Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Intentional Online Life

My laptop died a few weeks ago. There was a dreaded black screen...not even the dreaded blue screen, but pitch-black nothingness resonating with the horrific death rattle of the CD-ROM drive.

I stared at it like a golden retriever contemplating an empty food dish.

"I has a sad."

Then, a very tiny voice deep inside me said, "Yay!"

I wasn't glad that the laptop died because replacing it was expensive and awkward. But that little burst of joyous fireworks came with the knowledge that some of the information on that old laptop was gone with absolutely no effort from me.

I've written plenty about feeling weighed down by too much stuff in real life, but my online life gets weighed down, too.

For instance, my old email program automatically added contacts when I replied to an email. That meant when I answered Jane Doe's question about how I adhered the glitter to my holiday thank-you card, Jane Doe magically appeared in my contact list. Jane Doe got her answer and never contacted me again. I forgot about Jane Doe, moved on with my life just like she did, but there she was, in my contact list, every time I wanted to send an email to my real-life friend Janet.

Multiply Jane Doe by about 385, and you get the clutter in my contact list.

Then there were the 9,642 emails in my inbox. Trying to stay on top of emails when thirty or forty a day come in is tough. It requires discipline and determination and ohmygosh they are like bunny rabbits humping and multiplying independently and exponentially and what is a girl to do?!?!?

First-world problems strike again.

At least if I were in the world of Once Upon a Time, I could cook these rabbits with potatoes and have the pleasure of grossing out Gollum. But no, these multiplying rabbits sat in my inbox and mocked me with their bold-type unread status.

Of course I'm exaggerating for effect. The fact that my thighs rub together bothers me a lot more than email proliferation. But the loss of all those emails didn't send me into a state of cyber-despair.

No, cyber-despair came at the loss of maybe 200 or so wonderful emails, funny emails, supportive emails, emails containing funny videos of my niece and nephews, emails that I'd saved to special folders but not to my external hard drive.

That loss hurt.

But why?

Haven't those emails served their purpose? Their authors, my readers, took time to share their comments with me, and I read them and was so very grateful. Yet how often did I actually re-read those emails? Weren't they simply there, like the dozens of storage boxes in my basement taking up so much space? Only these emails were 0's and 1's on a hard drive that crashed spectacularly in an instant.

Truth be told, other than the videos of family, saving those emails was mostly about ego. Isn't my online life important? Don't my readers care about me? Am I not useful and kind and helpful? Sure I am! The proof is in the emails!

Not really.

Our online lives can be enormously enriching and useful, but the proof of that doesn't exist on our hard drives. The proof exists in the human response, in the relationships, in the questions asked and answered and life moving on, in acts of kindness (even if they are merely words of encouragement encoded in html).

What we do for others means something. Yet what we do disappears into the past, fries on a hard drive, fades without proof of existence.

Technology lies to us, saying that all these 0's and 1's are important in and of themselves, real and tangible things, and we need them, just like we need screens, touchscreens, iPhones and e-readers to decode them.

No. We need people. We need connections with people, not screens. At times, screens can connect us with people life never would have connected us with otherwise, and this is good and important. The widow mourning in British Columbia whom I pray for daily...how would I have learned about her if not for her touching email response to a blog post of mine? The rubber-stamping Starbucks barista who lives in Arizona and whose emails always and without fail make me smile big smiles. The woman who got picked on as a child and is now over it...I think I helped her just a tiny little bit. 

Those people are real, and so are the connections. But before screens, they would never have crossed my path, nor I theirs. We now have so many people we can touch.

So many people.

Where's the limit? What can one person do? How much should one person do? When does our focus on all those people on the internet--real, important, beautiful people--start getting in the way of paying attention to the people--real, important, beautiful people--in our own homes and workplaces and communities?

Screens connect us, but they also disconnect us, sometimes from what is most important in life...living it well, with love and kindness and goodwill. A friend recently stopped blogging, and one reason she gave was that she needs to live her life, which has changed and is continuing to change. She might come back to blogging later, or she might not. The point is, she's living a good life, trying to find balance.

Perhaps what we need is to live with intention, to be aware of what we're doing and what we need to do every minute of the day. How often do I get sucked into Pinterest, lose track of time, and realize that hours have passed...hours in which I could have been doing something more important or even more fun?

My mother, on the other hand, recently got sucked into YouTube. She discovered a number of incredibly educational art videos and spent an entire day learning at her computer. She never does this. She ordinarily spends little time at a screen, but that day wasn't time wasted. It was good time, learning time, motivating time that got her excited about painting.

