Hamlet’s Blackberry and Self-Actualization

For Christmas, my step-daughter gave me Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building Life in the Digital Age.  She explained:  “You like Hamlet, and you like technological.”  If only her choice were that simple.  I’m afraid that whether or not she knew it, I am in desperate need of William Powers’ cautions and advice–to such a degree that  my New Year’s resolution will be what I’m calling, “Gridless Sundays.”  Although I’m allowing myself television, word processing, movies, music, and phone (I’m not a barbarian, after all), I’m taking myself off the Internet grid.  No browsing on Sundays.

I’m writing this explanation as a Saturday night introduction to my reflections on self-actualizing and the digital age.  You see, my hip aches from sitting at the computer most of the day.  And I need to shower and cook dinner before I can escape to a novel I began yesterday.  So I’m pulling the plug on this critique, disconnecting my modem (at least, metaphorically for my Wi-Fi sharer’s sake).  Although I may finish writing it tomorrow–Sunday–I won’t be posting it until Monday.  I rest assured that the world will function fully despite my truncated blog post.
Monday…  I missed even less than I predicted.  Other than a student’s email, which could wait one day, the rest wasn’t utterly unimportant.   So back to Powers: ”What I’m proposing here is a new digital philosophy, a way of thinking that takes into account the human need to connect outward, to answer the call of the crowd, as well as the opposite need for time and space apart. The key is to strike a balance between the two impulses” (4).
Powers’ first point is that we all claim to be busy.  In fact, we’re all so proud of being busy that that’s all we aspire to.  “We’re so busy, sometimes it seems as though busyness itself is the point” (10).  Thoreau, Powers recalls, nails it:  “the man who goes desperately back to the post office over and over hasn’t heard from himself in a long time.” Thoreau saw him as ridiculous.   I confess that this is a pet peeve of mine.  I constantly hear some of my colleagues, students, and family members bragging that they’re busy as if that’s some badge of honor. Last semester, I bravely–but cautiously–suggested to a student or two that if he/she could replace “busy” with “productive,” I’d then be impressed.  After all, “I was so productive this morning” reveals a potential for self-actualizing that “I was crazy busy” just doesn’t.  What’s so wrong with the “busy” whirlwind?  Powers explains via William James: Life’s richness “all depends on the capacity of the soul to be grasped, to have its life-currents absorbed by what is given” (qtd. on p. 12). Being busy is being grasped by life, not grasping life.
To illustrate James’s point, Powers tells a story:  While driving to see his mother, Powers calls to tell her that (as usual) he’s going to be late.  He mashes one button, which triggers his mom’s photo to appear, and the call goes through.  It’s a short call but accomplishes the notification he desires.  Thereafter, as he drives on, he muses about his mother—what he thinks of her, how he feels about her, what they’ve done together, and how much he’s looking forward to their upcoming dinner.  Powers explains the significance of his illustration:  “The total number of mobile phones in the world went from about 500 million at the beginning of this century to approaching 5 billion today.  But there’s a missing piece: the real magic of these tools, the catalyst that transforms them from utilitarian devices into instruments of creativity, depth, and transcendence, likes in the gap that occurred between my phone call to Mom and the powerful experience that followed.  That gap was the linchpin, the catalyst.  It allowed me to take a run-of-the-mill outward experience and go onward.  It’s the same for every kind of digital task.  If you pile them on so fast that screen life becomes a blur and there are no gaps in your connectedness, you never get to that place where the most valuable benefits are.  We’re eliminating the gaps, when we should be creating them” (31).

Powers’ next point is that technology isn’t the problem.  It’s our rapid use of technology that closes the gaps of reflection and appreciation.  Powers explains that “as the gaps between my digital tasks disappeared, so did the opportunities for depth. Sereen [sic] life became more rushed and superficial, a nonstop mental traffic jam.  Second, because I was spending as much time in the digital sphere, I was less able to enjoy my own company and the places and people around me” (48).  Rather, we need to pause for the awe of what we’ve just encountered on our screens.  Powers evokes Great Expectations’  Joe Gargery’s exclamation, “What larks!”  In self-actualization terms, let’s review the “What larks!” potential of “minding the gap” and enjoying our own company.

Previously, I’ve synthesized Maslow’s work with self-actualizers into 3 categories.  For the sake of this discussion, I’ll show how attending to the gaps between tech experiences and fostering our solitariness can enhance our self-actualizing.

1.  Self-knowledge & self-acceptance: For this quality, we need the ability to see “reality more clearly” without “defensiveness.”  We need to avoid the “pose, hypocrisy, front, face, playing a game, trying to impress” approaches to life.  We need to foster a “continued freshness of appreciation,” and “oceanic feeling,” and a “philosophical, unhostile sense of humor.” Finally, we need to explore our own “creativeness” (Motivation 208-223).  It’s easy to see that unless we pause and reflect in private between our tech checks, we have given ourselves no opportunity to understand, enjoy, and appreciate life to this degree and in these ways.  Without that level of experiential embrace, we can’t know ourselves fully.

