Our world is suffocated by addicting, irrelevant, glittering images: a perpetual cascade of memes, buzzfeed articles, emails, tweets, and status updates from friends. This is, as Cal Newport describes it in his book Deep Work, The Shallows.
I’m 28 now, and as I look down the barrel to my thirties, I come to a sobering conclusion: The Shallows have destroyed my late teens and twenties. Not only have they destroyed my ability to fully pursue things that truly matter to me, like writing and reading beautiful books, studying yoga, and being with friends, bu they have also destroyed my happiness. The Zeitgeist of our age declares that constant connectivity is our very soul, our source of relationship and therefore happiness. I bought into this lie, and I have only now realized, washed up on the shore after being in the belly of the beast for all my twenties, just how deceived I was.
An important part of the lie is that focus is the antithesis of happiness, and that the greatest moments of joy are when we are buffeted by strong currents, allowing ourselves to be carries willynilly through the shallows. There is the promise of floating across that life-changing gem: that relationship, that article, that tantalizing idea expressed in a tweet. It’s this hope that keeps us adrift. Sometimes that promise delivers, but at a terribly high cost. I now understand that constant distraction creates deep unhappiness, and that I am most happy when I am focusing on things I love: my partner across the table from me during a date, a good book, a long run in the mountains, my yoga practice. Constant distraction and entertainment depresses me, makes me miserable with myself and the world.
Granted, I’ve had a lot working against me: I have PTSD from a shooting, I was busy reconciling being gay, I have always struggled with learning disabilities, and I have always had a propensity for depression and anxiety. Any one of these things was enough to make life miserable. I always blamed my challenges in life on one of these demons, failing to see that there was an invisible monster keeping me down, slowly eating away at my ability to resolve any of them: The Shallows.
My soul was like a child, crying out for help, but I was too busy delighting in cat gifs and likes and retweets and emails and youtube videos to hear that child’s cries – as if he were wailing from the other side of a brick wall. I filled every empty space in my life with entertainment, crowding out all my needs that could only speak to me in silence. Passion sent me its flickering, subtle messages: telling me what truly awakened and tantalized my soul, but I was too entertained to listen.
It wasn’t until the year 2015, when I unplugged completely, that I was able to start the necessary work to heal my life. In the absence of distraction, I joined a 12 step group, started therapy, and did things that brought me tangible joy: reading, writing, yoga and running chief among them. My flourishing – and my future – depended not on being carried by distracting currents, but on my ability to focus.
Perhaps the greatest testament to leaving the shallows came just this past August when, after flailing for 8 years, I finally completed my undergraduate degree. Every morning this year I would get up, make coffee and, in the absence of distraction, plug away at school until it was done. I hated every moment of it, but I now have the fucking degree, and there is one less monster in my life, draining my energy and contentment.
Joy, misery, and all our human needs – these are like a symphony to which we must listen closely, untangling each line, motif, and theme. We must listen closely to the notes of discord, and only then can we know how and why we are unhappy, and what we can do to fix it. And we must also listen closely the the hopeful cords of pleasure and delight, discovering what our souls cherishes, yearns for, finds delight in. This is how we create a good life. But we can’t do that as long as the cacophony of social media and infotainment and television and memes are blaring in our ears. Real life is subtle and complicated, and we have to listen closely, as if to a good friend.
I’m not anti social media or internet – most of my work takes place on both, and I still enjoy the benefits of online connection. But I now see the value of relegating social media and other arbitrary tasks to the small cracks in life. As long as it floods my life, it hinders focus. I am now content with work, joy, and when necessary, boredom. If that sounds intolerable to you, I gently encourage you to examine how the shallows might be destroying your life, much the same way it has destroyed mine.
There is a way forward – a way to rebuild, and that is by choosing depth over shallowness. Now that I have learned this, I look with excitement to the end of my twenties and into my thirties. There is much joy and fulfillment to be had, if I only focus.