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Things & Their Discontents

We are wired for attachment, and not just to others: to things.

I’m sure stone-age people felt a certain nakedness – a rush of dread, a shock of vulnerability – when they got well along in a journey and realized they’d left their flint rock or spear back in the cave, much as we do when, heading down the road, we realize we’ve left our cell phone in our other jacket at home The other day that happened to me. I forgot my iPhone by my reading chair. I panicked when I discovered it. I calculated whether I had time to turn back and fetch it. But I was stuck, phoneless in Mill Bay. I was in technological limbo, cybernetic exile.

All of this is sad and ironic. I spent most of my adulthood proud to be a Luddite – a backward scorner, on principle, of technology. I was especially, and only up until a few years ago, an avid disdainer of cell phones. I denounced them as cancer-inducing cattle prods. They invaded the little solitude the noisy world left to us.

Then I got one.

Now I can’t live without it.

I’ve thought about this a lot. It is in our nature to form dependencies (and usually remain deluded about it, thinking ourselves self-made, but that’s another story). We depend on things former generations never had, and they depended on things that generations before them never had. Our dependencies, to name a few: cars, computers, airplanes (even if we rarely fly, we rely on thingsbrought to us in planes), grocery stores, refrigerators, ibuprofen, bobby pins, scotch tape, well-built shoes, roofing nails, flush toilets, cheap socks, corn and all its derivatives, petroleum and all its derivatives, coffee (including the growers, transporters, roasters, sellers, and machinery it takes to convert beans to liquid).

You get the idea.

Most of these dependencies we never notice until a scarcity brings us up short, like forgetting my phone at home. But other dependencies we’ve fashioned our lifestyle around. Many of us can’t imagine, for instance, life without a computer, yet most of us are old enough to have spent most of our existence without one, and we did fine.

Dependency by its nature is humbling. Dependency means you can’t do everything on your own. You just don’t have what it takes. Without this thing – fire, or water, or eggs, or milk, or batteries, or fry pans – life is much diminished, sometimes to the vanishing point. It’s worth inventorying some of these dependencies from time to time, to be humble and thankful.

But other dependencies are humbling in a different way: they weaken and trivialize us. These dependencies aren’t so much humbling as humiliating. They’re dependencies that have made us flaccidand clumsy and dull. We’ve given up too much of ourselves in the exchange. It’s worth examining some of these dependencies from time to time, to decide if we really need this thing as much as we’ve made out. Maybe our life without it, far from diminished, would be enriched and enlarged.

I think of a line from Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln: “In wilderness loneliness he companioned with trees, with the faces of open sky and weather in changing seasons, with that individual, one-man instrument, the ax. Silence found him for her own. In the making of the man, the element of silence was immense.”

Note to self: next time, leave the cell phone by the chair intentionally.

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