Soul Sucker or Soul Stirrer? The Role of Screen Time in Your Life

“If you are losing your leisure, look out! It may be you are losing your soul.” –Virginia Woolf 

“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” –Neil deGrasse Tyson

Hello friend,

It is no secret that I am seriously prone to guilt? Well, let me clarify that. I am not much for guilt from other people; in fact, if you try to guilt me into doing something, I will almost certainly withdraw from that situation (and you) entirely. Self-inflicted guilt, however, is an unfortunate staple of my personality. I can make myself feel bad about the least transgression, like skipping a day at the gym or not writing letters to you as often as I once did. If it involves me not taking advantage of every opportunity to live my best life, I am vulnerable to an internalized flogging. And anxiety. I get antsy when I am not obviously growing.

So it is that the other day, while taking stock of my current life and my degree of contentment and longing, I noticed a most interesting and unusual phenomenon: despite the absence of any “big rock” that I am progressing daily in the direction of my dreams, or any major soul-stirring new dream that I am forming in my mind, I am feeling uncharacteristically serene and accepting of my status. At least for the moment, my relative lack of “progress” is not freaking me out. And I am starting to wonder if that alone should freak me out.

Am I getting complacent in my middle age, losing my passion and idealism? Am I allowing my dreams to slip from my once-stubborn grasp? Is my spirit dying, its light snuffed out by laziness and busy-ness?

Possibly because none of those things are true, or, just as possible, because I am unwilling to allow those thoughts into my head, I have decided to take a look at my habits from a totally different perspective. I need these new lenses in order to make more clear to myself just why my mind and soul are feeling pretty engaged without one of those big, obvious dreams or achievements that I am usually striving toward and that put wind in my sails. What are these more subtle forces at work that have been invisible to my eyes until now?

Interestingly, it was–quite literally–right there in front of my eyes all the time. Media. Screens. All of the information and art that I absorb on a daily basis.

When I have finished working and then spending the bulk of my “free time” face-to-face with my greatest inspirations–my children, my writing (either to you or in my journal), and Mother Nature–there are these last few fleeting moments of the day. They are usually found on a cardio machine at the gym early in the morning or in my bed as my eyelids get heavy at the day’s end, but I am always on the lookout for moments to steal.

It is in these precious moments that you can find me with my tablet–I hardly ever use my phone–which holds my books and, for the special occasion, my Netflix account. In recent months, I have found myself in turns fascinated, inspired, devastated, and mesmerized by what I have learned through that screen. And that is exactly what it has been: an education.

Allow me to share of the marvelous gifts my favorite device has bestowed upon me in recent months, just in case you are in need of some ideas for your own enrichment and growth.

Believe me, I wish I could share tons of movie suggestions, but my schedule and priorities don’t allow for two-to-three-hour blocks of time to sit and focus (if it did, you would get many more letters from me, or perhaps news of my next book). I did, however, catch the film Bohemian Rhapsody on a plane ride, and I recommend it. It jelled nicely with the main focuses of my education lately: the 1960s and 1970s (though the film is actually more of the 80s), and the culture around the music of that era. I have been drawn to this era for an unusual reason: because, in theory, these are the decades that would shape my parents’ late adolescence and young adulthood, yet neither my mother or my father has ever seemed at all engaged with the politics and music of that dynamic time–the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the Women’s Movement, rock ‘n’ roll, the Motown sound, drugs, etc.–a phenomenon that befuddles me. It is also the era that flowed into my childhood, so I am trying to better understand my upbringing and the world I came into (better late than never!).

In the absence of Hollywood movies, I have used my random and stunted Netflix time (usually once per week at the gym) on documentaries, often about musicians. I have been fascinated by The Two Killings Of Sam Cooke, Bowie: The Man Who Changed Everything, Keith Richards: Under The Influence, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Studio 54: The Documentary. The one that I am completely engrossed in now, that I can see will take me some months to finish its multiple parts, is Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War. It is eye-opening, blood-curdling, heart-wrenching, and infuriating. But so detailed and informative. It is a lesson I have needed, one that perhaps we all need. I hope you will give it a look.

Prior to this one, the “special” (not exactly a documentary) that truly captivated me was Springsteen On Broadway. The things that most interest me in the world are people’s stories, especially if told by the people themselves. Springsteen’s performance in this, from a storytelling perspective, is brilliant. The occasional musical numbers are just gravy. I highly recommend it.

Watching these documentaries has only increased my thirst for more of them. The ones on my wish list after I finish The Vietnam War are Planet Earth II, Brené Brown: The Call To Courage, The Seventies, Our Planet, Bobby Kennedy For President, The Story of God, How The Beatles Changed The World, Mountain, One Strange Rock, and Ken Burns’ The Civil War and The West. I think Netflix mostly exists just to tease me about my lack of time to watch its countless delights!

