very problems it’s causing. If you drink because you’re angry and disappointed and drinking in turn makes you even more angry and disappointed, then the circle has closed. “What looks like the cage’s exit is actually the bars of the cage.” The addiction is ramping up. Your pursuit of transcendence is robbing you of transcendence. “In a case such as this,” Marathe warns, “you become the slave who believes he is free. The most pathetic of bondage.” (Quotes From Infinite Jest)
So what do we do about our addictions and distractions? How can we learn to live with our bodies. Here are some changes I want to make.
First I want to get enough sleep, at least eight hours. There is so much institutional and societal pressure not to do so. Not only must we succeed, we must succeed at everything and we need to do everything. I have my kids, I want to be a good father. I have my job, I want to do well at that. And to do well at that, I need to be continuously learning on my own time, and of course be working on my own projects outside of work. I have my church. 6:30 AM meetings on Sunday that extend right through the block and beyond. The list continues. Much of this comes at the expense of sleep as activities get pushed into the late hours of night even as my morning obligations stay firmly fixed.
If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not as sharp or engaged. I find myself sleeping during church services rather than really listening to the speaker, with an open heart. I’m not as focused on my job, more prone to distractions. I’m not as smart. My brain is not working through the abstract thought required to program a computer at a high level. Getting enough sleep makes me smarter, less prone to distractions and a better human being. Going through life sleepy is like voluntarily signing up for a handicap.
Second, when I am working, I want to find more time for really focused, distraction-free work. I love the pomodoro technique and I want to do it more consistently. I set the timer for 25 minutes and do nothing but focused work in one area, eliminating distractions as much as possible. After the timer goes off, I take a 3-5 minute break before staring another. After four, I take a 15-30 minute break. Rather than staring at the vast expanse of an entire day,it’s so much easier to really dig in at 25 minute increments with regular breaks. I’ve tried it and it works. I’m more accomplished with less time.
Third, I want to practice listening, to my kids, my wife, other people, even strangers. This can be difficult. I’m in my head all the time. Listening forces you out of your head and into the life of another. Some people are easier to listen to than others. But those hardest to listen to gives me the opportunity to practice really listening. My mom gives me this kind of practice.
There are other things I can do. But here’s my thought. If I really want to “cure” my addictions, the answer is greater engagement with the world. Addiction, I think happens because we want to escape from it. Addiction keeps us in our heads and out of our body. In the chapter, Heads:
Hal’s problem is extreme but not unusual. Heads float free from bodies all the time, especially when they lack focus that connects them. Heads come loose when we get distracted. They come loose when we lose the ability to pay attention. Given the critical importance of such focus, it should be no surprise that for most us, Wallace says, ‘the whole ballgame [is] perspective filtering, the choice of perception’s objects’. Filtered connection is the key. Focused attention is what threads a head back onto a body. (Quote from the Pale King).
The goal is to get out of our heads and into our body. Engaging in the world. This is difficult, because the world is difficult, it’s not user friendly. It’s filled with awkward conversations, difficult encounters with others who may not notice or care about our lives and our difficulties. It’s easier to live in our heads.
I have so many painful experiences in my past where I preferred to stay in my head rather than connect with someone else. I remember, specifically, a church dance, my freshman year in college. Too shy to ask anyone to dance, I stood muted on the sidelines. Someone eventually asked me but I said no. She wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, which was ridiculous really. My expectations were too high, my confidence too low. I soon left the dance room, preferring to spend most of the evening with myself, out of the dance room, and in my head.
Older now, obviously more capable, not as shy, more engaged. But still struggling to get there more consistently, more fully. There are more distractions now than there were back then. More ways to stay away from the world.
The answer is not to kick out every distraction. I shouldn’t have to shun the internet, facebook, and sugar. The internet is an incredibly valuable, essential tool. I love my virtual communities, I love food, movies and television. In their place they can enrich my life, make it better. I just need to not let them be an excuse to avoid the challenges in my actual life.