On How to Do Nothing
I just finished reading what surely will be the best book I read in 2021, unless I manage to read the entire Bible or the Oxford English Dictionary by December 31. Besides being a treatise on the evils of the attention economy, Jenny Odell's How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy highlights the difference between abstinence and sobriety. Abstinence suggests a stretch of intentional dryness, but sobriety reveals a redirecting and repurposing of the very thirst—reasons for thirst?—that erodes life of its meaning. Odell calls us to more than disengagement, and her ideas (even her emotions) solidify the sponginess I've long squeezed in conversations about social media and the internet for too long now. Something better must be found.
Much more could and should be said about Odell’s book, but, for now, I wish to record those bits from the past week that drew attention from me and made me glad to have arrived rightly there in time and space. I should do this weekly as both an act of worship and an act of resistance—perhaps also as a practice of sobriety.
Five is a good round number for hindsight, but six offers a bonus.
1. Earlier this week I stopped to observe three Red Eared Sliders sharing a sun-basking rock in Carter Creek. This dazzled me because I've only ever seen two on that rock, and I see turtles on that rock several times a week. They remind me of Thoreau's three chairs: "One for solitude, two for friendship, three for society." At this rate, my turtle neighbors will need a council and governing laws and a body politic. Guys, less may be more!
2. The same day the pugs and I saw a small Red Eared Slider, no larger than the circumference of a soda can, parked on a water-logged plastic bag wrapped around a thick-pronged stick in a separate creek. I've seen that bag floating in the water before, thinking I needed to hoist it out before it detaches from the stick and washes into unreachable spaces. But for this one day I was glad for the trash—a piece of found-art furniture in the wild.
3. While buying drinking water at Jacob's Well yesterday, the attendants informed me that the previous customer had paid for my water. Due to COVID restrictions, only one person is allowed in the store at a time. So patrons often line the sidewalk with their water bottles, waiting with eyes glued to glowing cellphones. I stood outside yesterday reading Alice Walker's The Chicken Chronicles: A Memoir. I spoke to no one. Did not even make eye contact. Still, the wheel of human dignity spun in my favor, and I was awarded a random act of kindness. Bless the fella who deemed me worthy.
4. My wife Latonya bought a succulent plant for my Valentine's Day gift. I named the plant Erykah—after Badu—because the gift was so "cleva." (Latonya purchased it in memory of a trip we made through a succulent garden years ago: an excursion I pouted about until I entered the gates. That was when I learned my appreciation for succulents exceeds that for flowers. She loves flowers. This difference between us, she said, is one to celebrate.) While working from home this past week, I enjoyed tending to Erykah, moving her in and out of the house into the sun—even moving her around the backyard as the sun closed its light against our fence. I noticed for the first time during which hours the sun is most prevalent in our yard and where. Erykah taught me something about my own domestic ecology.
5. Driving home from the grocery store on Saturday, I wanted to drop an old Archie comic in the Free Little Library box at Tanglewood Park. However, the park was so crowded that Latonya could not find a parking spot. We had to pull behind a set of legitimately parked cars while I jumped out to access the Library box. The park resounded with voices and dog barks and scampering feet. Across the street, teams of high-school and college aged kids—boys and girls—played soccer. After years of living in Kansas City and driving by loads of empty city parks, I never cease to marvel at the number of Tanglewood Park users on any given day.
6. Reuniting with my students after the great Texas freeze, I heard the same story multiple times: the first day of the snowstorm was all fun and games, but then occurred the blackouts and the lack of water and the skidding cars and the worry for family at distant places. Each student, whether they realized it or not, also told some story of a friend or neighbor who took them in or who they themselves took in. They shared stories about people shopping for and feeding one another, cleaning off windshields and digging cars out of ditches together, of helping to dig buckets of snow to flush toilets, and of long hours playing cards or board games by lantern or candle light. Most weeks of my students' college career will blur unnoticed, but they will all remember this one for better or worse. The Texas freeze demanded our collective attention.
Odell echoes ancient wisdom to practice paying attention, a solely human ability that the attention economy intends to monetize and exploit from us. So refusing to give our attention to such forces offers a victory back to the side of Created humanity: we were made for more than someone else's excavations.
But, again, attention must be paid to something or someone. David Foster Wallace argued that attention flows from us regardless of whether or not we choose its target. Most naturally, that attention will flow directly back onto ourselves in gross cesspools of narcissism because such, according to Wallace, is our "default setting hardwired into our boards at birth." So choosing what and whom to give attention is among the greatest gifts we can offer ourselves. I also would argue that as sons and daughters of our Creator, choosing wisely where to spend our attentional energy serves as an act of surrender and worship. King David's Psalm 8 comes most immediately to mind:
"O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens!
When I look at the night sky and see the works of Your fingers --
the moon and stars You set in place --
what are mere mortals that You should think about them,
human being that You should care for them?"
Beyond us. Above us. Outside us. Perhaps we can learn nothing more significant about ourselves than finally to identify those things which bowl us over, that fill us—not with amusement—but with awe, that makes the air in our lungs shake with jet-like turbulence even as our knees buckle motionlessly. I have experienced such matters most often in nature and in my fellow man. Frequently, I am so rattled by art, but never memorably online—definitely more in art than online.
And so Odell's resistance to digitized titillation echoes our Divine hope to connect with what lights us top to toe, with the Imago Dei—a communion with all things Spoken and Breathed. Our slothful willingness to settle for pixelated imitations slumps us right back into the wandering desert, melting down gold to build replicas of something that shines brighter than our boredom. Only online, we ourselves are often the gold melted down.