If we were climbing Mount Everest’s Khumbu Icefall, sucking thin air into lungs near collapse, blind to anything but the chance to stand at the top of the world, our sherpa would give us the classic warning: pause every third day, and “let your soul catch up to your body.”
We are not, however, scaling the world’s tallest mountain. We are just spending a weekend in a quiet little town in Indiana. And around every corner is some sort of encouragement to let our souls catch up.
New Harmony was home to two separate utopian communities, and then to an oil-money heiress with a deep sense of spirituality and love of the arts. For those of us who adore the place, it remains a utopia. There is no kitsch here, no blaring noise, no greedy jangle of commercial avarice. Poets, watercolorists, historians, and philosophers come for refuge. We have stayed at the New Harmony Inn more than twenty times, and not once have we turned on the television set. Days and nights here have their own rhythm: we rise without an alarm, go for long walks in the morning, revisit the art and architecture, and history, eat lunch, shop, read, sketch, and nap before a late dinner.
Why, then, am I sitting in a comfy chair in our room staring at my phone while my husband and dog snore, one between the snowy white sheets, the other atop the white Shaker coverlet and please God not with muddy paws.
There is no question mark at the end of that sentence, because you already know that I am checking texts and email. Against my intentions and better judgment. And now I see that people need things from me, and the anxiety is rising, and I cannot snuggle up for that nap because I must Look Things Up, search the glass rectangle, reconnect to mundane obligations.
Really, there is no need. Everyone is understanding. Today is the Sabbath. We will be home tomorrow. This is only mental nervousness, a burst of the usual wired energy jolting me back to what has become normal. I am trying to “get a jump on”—what a horrid phrase—everything I will have to do when we exit the decompression chamber of the car and routine snaps back like a fresh rubber band.
How do I stop this? I have always known how to ignore my phone. I prided myself on not being addicted. Not compulsively checking messages, not racing out to buy the latest incarnation, not downloading scores of apps. Yet here was a sliver of possibility, a moment when I was not sleepy, and all I had to do was tilt the phone, let it see my face, and I was in. Too smoothly, too quickly.
The fix will be far rougher. This is not a simple matter of pausing now and then as I risk my life to climb the world’s highest mountain. Before my thin, attenuated soul can catch up to my body, my body has to catch up to my mind. And neither body nor soul can quite catch up to my mind, because it keeps zigzagging, playing its own catch-up game as it chases the technology it was meant to use as a tool.
How much of my neuroticism is shaped by the tech I no longer know how to live without? How much of what I do on my phone am I doing simply because I can?
“What I am against—and without a minute’s hesitation or apology—is our slovenly willingness to allow machines and the idea of the machine to prescribe the terms and conditions of the lives of creatures,” writes Wendell Berry in Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition. Once my calendar went online and could be tucked inside my purse, my schedule could be manipulated at any moment, my time’s commitments rearranged. Once a disembodied voice could tell me where to turn, I lost all ability to see landmarks and visualize directions. Once I put all my contacts, to-do lists, reading list, movie list, birthdays list, shopping list, and bookmarks on my phone—so convenient—it became the locus for fun, work, research, problem-solving, and relationships.
“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being,” Jacques Ellul warned. “The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand.”
Ellul wrote those words in 1954. Did he know their truth would appreciate?
And here is the question that burns beneath all the others—why have we built a world that does not fit us?
That passage I copied from Berry ends, “It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.” I swallow hard, not sure where I would land if I had to choose. My hesitation scares me. I know what I want to want. Creatureliness feels ordained, meant, natural, and therefore superior. But could I toss my phone in the Wabash River right now and never look back? This phone that now contains, or has persuaded me it does, my life?
Again, I want to say yes—at least in theory. Yet as much as I love Wendell Berry, I think his dichotomy a false one. There are a few people at each extreme, but for most of us, choosing is not even possible. We are creatures whose machines overpower them, and we want the machines’ clarity, information, and ease because we are soft-bellied, emotion-ridden creatures. The division is internal, not civil. As David Mattin put it in a recent New World Same Humans post, “We humans are the infinite shackled to the finite and embodied.” Our minds want to extend themselves, roam the universe, connect with other minds, connect the dots. Our bodies sink into moist earth and take root in particular places, breathing and eating and feeling. The trick of this time in history is not to favor one or the other, but to refuse the intoxication that comes with feeling infinite. Stay humble, let go, honor the gentler pace of the body and the even slower movements of the soul.
Instead, we try to move at four speeds at once. The starting pistol sends us out of the gate with every question, request, or project. Like racehorses goaded on by a faster horse in the next lane, we let our tech gallop our minds into a blur, let our minds whip our bodies forward, let the clatter of our bodies’ needs drown out whatever the soul is whispering behind us. I can live like this; I can even—to mix the metaphor, because we are all moving too fast to care—climb mountains this way. But if I do reach the summit, I wonder how much I will see before I collapse.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.