Sunday, October 19, 2008

Judiciously we live . . .

Today, we can communicate in one or more modes at any moment we choose: while waiting in the airport, I can log on and send emails, chat, or instant message; while enjoying a meadow in the mountains, I can dial my friend; while sitting in a meeting, I can hand-write a note to my sister. And while I make sure the spaghetti doesn't boil over, I can video conference with my brother.

Of course, there's regular face-to-face communication too. And that can happen most anywhere, as well.

The problem--as I see it--isn't so much that each mode is available, as it is that their collective presence can (and does) overwhelm the personal communication system; in other words, we can easily get into the habit of talking talking talking and in the process lose real, meaningful communication. As the number of words we speak, type, or key in increases, the net value often dramatically decreases.

In a graduate seminar, I rarely spoke. I figured that if someone else articulated a similar point, I didn't really need to take up the time repeating that point just for the sake of hearing my voice. But this one day, I had something different to say, and so I said it. Afterward, a fellow student asked me why everyone listened to me, when they never listened to him. I didn't think before I spoke; I just blurted out, "It's because I rarely speak."

One advantage to not flooding the universe with our words is that people will be more apt to listen when we do speak. But another advantage is that if we're not hitting reply every other second or ping-ponging messages, then it's likely that we're taking more time to live, and living includes taking action, thinking, meditating, and finding meaning. If we simplify by not using every available communication device at every moment, we might discover that when we do type the email, chat for a few minutes online, talk to our friend in the kitchen, or share an experience over the phone that we are focusing in on what matters most: our love for the person we're talking to, our dreams and aspirations, how we're overcoming the stumbling blocks, what we are doing to help our friends/family, etc.

When I have my advanced students write a 10 - 12 page research paper, they panic. They want to pick broad topics to ensure that they will be able to fill the 12 page-space with words. When I consult with my students, I tell them that their topics could inform a dissertation, a book, or volumes of books, and that they need to focus their topics further. But they're so worried about filling up the space.

I think sometimes we do the same thing with life. We reach for our cell phone because it fills up space. We type words--even words that we have no real connection to--because it's something to do. We send out an email that we've had a bad morning and that we didn't get any sleep, because we can.

But wouldn't it be glorious if we--if I--didn't attempt to fill space with just any words. What if we were more selective in the messages we sent or the conversations we spoke? What if we went for a walk and really enjoyed the fall colors without once reaching for--or thinking about reaching for--our phones? Maybe later on in the day, after other things had happened and we'd thought about other topics--maybe then we would sit down at our desk and write a card (because hand-writing something once in a while is a good idea), and maybe we would not only describe those fall leaves from earlier in the day, but we'd mention some things we'd been thinking about, and acknowledge how much we are grateful for the person we are writing to.

In that card--or phone call or face-to-face conversation--there would be more of value and focus, I think, than if we'd sent off fragments throughout the entire day.

I'm not anti-texting, anti-IMing, anti-email. I think that each mode is useful. But maybe it's time to simplify and be more judicious in how and how often we use words. The experience will make our lives richer, deeper, more focused, and more meaningful.

At least, that's what I believe.


Perhaps the more judicious our correspondence, the more excellently we will live.