This morning I felt a slight pang of sadness when my seven-year-old daughter told me, “Clocks are boring.” She was looking at a silver ladybug on a chain. The ladybug’s wings could be spread apart to reveal the face of a clock. In the back were an array of gears spinning back and forth. To me, it was beautiful on multiple levels.
To think, this was once a bunch of iron, nickel, zinc, and silver ore, hidden in rocks far beneath the earth. Humans dug tunnels deep into the ground using drills they built from other mining operations and explosives they developed through a brilliant understanding of chemistry. They located and removed the right stones and used heat and chemicals to extract and refine the metals. Someone designed the clock and had an understanding of how to use tiny gears to keep track of time. They had the gears, springs, and little screws all formed to the right shapes and sizes from these metals.
There was also a glass case to protect the face, made by melting sand and pouring it into a mold someone created. The face was made from porcelain, which came from white clay that someone dug out of the ground and someone else shaped, glazed with special pigmenting minerals, and fired in a super-hot kiln. Even the chain was made from an amalgam of metals from different mines in different locations, melted together, extruded into a fine thread, and formed into hundreds of interlocking loops with a minuscule clasp containing an even more minuscule spring.
Without even getting to every facet of this clock, we could guess that perhaps a hundred or more people were involved in its creation, literally turning rock and dirt into functional art, which a seven-year-old child could then regard as “boring.”
Don’t hate my daughter, please. She’s a wonderful person. She learned this form of shallowness from adults, myself included. Adults caught in what I call the “human data stream.” As kids are socialized and become familiar with the things and ideas around them, they learn to engage with their surroundings at a shallower level. They see a clock and put it in the category with all other clocks. Part of the mind thinks, “Clock. I’ve seen clocks before. Not much to be gained by further investigation.”
Given the massive flow of information we are exposed to, we do this partly as an efficiency tactic. How can we process 100 Facebook statuses, 75 text messages, 50 tweets, 10 Youtube videos, 40 emails, dozens of tasks, and all the other incoming data, and still go deep? The human data stream has always existed, as has our tendency to go shallow with familiar data, but television made it worse, and pocket computers (we still call them “phones” – how quaint) made it much worse.
Do you know how foie gras is made? A duck or goose is force-fed through a pipe, four pounds of grain a day. As a result, its liver becomes a fatty mass 10 times its usual size. It’s an unnatural delicacy. Well, I think our addiction to the human data stream makes the mind like foie gras – a bloated mass that has difficulty engaging with anything deeply. It makes us impatient, unconscious, anxious, and shallow. When we’re swept up in the stream, we’re missing out on the richness and peace of now.
How do we get out of it? Well, most of us can’t get out of it completely, because, for one, we need to engage with it to do our work, and for two, we don’t want to abandon it since it’s not entirely bad. The healthy solution for a duck, after all, isn’t no food, it’s less food.
So, we ought to disengage from the food pipe (data stream) and deliberately practice being patient and going deep. For me, this means engaging with my nine-month-old baby, who can spend an hour happily examining and sucking on her big sister’s dirty shoe. Or playing my guitar. Or throwing a Frisbee with my seven-year-old. Or looking at the stars. Or creating art. Or dancing with my friends. Or feeling how my body breathes. Or embracing my wife for a long, long time. Or seeing how fascinated I can be by everyday objects.
The good news, since I know you’re looking at a computer right now, and you’ll probably keep looking at it for a while, is that the time you spend going deep and slowing down is like medicine. A few minutes of depth can undo hours on the pipe.
What depth can you find in a clock? How much can you see in a single square inch of your lawn? What do you feel in your body when people speak to you? How does the air taste in this room?
I encourage you this week to slow down and find depth. Tell me what happens.
Dr. Peter Borten