Screens are not all bad.

But how sad it is to see so many children interacting with screens instead of each other. My worst moment during a recent visit to my sister's house was when I walked into the family room to see my nephews, son, and niece staring fixedly at screens in their hands. My other son was in the living room watching a movie. No one was talking.

In contrast, my favorite moment of the trip was outside in my sister's back yard. All five cousins were running around playing, just like my cousins, sister, and I did as children. They blew bubbles, threw a baseball, played badminton, climbed the play set, yelled and screamed and laughed and made all sorts of noise that would get them shushed inside. Heck, my son and one nephew even helped clean up the yard without complaining.

There were no screens in the back yard other than the ones on the adults' digital cameras as we tried to freeze those beautiful moments for years to come.

Screens can be good, or they can be bad. It's what we do with them that makes them so. And we have to figure this out because, for good or bad, screens are here to stay.

It's ironic that I've sat at a screen typing this post. I remember the good ol' days of pen and paper, manual typewriters, electric typewriters. I love writing. Deep in my bones. Love. I want to do this, share my thoughts with the world, hoping my words are useful and entertaining to someone else.

The internet is better for this than pen and paper were. I love that the internet allows me to connect with an audience in real ways. I don't have to bother with a publisher or agent. My words are direct to you. When I get emails telling me my words touched someone, made them laugh or think or both, I want to write more. Those emails motivate me, so no wonder I let them pile up in my inbox!

And when there's a hand-made card in my mailbox, as there was today, well, that puts me into spasms of joy and gratitude.

My official word for 2013 is Intentional. Being intentional with screens means using them for a good purpose. I use my screen time to share on my blogs in ways that connect with you. 

What I do on my blogs is a small thing in your life. You could stop reading at any time, move on, live your own intentional life without any further thought of me or my blog or my words. I would go on living. You would go on living. It would all be good.

But for now, you're here and I'm here and we're together here.  I appreciate that. I'm having fun and hope you are, too.

How do you use your screen time intentionally? Do you limit your activities in deliberate ways? Do you feel like you have a good balance or are screens taking over your life?


  1. O you had me laughing out loud (truly! And notice I did not LOL you - I also write the full words on sms's) with your multiplying rabbits, cooked or not. So, Yes! I'm having fun with you.

    You have hit the nail on the head about this thorny technological dilemma ... it can weigh us down with electronic clutter and consume vast amounts of time, yet there are such benefits too. I'm also discovering that if I look at too much "inspiration" out there, it freezes up my own. It's like information overload.

    So I am battling for balance in this too - living my real life and enjoying connections with those who have similar interests and accessing information I couldn't get here. I have cut down on pinterest a lot because I haven't even used one twentieth of the things I have already pinned.

    Lately my time online (when I'm in my studio) has been restricted without any effort from me because my wireless extender there overheats and disconnects after about 30 minutes of use. I have to switch it off to let it cool down - and I am then "forced" to cool down and create. So I'm not fixing it.

  2. Oh, Janet, that is the perfect solution to over-surfing. Some people might think your extender is broken, but we know better!

  3. I was comforted to see how many emails you have, Mine are at about 7000 and I feel inadequate every time I look at that number. I don't seem to be about to get the emails and internet under control, but I keep trying. I enjoy both this blog and your card blog and am hoping I can get everything transferred when Google Reader quits.

  4. Well written, Susan! I can really relate to everything you said. I felt the same relief as you when my laptop went black because I wouldn't have to waste precious time sorting through old e-mails and deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. My husband deletes everything daily. I don't know how he does it!? My work e-mail is just as bad (actually, it's much worse!). I've contemplated going ahead and deleting the first 5 years worth. Even if something was important enough to keep at the time, it's most likely irrelevant at this time, right? Eek!

    I do feel that people's compulsive need to be connected actually makes them more disconnected - from themselves, from the people that matter most, and from creativity. How can you be creative if you don't allow yourself any down time to just think or be? Ironically, creativity is my main focus when I'm on-line. I use the internet to surf blogs and e-shops in search of inspiration, and to blog about papercrafting. However, I don't have a smart phone, I've been known to have a cell phone that's uncharged for a couple of days before I notice it's dead, and I'm completely fine with being "unplugged" when I go on vacation. In other words, I'm not addicted to electronics and I'm making a point of trying to remain detached.

    Wow, that was almost an essay. Sorry for rambling on!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!