As I lie in bed last night, I thought about a new habit we've all subtly fallen into during the pandemic. It's not one I'd considered before, because it seemed for a while, at least for me, to satisfy a deep need. The habit is being in constant communication with each other.
With significantly less in-person events, we originally moved as many as we could online. Concerts, workouts, art exhibits, spiritual community, and other social gatherings, even weddings. Zoom became the community center of the Internet. What I'm more interested in here, though, is the way we communicate with each other individually, or in small groups, now that we can't see each other in person.
Screens take time
I used to be proud of my low screen time. I already work online, so I wanted to get away from technology for the rest of the day whenever I could. Last year, though, that changed. I could no longer ask friends to grab lunch, go to a show, come over for a puzzle, see a movie, and most of all, work together with the other 1Passworders who live here in Portland.
I remember when Alexander joined the team in late 2019, he lived a quarter mile from me, so we'd work in cafés once or twice a week, and I usually spent one or two of my days at them on my own as well. We've replaced all that. All the coworking time, the lunch-dates with friends, and the regular dates too. I'm concerned with this replacement, which isn't just more screen time, but more dopamine-oriented interactions that we find yourselves getting with text or voice messages.
Sure, I have some deep conversations with friends that way, but the quantity far outweighs the quality. And what I want to focus on here is not even so much the quantity (since that can sometimes be a reflection of fun banter), but constant connectedness that this environment creates. It's a false sense of connection as well – you're quite literally connected to a slab of silicon, not a person.
I stumbled on this topic when I was relating to Kaitlyn, another coworker and friend, about how we've shifted the way we listen to music. I'd say we consume it now more than we listen to it. I was realizing that the playlist system Spotify promotes mirrors the constant hopping we do with media, communication, and context in general nowadays.
Discover Weekly was the target of my discussion here. I find myself listening to it early in the week, really enjoying it, and discovering new songs each time, thankful for that. I add them to my yearly or seasonal playlists, possibly add albums related to those artists to my Play Later, then move on.
My first question was, Wait, why am I moving on so quickly? But then I got more specific and asked myself, Why do I listen to music while I'm working? It almost seems to be the antithesis of listening if I'm doing something else, right?
If anything, I'm passively listening. But it really feels like lately music has become my heart and soul's substitute for green tea at 10am. I suppose that could be fine if you have some appreciation for what you're consuming – I, in passive listening, often do not.
This is probably going to change how I listen to music. I've long been an advocate of the album experience, but I've noticed lately how little I actually listen to lyrics most of the time. Amusingly, my subconscious still seems to pay attention to them, because whenever I intentionally listen to or read lyrics for songs I like, I find I connect even deeper than before – perhaps this is thanks to the artists doing an excellent job of "syncing" the music itself with the message, which is not the case in something like Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks" (intentionally ironic, I'm sure).
An eternal interlude
I wrote a poem in the winter a few years ago that felt somewhat relevant. Amusingly, I recently threw it away. It begins:
All that we consume is all that we are
And all that we are is consumed
By ourselves, others
It seems eternal
Clearly this was written in the depressing depths of a PNW winter. I still don't know what I meant by it, which is an amusing thing about taking in one's art a few years after it's created.
Breathing the morning air
To combat the isolation, loneliness, aloneness (they aren't the same), and physical disconnection from the people I care about, I find ourselves sending messages to them throughout the day. In the early days of the pandemic, I FaceTimed and Zoomed a lot more, but got burnt out enough on that to save it for special occasions. I used to call friends when I was doing dishes, cooking, or cleaning, but now I actually find myself less interested in doing that, perhaps so starved of in-person connection that the "substitutes" no longer work.
So we turn to sending text, voice, or video messages to each other throughout the day. These are almost always short, and not a replacement for quality time – my top love language. They're also not like sending a letter, since the thought put into them is lacking and they aren't read with as much intensity. For me the past few months, though, I sure felt like they could be. I tried to make them all those things. Then I realized the effects this constant connection was having on me.
If I were looking at my current situation from 2019 eyes, I would say that I don't get enough alone time. You're probably thinking that sounds ridiculous – I live alone, only have a few close friends, and only see them once a week or every other week.
But being alone and enjoying a book, movie, album, or nice dinner while in constant communication with your friends is not alone time. Especially for someone like me, who's always looking to serve the needs of others and make people like me.
Paradoxically, instead of taking a break from these things, I find myself doing more of them. I spend a great deal of emotional energy on text and voice messages. And until this week, I didn't even realize how much that was. This morning is the first time since backpacking in September that I haven't started the day by responding to other people. I started it by reading Vivek Murty's Together and writing this. It's been refreshing.
We start our day at the beckon of others. I was amazed that I'd never heard or considered that before. I already spend most of my day at work responding to coworkers in Slack, customers via email, etc. I've spent most of my career in the customer service industry, which is built on the response mindset. Even when I was a writer at Envato, I was writing what my editors or readers wanted.
This is an ever-present part of being human, from what I can see, so I'm not saying we should leave it behind and escape it. Besides, I like to feel needed, so I'm happy keeping it around. What I'm hoping to do here is shed light on the disconnection that it can create from ourselves. If it's something I've experienced, I'm sure I'm not the only one.
If we're not taking time out of our day to connect with ourselves, and not share things, tell a friend about it while it's happening, etc., then we're living at the whim of others. As someone who's working on his codependency issues, that's a really helpful thing to realize. My favorite daily practice is to take a walk during lunchtime and another when I get off work. I wrote a short poem about yesterday's, so we'll close with that:
I just had a most beautiful walk.
The rain had just stopped, all the moss and grass becoming vibrantly green.
The birds brought the cold, leafless trees to life with their song.
The scents that would often escape me were contained slightly longer in the thick air, ready to be absorbed.
A woman escaped her home via an upstairs window to perch on the roof for a cigarette. She waved at me as I passed by, smiling.
A dog and his human encountered me on the sidewalk. He excitedly said hello, and when asked of his breed, his human said he was part golden, part deer. An illustrious creature.
If one needs a reminder of the PNW’s ability to enchant the ordinary, this is one.
And with that, let's be off to mindfully start our day.