In search of stillness

Critical Musings

To get the roughly 800 words of this column out of my head and into my computer, I had to change writing locations four times.

I also drank two coffees, bought and ate a sandwich, sent two emails, five text messages and 10 instant messages, spent 10 minutes considering whether I should buy some candy, browsed Facebook at least 20 times and glanced over at my phone approximately every two minutes to see whether its green notification light was flashing.

All of which is to say that I am incapable of concentrating.

I’ve written before about how the need for constant distraction might stem from a fear of engagement or a fear of not living up to your potential. But I’ve never addressed one of the simpler reasons: The places where we work have become the places we do everything else, and that means dividing work from play is a lot harder.

If I take a break from writing this to send an email to a professor, does that qualify as procrastinating? It’s probably motivated by the same desire that motivates me to drift to Facebook, but it is something I’ll need to get done eventually. What if I change the song I’m listening to on Spotify because I know it’ll make me concentrate better? That one is easier to see through.

A recent New York Times article makes the point that being accustomed to seeing social media as a leisure activity means millennials “may be underestimating the value of” social media prowess as a skill. But on the other hand, the flip side of that argument can also be frightening. If we consider our skills in various social media platforms significant enough to put on our resumes, what other seemingly useless skills should we hone?

By feeling the need to procrastinate from writing this column, I have implicitly classified my task as “work.” And in some ways it does fit that definition: I spend a lot of time on it, and it definitely makes its way onto my to-do list. Still, I don’t get paid for writing it, and it probably won’t ever “get me anywhere.”

But if we follow that line of reasoning further, we end up in even scarier territory. According to the UC Berkeley Career Center, as an English major, I have about a 23 percent chance of being employed one year after graduation. I consider my education a meaningful investment of time because I feel like I am working toward something. But what if I’m not? What if I really chose this major just because I love books and won’t really end up gaining anything from it?

There is a never-ending number of articles about how our increasing societal emphasis on busyness has not correlated with increased productiveness (the reading of which, ironically, I have fit into my busy schedule in order to feel productive). Sometimes I fear even the time I spend on school work is in this same business-mistaken-as-productiveness vein. I worry about the system I am buying into.

And then there’s the part that frightens me the most. In pop culture of the past — some from as recent as just 15 years ago — characters like to sit in their quiet suburban bedrooms by themselves and do quiet suburban contemplation. They listen to CDs while they lay on their beds and think melodramatic thoughts. They are alone with those thoughts.

I am never alone with mine. Nothing is ever quiet. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is check my phone for notifications. The same goes for when I get out of class. Not only do I feel my phone ghost vibrate, I imagine that I see its notification light flashing. Sometimes I am awoken in the middle of the night by the premonition that I’ve received an email. I feel real anxiety if my phone is dead and I don’t have a charger nearby. If I can’t remember something, I have to immediately look it up. I can predict what time it is within a five-minute margin of error.

With my phone and my laptop, I have what feels like the entire world in my pocket and on my desk. How can I resist the entire world, especially the entire world in clear LCD? And how can anything compare to the way it feels when my eyes glaze over, and I can just consume all the Internet has to offer without offering anything back? How am I supposed to find any of my own thoughts here valid or interesting when I can search any of their defining keywords and find someone else who has said it better?

A few weeks ago my phone charger died so I spent a few days with a little less noise. After an initial period of panic, I did feel better. But I also hadn’t spoken to my mom in a long time, so when the new charger arrived, I couldn’t help but feel thankful.

Contact Sarah Burns at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @_SBurns.