Thursday, August 28, 2014

Confessions of a Text Addict

Hi. My name is John and I text and drive.

I should say, I’m a recovering texter-while-driving. Now, before you start looking down at me, know this: I don’t text while I am driving anymore. I’ve been texter-while-driving free since 2008. You see, back in the 2000’s (by the way, I still don’t know what to call that first decade. Is it the 2000’s? Or the 2000 and oughts? Or just the oughts?)

Anyway . . .

You see, back in the early days of this century, when I first had a cell phone (we called them "blackberries" back then), I didn’t know any better. I’d occasionally text while I was driving and I often called someone while I was driving. Without a headset. I had a longer commute back then and, well, it just made sense, you see, to take care of some business calls, check in on staff or clients.

But then we learned some things about “distracted driving.” We learned that distracted driving isn't that good for us. We learned it just like we learned about 40 years ago or so that smoking, as it turns out, really isn’t that good for us either. So now we have laws that forbid texting while driving and require hands-free devices for making cell phone calls and the like. And it’s a good thing too. According to this scary government website “distracted driving” caused over 400,000 injuries and 3000 deaths in 2012.

So, there it is: I am a recovering texter-while-driving. And now? I never touch the stuff.

Hardly at all.

Well, there was this time the other day when I was approaching a stoplight. It was nothing really. I was the only car. Or no one was in front of me at least, and I just, I don’t know, instinctively reached for my phone in the passenger seat. It wasn’t really my fault. I just don’t know what came over me. It was like I wasn’t even in control. It was like someone else had inhabited my right arm. And I just reached over and picked up my phone as I came to a stop. You got a problem with that? I just wanted to be sure someone hadn’t texted me or FB-messaged me! I didn’t want them to wait on me. Really! That's it. Is that so bad? I know what you are thinking but really, it was nothing. Just a small glance. For real! I hardly looked at all, and I was barely moving!

I was sharing this recently with my sponsor. I’ll call her “Jane from North Carolina.” She is also in texter-while-driving recovery. She understands me and helps me get out of my “shaming place."

As we talked, I started thinking about this impulse to reach for my phone. Okay, its more than an impulse. I admit it. It’s an addiction.

Except, maybe, actually, it turns out it may not be an addiction, as such, but rather a human necessity.

According to Dr. Matthew Lieberman from UCLA, in his book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, recent neuroscience research shows that not only are our brains designed to form social connections, but also the pain caused by social rejection activates the same region of the brain as actual physical pain. That’s right, social pain and physical pain, as far as the brain knows, are the same. I'm greatly simplifying in the interest of brevity, but that's the gist of it.

And get this: The research also shows that over-the-counter pain medication will reduce the pain of social rejection in just the same way as it will reduce the pain of, say, a sore shoulder or back. How about that! So if you are suffering from a broken heart, don't feel bad. Or I should say, it's normal to feel bad. It's like your heart is literally broke. And I mean literally-literally, not figurative-literally!

It turns out social connections are as essential for human survival as food and water. It's true!

Let's pause for a moment and consider what we have evolved into. In the animal kingdom, “red in tooth and claw,” we are only of modest height and weight. We are not that fast or strong. We don't have sharp claws or big teeth. We can’t fly. We can swim, sort of, but not faster than other creatures that like to eat us. Face it: On our own we’re doomed. But we’re not doomed thanks to one advantage: We have this big-ass brain. It lets us work on complex tasks and, more importantly, work on them together! Only in groups can we fend off saber-toothed tigers with pointed sticks and chase buffalo off cliffs. Alone? We wouldn’t have made it out of the savannah.

This need for social connection is hard-wired and I imagine, for some of us, the fear of being dis-connected gets activated, at some primal level, when we alone in a car. There must be some primitive need to frequently scan the horizon to be sure we are not alone; not separated from the tribe. Thus, when I am all-alone in my car, it is not only human for me to check my smart-phone to ensure I am still connected to my tribe. It’s a matter of survival!

It occurs to me the problem isn’t texting. Texting and all the other technologies that allow us to connect with each other are great. So what is the problem? The problem is DRIVING! We’ve created a society, and economic model to go with it, requiring a vast number of us to spend hours, each day, alone in our cars. I know, some of you may enjoy, even seek out, that precious alone time. And some of you are clever enough to develop a strategy on how to use that time for self-improvement through audio books or Great Courses or whatever. But lets be honest. Most of us, or maybe I should say, if you are like me, you’d rather be doing almost anything else than commuting.

So, everyone, I say: Put down that car and start texting! Driving? Now that's dangerous.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Summer Doldrums

It is easy to loose one's faith these days, even for me, a Unitarian Universalist.

