As many of you know, I have been a concerned critic on the topic of technology. Particularly, its effect on our ability to relate to each other and on consciousness in general. But today, in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I feel moved to express my gratitude for technology and specifically, the modern device known as the cell phone -- for one unexpected reason, which I will lay out with a story.
As I approached the park where my daughter's fourth-grade class was holding a running race, I spotted a huge group of parents huddled together, anxiously awaiting the appearance of our children. Enter my friend, the cell phone -- and my gratitude. Suddenly, my silent device found its way to my ear and that was that... problem solved. For its uncanny ability to save me from the ritualistic and repetitive exchange of information that we call small talk, I bow in gratitude to technology.
I speak to people for a living, so I feel somewhat qualified to make the following claim: There are people who do indeed enjoy small talk, but many people hate it. Regardless of where we fall on the spectrum, however, there is an enormous pressure to engage in it. If you ask people (after a small-talk conversation) if they had wanted to be in the exchange that just occurred, often, amazingly, both people will report wishing they could have avoided it. This is the fascinating part. Neither person wants to be doing it, and yet, like well-trained seals, off we go, our mouths moving without our consent, making noise, as we simultaneously wish we could just be quiet. This brings me to the next question. Why do we feel we have to? Why do I (ironically) hold up a cell phone to keep me in a chat-free zone? What are we afraid of in the silence? Meeting ourselves? Losing our minds? Death?
Technology creates noise in the mind. Our devices keep us jacked up, distracted, away from ourselves. Talking, checking, searching, playing -- technology makes sure there is always something for the mind to do. We never have to face our difficulty with being still or being with ourselves. Furthermore, technology strengthens our belief that the answer to our discomfort, distraction and inability to be where we are is somewhere to be found in the distraction itself, somewhere in the infinite morass of the information technology offers. While we claim to be learning all sorts of new and important things, mostly we are learning how to keep the internal chatter going and stave off our ever-increasing fear of silence. To steal from the movie Spinal Tap, technology has turned the mind's volume up to 11 when the dial is only set to reach 10.
We are terrified of silence. And yet, tragically, what we fear is precisely what we crave. In our deepest hearts, quiet -- relief from the inner and outer noise -- is what we long for. In truth, we do not want more ways to make our mind screech, we want to be able to stop the screeching and be where we are -- within ourselves.
In this culture, to be quiet while in company is viewed as a rejection of the other. In order to acknowledge being together, we believe there must be words, to document the experience. And yet, when we crave silence, it rarely has anything to do with the other. Rather, we simply want to be in company with ourselves -- nourished by the silence that sits under all the noise. Our desire to refrain from small talk is about longing to turn down the volume of life, and stop trying to fill up every moment with contents and chatter. The longing for silence is a longing to stop effort-ing -- to come home to the stillness that is our essence. Deep down, we know what we need and it is not more noise.
So in honor of Thanksgiving, I express gratitude to and for my cell phone -- not for the "more" that technology offers, but for the "less" that it paradoxically can provide. I bow to the power that technology holds to keep us in the silence that we so crave -- and so desperately need to stay well. I express my deep thanks to the opportunity that a dead cell phone against an ear can offer: the chance to connect with my own being, to reside, blessedly, in the silence that is our deepest nourishment and truest well-being.
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