"It's a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people
entrapped in the recent careless thoughts
of a Harvard sophomore."
I have been disengaged from social media for several weeks now—no logging in, no scrolling, no posting, no notifications, no nothing. It’s been three days since I logged out of all video streaming accounts—no Netflix, no Hulu, no HBO, no YouTube, no nothing. I am now having to relearn how to think, how to not be distracted.
The other day at work I took my lunch break outside, as per usual. A little fresh air, you know. I ate my homemade carnitas and quinoa, guzzled some cool water, replied to a text, and then realized I still had twenty minutes left on my break with nothing to fill the time other than thinking. Now, thinking is something I adore, but I found myself out-of-shape, panting and wincing far too hard for the task of producing a thought. I pushed back the cuticles on my nails and in my head played through my current earworms.
Two minutes passed. My brain was constipated and the bowels of my mind were exerting excruciating effort to pass a thought, no matter how shitty it might be. I squeezed and squeezed my brain, but nothing really came out. A few clever phrases and ideas here and there that I keep in my back pocket for emergencies, but nothing of substance. I could have made them something of substance if only my brain were able to get over the foot-high hurdle I had set before it. Not only was my brain constipated, but it was also obstinate like an addict or an indolent and insolent child. My brain was a toddler screaming on the floor of a busy and bustling grocery store, and I was the mother both pleading for it to stop and staring it down with quiet, controlled, but highly combustible mother-rage. In the end I picked my brain up off the floor, put it firmly but gently in its place, and went back to work. This behavior would not be allowed to continue. Me and brain knew that.
It’s not that I’m unintelligent, that I don’t know how to connect ideas, be creative. I have, though, been filling the precious spare and uninterrupted moments I have with interruption, distraction, white noise.
I’ve been sleeping with a box fan on high in my room for the past decade. The movement of air helps me sleep, but paramount is the loud yet unobtrusive whirring noise that drowns out all other noise. I could sleep through someone being murdered right outside my door and never know. I could sleep through being murdered myself. It’s glorious. It dulls both the senses and the existential anxiety of being a human alone in the dark. Once I got used to white noise, though, it required formidable effort on my part to fall asleep without it. It still does. White noise lures one into a space where fight or flight responses seem obsolete and vestigial, where all the brain has to focus on is shutting down the body.
To go from white noise to silence is deafening. A cricket chirrup bangs cymbalic.* A wind against the windows registers aggressive and insidious. The sound of my own heart beating in my chest, the gentle thumping between pillow and ear becomes unbearable, a tell-tale sign of the restless night ahead. The hairs on my arms quiver in the air, their sensory perception heightened in the absence of noise. I am left to my hyper-sensitive and extra sensory self and will have fight to fall and stay asleep. Always a good way to start off a period of rest.
Social media, video streaming services, endless amounts of useless information—these are all white noise. I can’t sit on the toilet, eat dinner, hang out with friends, or be with myself without this white noise. What am I supposed to do? Think? Dream? Imagine? Work? What even is all of that? If it’s not posted on social media, if I don’t offer it to the herd as Exhibit A in the case of “Did I Do the Thing or Not?”, does it have any meaning, does it matter at all? If I don’t offer pictures or updates about my party, or homemade chocolate babka†, or grain bowl, new book, nature excursion, art project, day of contemplation, tattoo, pain, depression, philosophy, wine-stained lips, gripes about customers at work…did any of it ever happen? Darker yet, if my life isn’t validated by the emoji reactions of all the humans I have ever crossed paths with—online or in person—is it even worth living?
Bringing a book to lunch always helps, too.
*I made up this word to mean “cymbal-like” because I like it more than “cymbal-like”. Also, if you say “cymbal-like” fast enough it sounds like “cymbalic” anyway. You’re welcome.