vita contemplativa

A moment of silent contemplation along the Muddy River in bustling Boston’s Fenway neighborhood.

This morning I deleted all social media from my phone, as I tend to do at least once a year, for a mental health break. I usually let friends know I haven’t been abducted or disappeared in a post before logging off for any length of time, not as a personal Evita moment, but because otherwise these days, with the constant deluge of distractions, it could be weeks before even friends would notice my absence — like a digital Joyce Vincent — and then they would likely assume I’d been tossed in “facebook jail.” I do want friends to know it’s a mental health break. If my example gives anyone else a moment to contemplate how social media is affecting their own mental health at the moment, it’s well worth it.

For me the tipping point this time was the whipped-up hysteria of Midterm elections in the US (no worries: I have already voted by mail), our internet-era version of the Madness of Crowds. There is simply no way to manage the firehose of fears and distractions than to turn it off completely. And with billionaire disruptor/ chaos agent Elon Musk’s antics over at Twitter, it was time to check out. Like Trump before him, Musk has positioned himself as an intrusive thought, living rent-free in all our heads, a giant, and growing pranic vampire, about to drain the whole virtual world of its creative lifeblood.

The first thing I did after I logged off was look around, and then randomly opened philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s The Scent of Time (2007), a book recommended to me by a brilliant artist friend, which has been gathering dust on my coffee table since I first cracked it open this time last year:

Not the least cause for today’s temporal crisis [which he calls a crisis of dyschronicity] is the absolute value attached to the vita activa. This leads to an imperative to work, which degrades the human being into an animal laborans. The hyperkinesia of everyday life deprives human existence of all contemplative elements and of any capacity for lingering. It leads to a loss of world and time. So-called strategies of deceleration do not overcome this temporal crisis; they even cover up the actual problem. What is necessary is a revitalization of the vita contemplativa. The temporal crisis will only be overcome once the vita activa, in the midst of its crisis, again incorporates the vita contemplativa.

And it is a temporal crisis. It is about how we spend our lives, in units of moments. A life of moments of compulsion can hardly be called a life, much less an examined one. The compulsion can become totalizing, and our reflexes have been trained. Our eyes and our hands, our postures, the choreography of our bodies and lives and days, have been drawn in. We’re jerked around like puppets by these devices that give us what mutually discernible social meaning, purpose, and value we can find in tiny little bite-sized bits that keep us coming back, like laboratory rats with kibble.

And in this fractured and fragmented time, imposed, controlled, doled out in tiny doses, we can so easily lose the flow of the vita contemplativa, that gives it to us whole.

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