Let’s start with Ferguson, Missouri. I remember when I was in college I was walking home from a party to my apartment. I was certainly drunk. I had the remnants of a joint in my front shirt pocket. Along the way I found I hubcap lying alongside the road so I picked it up. “This will look cool in our apartment!” my 19-year-old male brain concluded. A block or two later one of Blacksburg’s finest (To Ticket and to Tow) pulled up beside me and got out.

Where was I going?
Can I see your ID?
Where’d I get the hubcap?
Wait here for a moment.

Ok, you can go, but if we get a report of a stolen hubcap, we’ll be coming to you.

Sure thing. Thanks officer.

I think I was a pretty good kid, but I made some stupid choices, or some mindless ones at least. I’m guessing a few of us have some of those in our past.

Yet I was never shot by the police for it. That’s for sure.

So now we have Ferguson and all it now stands for and means for us.

But there is more: Israel and Palestine. Again. There is a humongous volcano in Iceland clearing its throat  and then there is what ever is left of Iraq and Syria.

Out west we have droughts AND floods.

To top it all off, a FaceBook friend posts a link to a minor key version of Cindi Lauper’s 1980’s fun-pop song “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”  And I love this version. I really do! But I couldn’t help but wonder why such a fluffy happy dance song from our past, re-interpreted and channeled through the ennui of ColdPlay and the fatalism of the Millennials, would seem so, so, perfect for 2014?

Arbitrary cute cat picture
Man, this decade is getting depressing. Thank the Buddha it’s August and our Congress is in recess so we don’t have to endure that, that, whatever that, thing we still call Congress is. I say that because I saw a recent report that came across my social media desk: America is no longer a Democracy or a Republic. Guess what? We are an Oligarchy! (Original study here)

When I saw that article my first thought was: Well, that’s hardly a surprise.

Then my second thought was: I wonder if anyone has “liked” the cat video I just posted?

Some days it just feels like we need a global anti-depressant. Maybe one of our friendlier Oligarchs, Elon Musk, say, could partner with Richard Branson and they could spray Zoloft into the atmosphere. Not only would we feel a little better, but also the lower-libido side affect could help with global population growth! Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the looming crises from the convergence of population growth, environmental degradation, death of honey bees, threatened water supply, increasing fuel costs, and global food production yields.

Thank the Buddha (again) for a near limitless global supply of cute and funny cat videos and ice-water bucket fail compilations. Otherwise I’d loose my mind worrying about a Nutella-less dystopic future with no Guacamole at Chipotle!

I am reading a book right now called Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser. It’s not what I would call a “feel good” summer read. It’s not. In addition to the description of a lessor known near apocalyptic disaster with a Titan II missile in Arkansas in 1980, Schlosser provides a history lesson of our nuclear weapons program starting with the Manhattan Project during World War II. As I read the account I was struck with this thought: If our society was faced with the same existential threat as we were in the 1940s could we pull off the same scientific and engineering feat? In about three years we collected the best and brightest and sequestered them in the desert to create new technology with a power of unimaginable consequences. The outcome was, of course, the beginning of the nuclear age and the Cold War. I’m not say that was necessarily a good thing. What I am wondering is: What would it take for this country to really pull together and create something? Something really big? Can we even do it anymore?

Congress has its head up its ass. Our President has been rendered ineffective thanks to a relentless opposition set to undermine him at every turn. Industry is more interested in generating profit, hording cash, and avoiding taxes. Regardless of who you side with, grass roots movements, like Occupy or the Tea Party, can only really claim gains on the fringes as the Oligarchs lie in wait to squash them. Big Religion? I do like the new Pope’s style, but I can’t help but think the tide has ebbed for how much influence he has as a agent for change.

So what to do?

I could just give up. Give in to the outgoing current and just be swept away. Enjoy my glass of wine and late-night TV the next day at a reasonable hour on my DVR. That would be okay. And as I get older I can see the wisdom of disengagement. Why create additional frustration and suffering for myself trying to do something meaningful but have to also push against it all? There is enough suffering just from showing up on this planet. Why create more?

But that is a denial. It’s a denial of the inherent human spirit and what we are all, I believe, generally wanting:
To find something we can find meaning in and commit our life’s work to,
To help our fellow man and woman when they are in a jam, like this guy did, and
To love and be loved.

It’s pretty simple, really. And I need to still believe in that.

It's simple, but also not easy. I wonder what would have happen if we chose a default view of compassion and trust with each encounter rather than one of fear and cynicism? Maybe if we did that a police officer seeing a kid walking in the middle of the street could pull over and say, “Hey, there! It’s dangerous walking in the middle of the street, can you move to the sidewalk so you don’t get hit by a car?”

I know, pretty naïve of me. But I have to hang on to it just a while longer.

Only one more month ‘til Autumn and I can officially bid the summer doldrums farewell.