Three days into vacation I know I have a problem. Distracted, restless, unable to settle inside, too tired to work and too tense to relax. And I can’t sleep.
The insomnia puzzles me. I’ve gone sleepless when depressed or battling some particular anxiety, but I don’t feel depressed or anxious now. I’m not sure how I feel. Except maybe topheavy. Like my head weighs too much.
I lie in bed for hours in the dark, twitching my legs every few minutes and thinking about everything and nothing. I have no Off switch.
Then early the fourth morning, while ruminating about ruminating, a word pops into my mind:
That’s how I feel. Like a wire buzzing with too much current.
What stimulation? I ask myself.
And myself answers:
The hours spent reading and writing emails. The blog posts, replies to comments, and replies to the replies. All the posters and comments and cartoons I post to social media every day (fifty in June). Reaching first thing in the morning for my iphone to check for new texts. And carrying it everywhere. To the bathroom, in the kitchen when I’m cooking; checking it at stoplights. And each night, when I finally leave my computer and go up to bed, to lie there beside my wife either watching tv (we’re just finishing Season Four of The Good Wife) or scrolling endlessly on my phone through Facebook.
Shit, I think, I’m addicted.
As an experiment, I decide to unplug for a day.
I shut down my computer. I turn off my phone and put it in a desk drawer. I resolve to ignore my tv.
Suddenly I have more time than I know what to do with. I find myself doing things I haven’t done for as long as I can remember. I sit with my wife and talk over coffee. I plant flowers in the bed by the mailbox. I read for two hours. I invent a new bean dip. I meditate. I sit on my deck and watch clouds.
That night I sleep through.
This is all very startling.
I decide to research this new addiction. From the library I borrow six books on technology. One is Christina Crook’s The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World (New Society, 2015), where I read this:
Deep down, we believe we have control over our mobile technologies; the truth is we make our technologies, but they remake us: the way we see the world, the way we spend our time and the way we value and relate to others. (1)
The problem with high-volume media is that we are bombarded, fragmented, addicted: running from dopamine-hit to dopamine-hit and, as a result, our emotional regulation is skewed. We are fragmented people. (2)
That is what is bad about technology as we commonly think of it: even though we are more productive, connected and entertained, at the same time we ourselves become less functional as sentient creatures…. [W]hen we inundate ourselves with technology, we lose our focus and begin to act like machines. (3)
As many as a million young people in Japan are thought to be holed up in their homes, some for decades at a time, spending their waking moments immersed online, reports the BBC…. Japan is the first country in the world to institute state-run “fasting” camps for Internet-addicted children. (4)
At its core, technology is a systematic effort to get everything under control. (5)
That last is the one that gets me. I am, as you know, all about control.
I need to know more about this.
This will be the last blog post you receive from me for a while.
I have decided to go offline for the month of August.
No blogging or browsing. No Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. No emails in or out. Texting only in emergencies.
When I come back I’ll write some posts about it. Maybe even a book.
It’s a little scary, like most surrenders.
Part of me whispers Are you sure you want to do this?
Then I realize that’s Bert’s voice. Bert, the control addict in me.
We decided we don’t want to be addicted, remember? I say back to him. So yes, I want to do this.
So here goes.
See you in September.
(1) Crook, 44.
(2) Crook, 57.
(3) Aiden Enns, publisher of Geez magazine, quoted in Crook, 63.
(4) Crook, 112.
(5) Albert Borgmann, quoted in Crook, 44.
From Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop by Steve Hauptman (Lioncrest, 2015).
Chapter 53: Tradeoff
To get control in one place you must surrender it in another.
~ The Third Paradox
I once met a speedcuber, one of those people who could solve Rubik’s Cube in sixty seconds. Nice friendly young guy. I sort of hated him.
I was jealous. Life always felt to me just like one big insoluble Rubik’s Cube. I could never get things under control on all sides at once. The harder I tried to make one side of my cube all one color, the more infuriatingly multicolored the other sides got.
It’s still like that. I still can’t get everything right at once. I can see clients, or do chores around the house. I can spend time with my family, or work on my book. I can go to dinner with friends, or watch my weight. I can keep up with my professional reading, or read mysteries to relax. The one thing I can’t do is everything. I’m trading off all day long.
I am not alone. Every day I talk with people whose determined attempt to get control over one area of their lives triggers a loss of control in another. Like
The drinker who uses alcohol to manage his feelings, then loses control of his health.
The careerist who achieves success and status at work, but becomes estranged from his wife and kids.
The compulsive mother who makes her children the focus of her existence, then loses her husband to an affair.
The depressive who successfully hides his feelings from everyone, then one morning finds himself too exhausted to get out of bed.
And so on.
Earlier I mentioned Fritz Perls’ idea that all attempts at self-change will trigger a resistance from deep within ourselves. That seems to be how change works in the larger world too. The more we try to force reality to meet our expectations, the more reality pushes back.
It is a point made by cautionary tales as old as Midas and Scrooge, and as modern as Jurassic Park.
And it is especially relevant to those of us who struggle with addiction to control. We should remember that, in the world of feelings and relationships no less than the physical world, Newton’s Third Law of Motion pertains. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Or, if you prefer: Every yin seeks its yang, and vice versa.
But the scales always get balanced somehow.
The same point is spelled out in a letter to Carl Jung from one of his longtime patients:
By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive, and by accepting reality — taking things as they are, and not as I wanted them to be — by doing all this, unusual knowledge has come to me, and unusual powers as well, such as I could never have imagined before. I always thought that when we accepted things, they overpowered us in some way or other. This turns out not to be true at all, and it is only by accepting them that one can assume an attitude towards them. So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow forever alternating, and in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus everything becomes more alive to me. What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to the way I thought it ought to.*
*Quoted in Stephen Cope, The wisdom of yoga: A seeker’s guide to extraordinary living (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), 136.