Learning to be human beings again

Time It was the cover story in Time a short while ago. Being “mindful.” “Present in the moment” is what they used to call it. In our stressed out, multi-tasking society, where there is no “downtime” and no ability to pause and reflect, people are actually running seminars and retreats now where for a fixed number of days people leave their smartphones and Internet behind and learn how to talk only to the person in front of them and pay attention to the taste of food while chewing it.


It seems the basics of living—having a conversation with someone, enjoying a sunset, noticing the world around us (the real world, not the one posted on Facebook)—have gotten away from people. Want proof we’re spending too much time in our fake world of bits and bytes? We have to learn how to be human beings again. Think I’m exaggerating? Read the Time article here.

“There are nearly 1,000 certified MBSR [Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction] instructors teaching mindfulness techniques (including meditation), and they are in nearly every state and more than 30 countries,” says the article. “There are no signs that the forces splitting our attention into ever smaller slices will abate. To the contrary, they’re getting stronger. (Now arriving: smart watches and eyeglasses that will constantly beam notifications onto the periphery of our vision.)”

There are times I wish I could cash in my Member of the Human Race card and go somewhere else…Where I don’t know.

Right after reading this article I was watching a documentary about Liv Ullman. The Norwegian actress was one of Ingmar Bergman’s muses, and if you don’t know who Ingmar Bergman is you’re probably one of those people who spends too much time with your head in a phone.

Liv Ullman was talking about how she learned about her art. She said an essential tool was observing people around her, everybody, at all times. She says when Bergman was on the set of one of his films and technicians were messing with lights and cables and microphones, she’d often turn to see her director studying her. Or someone else. She said he studied people and learned all about them just by watching. When he wasn’t watching people, he’d walk to the edge of the beach or to a forest and just stare out at the sky for replentishment. (Bergman later moved to the very island where he filmed a number of his movies and built a house there, where he lived the rest of his life.)

Lastly, novelist  Donna Tartt recently explained why she liked to write in public places. “When you need a character,” she said, “all you have to do is look up.”

I’ve noticed something, though. A lot of people not only like to keep their heads down in their devices, but they find it odd when you look at or wish to interact with them. They’ve got friends at their fingertips now, so why would they want to talk to you, a stranger, in an environment where they don’t have absolute control. Thus when we’re in public, especially these days, we’re supposed to mind ourselves and not display opinions about or reactions to anything. We’re polite robots, while the gadgets are the real “people”—so at odds with so much of the fiction we consume, whether that be in books, TV shows or movies.

It’s hard, actually, to observe people in public anymore. If you’re not bowed towards your electronic device, you’re seen as a bit odd, someone to watch out for. I’ve tried talking to people at the coffee shop I frequent. Striking up a conversation with strangers, no matter how innocuous, is a lot harder than it used to be.

Coffee shops used to be places where a dull chatter was the norm. Today, aside from the awful hipster music they’re so often playing, there’s usually little conversation. When I try to make some with someone grabbing sugar or some napkins at the condiments bar, I find older people tend to clutch their purses or wallets closer and the younger ones (females, at least) are sure to mention as immediately as possible in the conversation that they have a boyfriend. For example, “Oh, you like New Guinea Highlands roast too?” “Yes, it’s my favorite. —ButmyboyfriendlikesUzuriAfricanblend!” There’s scarcely spontaneous conversation.

Liv and Donna say they observe people to learn. But try doing that. Everyone is supposed to be in their own cocoon, their personal space that extends from the tip of their iPhone to their social media friend somewhere. I know it’s a bit of a leap, but this may explain why so much of the writing I see today is devoid of insight and human perception. It seems more and more of the “serious” writers out there are learning about humanity from their MFA lit classes and that’s why we’re getting an awful lot of stories (or is it a lot of awful stories?) that feel alike, sound alike, have the same elements, read (to me) like everyone is copying off each other’s paper.

I’m impressed by someone’s ability to once again take something that used to be free and natural and bottle it, slap a fee on it and sell it back to us, and impressed by people who think this is a positive development. Imagine seminars to teach us—for a fee!—what we used to do naturally. In a world like this, is satire even possible, I wonder. Godfrey Reggio, the man who brought you Koyaanisqatsi (and if you don’t know what Koyaanisqatsi is you’re probably one of those people who spends too much time with your head in a phone) said the difference with people today is that they live technology; it isn’t in their lives, it is their lives. The natural world, on the other hand, goes by almost unnoticed. It’s something we perhaps make time for two weeks out of the year.

It must seem positively overwhelming when we’re used to getting the world 140 characters at a time.


2 responses

  1. Great post, John. I wish we could sit in a coffee shop and discuss it! I recently heard about forest bathing. Turns out I do this all this time and never knew it. I not only watch people, but I also watch the forest. Carl Jung once said that we can learn everything we need to learn from a tree. Imagine.


    April 18, 2014 at 5:29 am

    • Mr. Jung was a wise man. I should spend more time with the trees myself.


      April 18, 2014 at 5:57 pm

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