“The unexamined life is not worth living.“
About two weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about a couple we both knew. They’d been married for a few years, not too long (I can’t remember how long exactly), and as far as I knew, were very happy with one another. But earlier that day, the wife, we’ll call her Jen, changed her relationship status on Facebook to single. The status change had for some reason popped up on my news feed and when I saw it I had a reaction that’s probably pretty common (no matter how frequently people get divorced) and not all that interesting. I thought, “Holy crap!” or some derivation of that general sentiment. After a quick peek below the post, my initial reaction was forgotten and replaced by curiosity and disbelief that some of Jen’s “friends” had actually “liked” her status. So, after my friend and I finished joking about all the possible meanings and interpretations of an individual “liking” someone else’s divorce–are they reveling in their pain; happy that their friend is out of an unhappy relationship; are they, by clicking “like”, stating their intentions to court the new divorcee (the meaninglessness of such a vapid statement makes the mind reel and the imagination go wild)–and so we went on and joked at the simplicity with which Facebook and other social-media sites try to distill really complicated and at times morally ambiguous events and emotions into trite and therefore meaningless bites of data. It wan’t long after we ceased our rants that we realized we might see the husband, we’ll call him Joe, at an event later that night.
“So do we bring up the divorce?”
“How can you not?”
“I don’t know. It seems wrong. Like we shouldn’t know. [thinking] I haven’t figured out the etiquette of facebook vis-à-vis the real world? It’s odd. I feel a little uncomfortable navigating between the one (Facebook) and the other (everything else).”
He agreed, and we decided that if we ran into Joe the revelation shouldn’t be brought up–though we might ask around the question to see if he would come out with it himself. Part of my hesitation, I realized only later, had to do with my relationship to Jen, which is to say, I didn’t really have one, save on Facebook. I met her only once, and after the initial and sole meeting one us friended the other–not sure who. End of story. But now I had this very personal bit of information about her, one that seemed more rumor than true (though the subject of the rumor was the disseminator herself), and a rumor that to some extent changed my perception of a person I did know well, her husband, Joe. My friend and I discussed why it was that we both felt uncomfortable with this information, and decided that it felt unreal, untruthful, empty of the actual world and human interaction, outside it somehow. That satisfied us at the time, but may not have been the whole truth.
In last month’s New Yorker, Evgeny Morozov published an interesting essay titled, “Only Disconnect: Two Cheers for Boredom,” where he discusses, in part, the concept of “absolute presentness” (“the sudden rearing of the life-process to a point where both past and present are irrelevant”)”, which is a concept that Morozov borrowed from the turn-of-the-century sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel. Simmel, back in 1911, saw that those living in major cities were overly focused on distraction and thoughtless entertainment, at the detriment of self reflection and boredom, the latter of which Simmel prized as vital to a healthy mind and to the betterment of society, uncomfortable though it may be in the moment. Many of the best ideas, Simmel thought, spring from those most oppressing and painful stints of boredom. In order to fully grasp the past, which is to say, the only way to truly understand one’s self, one must be forced to look over the past, to pick up not just those large, life-changing, life-affirming, events, but the small, mundane, and seemingly unimportant events and images constantly moved on from: the kaleidoscope of color the soap made as it dripped from the hand pump and slid into the drain; the way the helicopter looked to slide in the sky, as if the air and ice were the same substance; the way the crowds crossing at the crosswalk reflected the flock of starlings overhead, swelling, then thinning, then gone. These images, without reflection, are very quickly lost to all the other concerns and distractions. Which is a shame, and possibly unhealthy. Our deep examination of small moments, those which happen both constantly and rarely, only upon reflection may reveal more answers about one’s self than one could find in all the self-help books, and all the hours on the psychoanalyst’s couch one could afford. Boredom gives us the space for such simple medicine.
But like most medicines, no one wants to take it. Myself included.
Simmel could have never imagined the world we live in today. Distraction has become the fastest growing business in the US. Radio, movies, television, and my god, the internet–Facebook, Twitter, Google–have as their raison d’etre the abolition of boredom. Their bread and butter come as a result of their customers whiling away the hours with nary a conscious thought. Social media sites are the most insidious in this regard. Their function is to display, in a constant barrage, exactly what your friends are thinking now, what they are doing now, what they are saying now. The past and future, as Simmel predicted, mean very little, and are relegated to server space and personal pages that no one takes the time to look at.
So after reading Morovaz’s essay and thinking about my experience on social media, I began to reassess the experience I had with my friend’s divorce. And while I don’t think that I was wrong in my initial assessment, it seems now that news of that matter, gleaned in such a casual and accidental way, is more complicated than I thought. Maybe, without knowing it, I was put off by the message inherent in her message: that by posting about her divorce viz. her relationship status on Facebook, Jen was indicating that she considered the event of little importance, a causal experience that she was unconcerned would be abolished in the incoming flood of new statuses and links and memes and cat pictures and miscellanea. Such a major “life event” dispatched in that way, strikes me as callous, cold, and rash. And from my (limited) understanding of Jen, she is none of those things. So is it possible that Jen, like so many of us, has become so comfortable with the “absolute presentness” of social media she has become dismissive of the really, actually, truly important things in her life, and therefore the very things that make up her life, that make her who she is? I hope not. I hope it was simply a reaction for which she gave little forethought–though that might be part of the problem too.
And I hope the solution is as simple as finding a way to be bored a couple hours a week. And I hope I and many others can figure out a way to be bored a couple hours a week. Though, how to be mindful of a state that the mind so naturally rebels against, is a difficult question. A quiet library could be one, maybe drawing the curtains at home, switching off the breakers. It is hard, but still (I hope) possible.
[An aside: I’ve (subconsciously (?)) checked Facebook twice while writing this essay.]
UPDATE 11-20-13: On Wednesday, Dec. 4, UB will host Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, reviewed in the New Yorker article mentioned above.