My laptop is open on the coffee table; I am striking away at the keys. Within reach are a few journals, some books on philosophy, my iPhone, and an arsenal of spices. This is not all. Headphones come and go. Pens, placemats, keys, bottles, and dollars all vie for their place on the glass surface. When I have company, most of this detritus is hurriedly tossed in a drawer.
One of these objects, however, never suffers this fate. It never moves, but it moves me. It never rings, but it silently screams for my attention. I turn on airplane mode. I disable email alerts. The item is face down on the table. But this remedy is only temporary. With total automaticity, I soon reach for it.
I know what’s happening, but I can’t stop myself. My dopaminergic system – honed over millions of years to crave social cues – has been hijacked. My brain craves the surge of pleasant neurotransmitters when I notice a text, email, or Facebook update. I simply want to feel accepted by the tribe. My intellectual maneuvering, it seems, is powerless to stop the reptilian machinery that now controls my movements.
This time, the screen shows nothing interesting. No happy drugs are released into my blood. I unlock it anyway. Perhaps, I muse, I missed something earlier. Of course I didn’t. The phone goes back on the table, screen-down. But this remedy is only temporary. With total automaticity, I soon reach for it. I can continue this story as long as you like.
As a species, we’ve waded into an intellectual crisis. Our collective attention span compares unfavorably to a starving squirrel at the start of spring. Books have been set aside for Buzzfeed and Twitter. Conversation for a few texts adorned with the latest emoticons. And who takes the time to write a thoughtful letter anymore?
Before email, the handwritten note was the sine qua non of correspondence. Real effort was put into these epistles. A quick email, rife with linguistic errors and mundane verbiage, was simply not an option. Friends might communicate only once per year, so every word was chosen with care. The Roman philosopher Seneca was a master of this art.
“The book you promised me has come,” he wrote his friend Lucilius. “I was intending to read it at my convenience and I opened it on arrival without meaning to do any more than just get an idea of its contents. The next thing I knew the book itself had charmed me into a deeper reading of it there and then. […] All the time the sunshine was inviting me out, hunger prompting me to eat, the weather threatening to break, but I gulped it all down in one sitting. It was a joy, not just a pleasure, to read it.”
There are two reasons I use this letter as an example. First, it displays a depth of communication rarely seen. Who writes a sentence, much less several paragraphs, extolling a friend’s book recommendation? Second, it describes a feat of attention that now seems impossible: finishing a task without diversion. Entire industries, in fact, have sprang up to increase our focus through pharmacokinetics or otherwise.
A considered note, which requires a degree of attention to compose, can have powerful effects. Opening the letter, the reader is alone with the words and her imagination. The normal rules of interaction are suspended, and things that would be ridiculous to say aloud can be deeply moving on the page. The 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, was skilled at playing with this dynamic.
“My – Your”- those words, like parentheses, enclose the paltry content of my letters. Have you noticed that the distance between its arms is becoming shorter? O My Cordelia! It is nevertheless beautiful that the emptier the parenthesis becomes the more momentous it is.
Today, Johannes would fire off a heart emoji and be done with it. But surely this gesture wouldn’t stir Cordelia’s soul.
Most importantly, proper writing is crucial for intellectual life. It exercises the brain in a way that gadgets cannot. Our phone, necessary as it is, scatters our attention to the wind. And however fine a film may be, there’s something bovine about surrendering to the screenplay. Nothing is easier than watching some tube. Yet nothing is less fulfilling, if taken to the extreme.
Months ago, I wrote that words are just noises. This may be true, but we neglect some of these noises at our peril. These noises, in fact, represent the very thing that makes us human: the ability to express complex ideas. For better or worse, language is how homo sapiens took over the planet. There’s no biological rule, however, that says our linguistic ability must continually improve. I’m arguing that, in the searing heat of modern lights, an ancient art is slowly melting.
My laptop is open on the coffee table; I am striking away at the keys. A delicate balance exists between composition and distraction. Sometimes one side – always the side craving simple amusement – gets too strong. I can’t crush this enemy, so I’ve compromised: I’ll surrender after I get some writing done.
Kierkegaard, Søren, Howard V. Hong, and Edna H. Hong. Either/or. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print.
Campbell, Robin. Seneca: Letters from a Stoic. Middlesex: Penguin, 1969. Print.