Seeking the stillness

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

No one can dispute the fact that technology and sociology—life itself—is changing at a constantly accelerating rate of speed.

For years we have heard talk of a “Singularity.” Mathematician and physicist John von Neumann coined the term in the 1950s. “The accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life,” he said, “give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” 

That used to sound like crazy talk, but not so much now. Go to any public place and watch people with their cell phones. We can all agree that daily life is fundamentally different than it was 20 years ago. Ten years ago.

It can be disorienting. We’ve seen the wildest imaginings of science-fiction writers become our day-to-day reality. Perhaps some of the darker responses to change—a turning away from reason—can be explained by the insecurity and fear this state of constant change can generate. “Reality” seems to be an amorphous concept, constantly shifting, being updated regularly. What comes next? Who’s in charge? Who knows?

To deal with this—to reclaim some sense of perspective—it’s essential for me to go into the woods. A few hours on Stewart Mountain listening to the bird concertos makes all the difference. The birdsong hasn’t changed. Its familiarity is welcome. I sit on a comfortable rock and watch the cloud shadows dance as they always have. I am entertained.

I recently had the good fortune to co-lead a photography workshop in Glacier Bay, Alaska aboard a small boat; no cell or internet and completely, mercifully disconnected from daily crises and tragedies.

We made a pact as we left the dock in Juneau that not only would we not hear any news, but we’d also not discuss current events. While we were there, we’d make Glacier Bay our all-encompassing reality.

It was blissful. Two weeks away from the puppet show surrounded by wild, exalted beauty really put things into perspective for me. I saw how elusive perspective had become. And stillness.

Obviously, this malaise is insidious. You need to step outside of it to see it. In our regular routines we are constantly interrupted and bombarded with a steady stream of alerts and urgent, nerve-jangling special bulletins from all sides. Our devices have rendered contemplation quaint.

In the woods, the wind ruffles the trees and the berries are ripening—as they always have. Footsteps seem loud in the hushed understory.

Sure, we need to be active. We need to pay attention. We need to stand for what we believe. But we’ve also got to find ways to stay positive. We’ve got to take care of ourselves, to tend to our mental health. It’s a big job.

It’s become ever more vital to unplug sometimes. Often. No strings attached. To stop and smell the skunk cabbage. To regain our bearings, to welcome the invigorating wind and remember who we are. To breathe.

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