A sea change, rich and strange

On a morning walk not too long ago, Mr. Garner and I were discussing social media. He doesn’t partake of it, and I was telling him about a few things seen and heard, and I offhandedly mentioned that I had recently reverted to my mother’s sage, and if unoriginal, certainly oft-repeated, advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

I followed this up with the observation that I had been posting somewhat fewer comments on Facebook lately, to which he guffawed loudly enough to make the neighborhood dogs bark. Of course, I didn’t think it was *that* funny.

It has been a long, slow transformation, a sea change. A sea change that has come not just by tempest but through sinking sand. You know how it is.  Walking in the damp sand along the shoreline, pants rolled up, out of the reach of all but the bubbling remnants of surging tide, the sand is firm enough, footprints remain briefly. But if you stop ~ to study a shell, to catch the pelicans elegantly skimming the waves, or to check your peripheral vision for a glimpse of dolphins at sunset ~ your feet become buried in the sand.  Even the relatively gentle action of the waves rushing past your ankles and tickling your toes on the rebound, will displace enough sand that when you lift your foot to move on, you’re suddenly off balance.

I’ve been off balance a lot lately. I first noticed myself stumbling over the shallow and superficial conversations that had become the norm of a weekly gathering. I found myself saying things thoughtlessly, perhaps reactively, because the rate at which the torrent of conversation rushed through the room was such that there was little time to stay engaged and offer a considered or even helpful response.  Voltaire reminds us that “The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right time but also to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” Later, I would ponder certain exchanges and hope that I hadn’t scuffed anyone’s feelings in the way that others had unintentionally (I’m sure…) scuffed mine.

This essay, Candor, helped me regain my balance a bit.  Using as its subject the characters in one of my favorite books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Leta Sundet discusses the original meaning of the word candor, which is not being in-your-face truthful, but speaking from an attitude of grace.

Our world of increased communication is a world of exponentially increased miscommunication, mostly because we have so much contact now with people we don’t know. We now have access to the thoughts and opinions of individuals we will never meet. We don’t know the “backstories” of the authors of most of the blogs we frequent or the YouTube channels we follow. We are not aware who got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, who was abused as child, who hasn’t slept well for three weeks and who has been lonely his or her entire life. People might be anywhere on their journeys toward or away from God for all we know; sins that God has erased from his mind may still be affixed to the internet and downloadable—which is strange to say the least. 

…The key to candor, to a genuine generosity with the people around us, is self-knowledge, a healthy, hearty acquaintance with ourselves, with the tugs and tendencies of our own hearts…What sort of mess would we be in at this very moment if someone wasn’t wishing us well?”

Self-knowledge, a healthy, hearty acquaintance with ourselves; but how to do this when our minds don’t stop to ponder anymore? When our hands are itching for that slim rectangular device that has become so ubiquitous we don’t even realize it? When we fire off a comment or reply without considering? Constantly seeking that dopamine hit, we rarely slow down for the self-examination. We might even think it unnecessary. Surely we are right – all of our social media stream agrees with us. 

It’s a perfect storm; the belligerence of self-proclaimed soju warriors, the demanded apologies and refused forgiveness of cancel culture vultures, the entrenched deceit of the narrative media, the ridiculous advisories of hypocritical “fact-checkers,” the foaming lips of political hacks, then the stunningly Orwellian censorship of anything anti-narrative by social media platforms. It is increasingly difficult to navigate the roiling acid seas of social media. And it certainly isn’t fun anymore.  

Some people trim the sail and “restrict their conversation to the weather,” others resort to posting innocuous memes and Bible verses.  There are those who post a constant stream of family and event photos, and a few in an attempt at self-deprecatory humor, overshare.  Some batten down the hatches by pausing the posts of their “friends” with differing views. Occasionally, with limited success I confess, I have tried to tack and jibe, to sail into the wind, but in a way that makes progress, perhaps attempting to justify to myself my continued presence on an increasingly unsatisfying platform. But more often than not, despite my intended direction, I find myself becalmed, scrolling aimlessly, or worse, caught in a sudden squall, agitated, thumb-typing with heightened emotions, lacking in candor, and taking on water. And for what?

Like many a struggling sailor, I have long felt myself caught between the Scylla of FOMO (fear of missing out) and the Charybdis of mindless engagement. Lately, however, the churning seas of social media have tattered the sails and exhausted the bilge pumps. It’s an unfriendly sea to the likes of those like me.

Over the last few years I’ve read and reread books that remind me that life is lived in person, not scrolled from a device. Florence Williams’s The Nature Fix, Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Christine Pohl’s Living Into Community: Cultivating Practices that Sustain Us, Adam Alter’s Irresistible, and Cal Newport’s Deep Work,and Digital Minimalism; all of these books provide charts and navigation aids to a better way of connecting, a port in a storm. But to sail into harbor and trim my sails…

While reading Tennyson’s Ulysses a while back, both my daughter and I felt deep annoyance that Ulysses can’t be content; that after so long a journey he can’t be satisfied with his wife, his son, and his home. As women we identified with long-suffering Penelope, and felt a rather strong dislike for Ulysses, who can’t wait to get back on the boat.

For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments…
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
 

Interesting, now, to realize that I’m struggling with the same reluctance, to rest from this odd form of travel. I may know that the constant scrolling of social media is a form of addiction, something to do with the desires of my hungry heart, and the need for an hour saved from that eternal silence, of loneliness, and a bringer of new things, following knowledge like a sinking star – the dopamine of the new. But the self awareness doesn’t make it any easier to put into harbor and stay there. With these months of corona virus restrictions, it’s been demonstrably more difficult to resist the siren’s call of social media connections though they have proven to be nothing more than a fata morgana, a mirage, solid as smoke. Even the Church, who used to understand the power of Presence, was sucked in.

I think it may take a new sort of courage, a rechanneling of what drives me, “a self-knowledge, a healthy, hearty acquaintance with myself, with the tugs and tendencies of my own heart.”  As guidance, Cal Newport (Deep Work and Digital Minimalism) calls for an “Attention Resistance,” and suggests seeking deliberate replacements for unhealthy social media habits. For me this means redirecting time spent scrolling to writing, praying, cooking, embroidering, gardening, hiking, photographing ~ all activities that I find meaningful and enjoyable, but don’t always “find time” for.  Newport also recommends establishing intentional IRL (in real life) social time; making conversation in person with friends, family, neighbors.  I’m looking forward to getting better at this, and importantly ~ resisting the need to record any of it for social media.

Perhaps it’s better to approach this as a metamorphosis,
a letting go of one way, but not an end or a death,
instead a sea change ~ rich and strange.

Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

 
Author’s note:  This post was in draft and updated for over a year.  After two years of pondering and then preparation (deleting personal information), I finally deleted my FB account in January 2021. It’s been almost a year, and I haven’t missed it. Life is better! 

 

The painting is The Wave (1889) by Ivan Aivazofsky.  Read about him at The Art Story. 
 

2 thoughts on “A sea change, rich and strange

  1. I am so thankful for your sharing all of this in a way far more eloquent than I could have, but you have expressed my longings so very much. And this is also my desire for my children who will have to navigate this for much longer with peers who know no differently.

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