But there are even more books to read. I read with my 8-year-old son, I read with my 10-year-old daughter, and I read alone. And even though the children get the final say on the titles we read together, most of the books are enjoyable and enriching for me, too. My son and I have been reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which, mostly because it has inspired him to become a Greek Mythology expert, has taught me so much about a subject that I have long wanted to study. And it is entertaining. Another clever children’s series that an adult can appreciate is Chris Colfer’s The Land of Stories. Last week, I also finished (alone) a sweet book by Alex Gino called George, about the experiences with cruelty and courage of a fourth-grader who is transgender. I then passed it on to my son, who read and enjoyed it this week. My daughter and I are currently quite engrossed in Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting By 7s, about a young genius dealing with the sudden death of her family.

I have in recent years come to appreciate books for middle grade kids and have no trouble recommending them to adults. I had earlier caught onto that feeling about adolescent/”coming of age” tales such as Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, both of which I strongly recommend. I find that a great children’s book is, without trying to be, also a great adult book.

But I still love to read my own grown-up books, which are usually something in the Biography/Memoir section but spread out into other areas of nonfiction and fiction as my intuition guides me. One recent, highly-detailed, biographical portrait that supplemented my study of the 1960s and 1970s–and the music thereof– was Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine. It is fascinating (if a bit tabloidish). I have also recently had a very personal look at both mountain climbing and rape culture through the eyes of one of my favorite authors, Jon Krakauer, in Eiger Dreams and Missoula, respectively. At the moment, I am in the middle of Azar Nafisi’s thoughtful account of the myriad devastating effects of the Islamic revolution in Iran, Reading Lolita In Tehran. It is opening my eyes in a whole new way, taking my heart and mind to places I had never imagined.

But that is just what good media does, right? That is the potential of these screens we are always staring at: to stimulate our brains, to open our hearts, and to inspire our souls. In short: to lift us up, to expand our lives. Growth.

This, I can see now, is the answer to the puzzle of why, in the absence of any huge dream that is currently propelling me forward by the power of its hold on my enchanted soul, I am still feeling the tingles in that soul and the stretching of my heart and mind as they open with new knowledge and inspiration. It points to something that I clearly needed a reminder of: not only am I, at my core, a dreamer and a follower of my dreams, but I am also a student. It is in my soul’s code. I simply love to take in what is new and different to me. I get excited to try what I haven’t tried, whether that is a foreign language or a physical skill or another person’s story. I want to see, feel, and do it all so I can know better how the world works and how everyone else experiences it. When I feel those things stagnating in me, I become anxious and irritable. Unhappy. This is why I am in constant search of enrichment opportunities. My radar is always up. Basically, I am addicted to Growth.

With that realization, I can see why I have continued to be buoyed without my usual life-saving device: the big rock.

I have no doubt that before long, the pendulum will swing back the other way, and I will need to do something that satisfies my other soul compulsion: to contribute. I will need to help others rise in a more obvious way than I am now.

But for now, it is nice to know that when I my tank is running low, I don’t have to feel so guilty about turning to my screen for inspiration. There is some magical stuff in there! I plan to mine it well and allow myself to be lifted.

How about you? How do you use your screens and your media? Open up your journal and assess your relationship to your devices and your leisure time. How big of a role do your screens play in your life? What percentage of your leisure time is spent in front of a screen or page? What do you do with them? Movies? TV series? Sports? Video games? Books? Articles? Social media? Word games? Other apps? How much of that screen time would you describe as relatively mindless? Do you feel guilty, as I do, if you reach your threshold of “just passing time?” How much of your mindless time is necessary (i.e. you need it to decompress from daily stresses)? How much of it is really just wasting time? Which screen-based things that you do are inspirational? Which are entertaining? Which are educational? Which grow your life in other ways? What are those ways? Do you gain more of your leisure time enrichment via screens and pages, or via other hobbies? By what margin? What are the best movies you have watched lately? Which one(s) stand out as being particularly enriching? Which have moved you the most? Do you have any documentaries that have changed your perspective on the world? Which TV series do you find yourself recommending to others? A few weeks ago I was moved to tears by the comeback of Tiger Woods, and I always love the human stories covered during the Olympics. Do you watch sports? How engaged does the “human drama” element of sports get you? How would you rate your level of enrichment and personal growth via social media? Does the negative ever outweigh the positive? Do you waste time there? What other apps would you recommend to someone looking to be inspired and/or educated? What have you been reading lately? Do you prefer books or articles? Which blogs do you read? What have you read in the last year that has really stuck with you? Has anything changed your life dramatically? What has reminded you of Who You Really Are? Are you satisfied with the role of screens in your life? What would you like to change about them (e.g. more or less time on them, more books, less social media)? How about your leisure on the whole? Is it not just relaxing, but enriching? Do your hobbies inspire you and make you a better person? Are they enough to round out your work life and make the whole package seem fulfilling, even if temporarily? Do you cycle back and forth from being passive and content with your free time to needing to do something truly “meaningful” and life-changing? What is the proper balance? Leave me a reply and let me know, What is the role of leisure and screen time in your happiness?

Grow and grow,

William

P.S. If this letter resonated with you, please share it with someone who might be enriched by it. Grow your world!

P.P.S. If this way of introspection appeals to your sensibilities, check out by book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

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