I Think I Figured Out Why My Brain Always Feels Fried
03.05.18

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life. It’s an obvious and startling observation, isn’t it? The best kind.

It recently occurred to me that one of the primary ways I spend my days is as a passive sponge, absorbing whatever is put in front of me. Some examples: On my commute, I listen to a playlist curated for my musical tastes, chock full of artists I’ve never heard of. At work, my news reading consists of articles shared with me through chat or email, their bylines and publishers only secondary draws. Later, I pick up books by authors I’ve never read, recommended by friends or press releases that swore I’d be hooked from the start. Brutishly injected in the off-beats, of course, is an endless supply of other people’s photos and tweets, slotted in front of my glassy gaze by an algorithm designed to hold it steady.

My everyday, and thus, my life, has become one of passive consumption.

To borrow a point from economic theorist E. F. Schumacher: “[The modern Western economist] is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less.”

He’s talking about economic consumption, but I see this value system mirrored in my day-to-day behavior, during which I dispense little discernment as to what’s worthy of my attention, and worse, put little thought into the broader context in which something was created, and by who, and why! Instead, I eschew true engagement in favor of quantity, speed, and immediate likeability. Our unbridled access to creative work may be a modern wonder, but what happens when nothing’s placed in context? What happens when we become fans — not of specific writers, thinkers and artists — but of consumption in and of itself?

This particular point is well-illustrated by the meme-ification of ideas and images on the internet, which are dispersed and spread at a dizzying pace — democratized for everyone, sure, but at a cost. “Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives,” writes Maria Popova of Brain Pickings (emphasis mine).

The realization that I wasn’t noticing enough in my consumption process first occurred to me, perhaps ironically, while reading Tavi Gevinsons’ January editor’s letter on the topic of utopia for Rookie Magazine. I was taken with the number of disparate references she spun together from thinkers she admired. The intentionality of her reading habits was apparent, the fruits of it laid bare in a long-form piece of writing that had serious depth.

My fear crystallized during a conversation I had with my boyfriend soon after, when we realized the chief difference in our music-listening habits is that I listen to one-off tracks willy-nilly, with sometimes no knowledge whatsoever of the artist, while he listens to albums top-to-bottom, then reads analysis on them while synthesizing his own thoughts on who the artist is and why his or her work is relevant. I see this thoughtfulness reflected in other ways he consumes peoples’ art, too. There are certain writers’ columns he reads weekly, for instance, and certain film directors’ work with whom he’s intimately familiar. That’s not to say he doesn’t have some bad habits of his own, or that consuming willy-nilly is inherently wrong, but, as with Tavi, I see his ideas unfold and his perspective shift as a result of his dedication to getting the whole, deeper picture.

When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.

And it does require dedication; maybe that’s why many prefer to just drift along, me included. But over the past couple of months, I’ve resisted that urge. On my desk, there is now a stack of books by writers I want to know better (Susan Sontag, Zadie Smith, James Baldwin, Evan S. Connell, Rebecca Solnit), on topics I want to understand better (the creative process, systematic oppression, the art of storytelling, existentialism). On my phone are entire albums by musicians I want to engage with (Frank Ocean, SZA, Daniel Caesar), whose work is now enhanced by additional context. In my browser I try to keep one tab open at a time, with a long piece of writing I want to read for a specific reason. This approach is a little less immediate and “entertaining,” at least at first blush, but it’s also brought me a sense of agency, and even peace, in this dizzying age of information. It feels like my mind is getting stronger, breathing deeper.

“The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world,” American author Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote. “We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.”

But what happens when that art is yanked out of its context, reconfigured by an algorithm and slotted right in with the rest of our routines? What happens when creative work becomes another cog in the distraction machine? Does the world still open up? I’m not so sure. But I’ve found that, when I consume more slowly and intentionally, it can restore something lost by the pace of modern life. It can put me back in touch with the world, or myself.

It’s not a novel concept, but it’s easy to forget that wisdom and meaning aren’t necessarily found in the urgent amassing of ideas. There’s a reason we think of important things in the shower and while drifting off to sleep; an idle mind moves in mysterious ways.

My challenge now is to resist my animal-like impulse to constantly consume, to pick what I engage with more thoughtfully, and then dare to embody the kind of idleness that work demands. Maybe art needs space like we need space. Maybe, in a simple resistance to the mindless scroll, ideas bloom.

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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