2.  Resistance to acculturation:  Self-actualizers intentionally create a “dialectic between growth-fostering forces and growth-discouraging forces” (Toward  204-205) in order to establish a “quality of detachment,” their privacy (Motivation 212), and a sense of  autonomy (Motivation 213).  This creates a discontentment necessary for resisting unhealthy forced cultural assimilation (Motivation 224)  through a  “continual series of choices for the individual” (Toward 193).  Resisting being “rubricized,” self-actualizers strive to be “role-free” (Farther 273) and, instead, create their own self-narratives. For example, after  reading one NPR Story of the Day, it behooves us to consider its effect on the world and us.  Does the story call us to action or acceptance?  Does the story disturb our sense of communal connections or foster it?   These are important questions if we seriously want to re-evaluate our place among other humans instead of self-identifying as members of a group—Republicans, Baptists, lawyers, capitalists, homosexuals, Stoics, etc.  Self-actualization demands that we resist inappropriate, forced enculturation.  To do so, we must at least temporarily withdraw from society and self-reflect.  While society’s meta-narratives constantly bombard our resistance to them, we must vigilantly reinterpret those myths for our own self-worth.  We must disconnect in order to reconnect—to ourselves and to others.

3. Cultivation of a better world: To improve the world, we need to live “vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption” (Farther 45), experience in full an “oceanic feeling” (Motivation 216) amidst our deep and “profound interpersonal relations . . . with rather few individuals” (Motivation 218).  This entails no Pollyanna view of life but accurate and efficient judgments of others (Motivation  203) and the strong belief that the “Good Person” creates the “Good Society” (Farther 19).  We strive to “love the world as it is and to improve it” (Farther 308); to enjoy other people’s happiness (Farther  309); and to fuse with others while allowing for personal freedom (Toward  91). One of my greatest attractions to Maslow’s work is that self-actualization demands living ethically, which depends on a calm mind, clear intentions, and purposeful actions.  Again, we’re back to creatin gaps and personal space in order to generate catalysts for self-actualization.  “What larks!”

Powers continues, arming his philosophical argument with examples from 7 famous lives.

1. Socrates/Plato: Gain distance from your distractions.

2. Senaca: Calm your mind in order to create “flow” experiences.

3. Gutenberg: Reach within yourself despite your busy, crowded life.

4. Hamlet: Use 3-D tools to focus your mind and express your thoughts.

5. Ben Franklin: Employ a positive approach to changing negative habits.

6. Thoreau: Create home zones for both solitary and social moments.

7. McLuhan: Choose the right medium to calm your mind and be creative.

Powers concludes with his suggestions for practicing his new philosophy for the digital age:

1. Create a living environment that supports both “communality and individuality” (226).

2. Nurture your capacity to be alone while among others.

3. Selectively limit your “screen” time and give yourself the occasion to properly reflect upon the content and experience that reading the screen has just afforded you.

4. Enjoy the company of others.

5. Practice “technology-free introspection.”

Perhaps, you have additions: reading a sacred text, communing with nature, volunteering, exercising, listening to music, developing your creativity, etc.

I’d like to add one of my own: playing games.  Not computer games but games with at least one other person.  My husband and I play what we call “war solitaire” after each meal we eat together at home.  We have learned about each other through our fierce playing. I could not be more competitive—to the extent that I inflict bruising for the sake of playing a card.  We could not be more competitive together.  We have released more than a bit of tension between us through our ferocious carding, which involves body checking and ridiculous name calling.  It feels great to win, to beat the other guy, to console the card mate, to rationalize our errors, to concede defeat, and to accept a stalemate.  Could all this be accomplished using screens?  I suppose.  But there’s something to the physicality (the 3-Dness) of this particularly fast-paced card game that helps us fight for our own successes and grapple with each other’s defeats.  Perhaps, we don’t create an “oceanic feeling” or improve the world.  But I guarantee you that, as bizarre as it seems, we deepen our relationship and enjoy each other’s happiness.  Despite the name calling and bruising , when we play cards we both fuse together and allow for each other’s personal freedom.

Right now, I’m listening to a soft jazz Pandora station, typing on my laptop keyboard, drinking my re-re-warmed coffee, and periodically, watching the snow fall.  Having grown up in the Chicago ‘burbs, I’m no stranger to snow.  But there’s something about snow falling in the South that’s different. “God brought it and he’ll take it away” is no exaggeration for where I live.  At 7 AM, the dentist closed his office for today and tomorrow.  The university conceded defeat at 7:30 AM, closing for the first day of the spring semester (despite the many hours I prepared yesterday to teach 2 hours of Kant.)  Looking up and out, I watch the snow falling.  I think it’s falling harder than when I started this paragraph.  I hear the jazz piece, which sounds prettier than when I began this paragraph.  My coffee is just the right temperature.  My husband may come down any minute now and give me another hug.  How can all that compare to checking my inboxes.

Of course, I’ll go back on the grid and post this blog.  And you’ll read it on your screen.  Just promise me that you’ll spend a few moments considering what Powers, Plato, Maslow, and the rest have considered themselves.  And me, as well.   Thereafter, I wish you a pleasant “flow” to the rest of your day.


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