So, there’s good news and bad news, when it comes to making our lives more rewarding, sane, and happy. The good news is, humans are incredibly adaptable. If you change life circumstances on us, we may fear that we won’t be able to handle it or adapt, but the truth is, we adapt far better than we think we will. The bad news is … we also adapt to circumstances that aren’t happy, healthy, or good for us in the long run.
In this sense, we may be in worse shape than the iconic frog in hot water. As my friend Jim Fallows at The Atlantic has strenuously and repeatedly argued, the story about the frog in water that is slowly heated, who reportedly will stay in that water until the frog is boiled (as opposed to when it’s abruptly dumped into already hot water) … IS NOT TRUE. As soon as the water gets uncomfortably warm, the frog will, instinctively, jump out.
Humans, on the other hand, have this great ability to overcome instinct, and adapt to changing circumstances. If we didn’t, we probably wouldn’t have survived this long or built such vast and complex civilizations. But, as my mother always used to tell me, every strength has a flip side. And our adaptability also makes us more likely to adapt to unhealthy circumstances. They become our new “normal,” and we almost forget what healthy feels like.
I found myself thinking about this a lot recently, because I took my first extended, “disconnected,” real and true vacation in … well, if you count the four days in Hawaii that I didn’t work out of an eight day trip, it would be five years. If you mean a complete trip where I left the work at home and wasn’t writing about the adventure for an assignment … it would be 1997.
I went to an remote spot on a remote island surrounded by a whole lot of water for nine days. The computer stayed home. The cell phone, which had intermittent connection because of the island’s mountains, came along for emergencies but only got turned on to check to see if anyone died once a day.
For the first couple of days, like a junkie going through withdrawl, I tossed and turned late into the night, unable to turn my work-oriented brain off. But on the third day, the clamoring voices began to recede. I took my morning coffee out onto the veranda and just sat, thinking of nothing. I watched sailboats go by on the clear aqua waters below and registered the sight without trying to capture that fact into any bigger thought or writing assignment, letting the idea of the ships slide out of my mind as soon as they slid out of view.
I heard the sound of various kinds of birds, and watched as they alighted on the short wall in front of me, and I was aware of the warm sensation of morning sun and the lightest of breezes on my skin. But I let those sensations, too, slide across my mind without trying to capture them.
For the next couple of days, I allowed my mind to go blank. I didn’t even read, as much as just let the tides, sights, sounds, and sensations wash through my mind and body without restraint or thought. And then, finally, I picked up a book and began to read. For fun. Without a deadline.
I even began to wonder, as I saw the morning sailboats go by, who was on them, and where they were going. I thought about voyages, and passages, and all the people on the planet whose stories we never get to hear or know. I turned ideas over in my mind that I hadn’t thought about in a very long time … because I had the time and mental space to do it.
And somewhere in there, I remembered what sanity felt like. I remembered what it was to have a complete, complex, and well-developed thought, without the pressure of having to capture it in some conclusive way and write it down for publication by 2 am. I remembered how it felt to have balance in a day, instead of squeezing inadequate measures of self, sleep, exercise, and time for the relationships that really matter into tiny squares around the endless deadline and “to-do” work list.
I also found myself taking in complete moments and sensations in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I’ve written, over and over, about the importance of being in the moment in terms of feeling alive. But deadlines aside, I realized (not a news flash, but I realized it with renewed visceral experience) that electronic connectivity is inherently harmful to that ability.
Every moment we spend writing on a computer, texting, emailing … we’re focused on either a page, or this link in cyberspace to some other distant person or place. We are unavoidably distracted; incapable of being completely where we are, drinking in the sensations and experiences of the moment we’re in. And with all that connectivity, the expectations of instant response reduce or even eliminate those long stretches of time where complex, well-developed thoughts … or even new ideas or insights … can be heard or grow.
And the question occurred to me: where, in all that connected noise and distracted activity, can any of us grow? The kind of growth that makes us wiser, stronger, and cognizant enough about complex issues to help guide ourselves, our families, or the world through increasingly complex challenges?
We are increasingly connected. If I want to know some obscure fact about Mongolia, I can Google it in a matter of seconds. I can instantly connect with friends in Paris. I can send photos back from Africa without worrying about having to get the film home safely. But every strength has its flip side. And if we immerse ourselves only in connection, we lose something valuable.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay about the power of quiet time, called “Winter Sky” that talked about this very issue. Not related to connectivity, but the point is still worth revisiting, and reading.
As for me … the other thing I realized on that island is that there may be a reason all of us stay so connected that has nothing to do with avoiding being alone with ourselves. It’s because if you disconnect, and remember what sanity and true normal feels like … it’s very hard to go back to the altered, overtaxed state you’d accepted as “normal.” You can do it. It just doesn’t feel normal anymore.