Our Reactive World

by Chris de Serres

Last night I made sure everything was in place.  All I needed to do this morning was wake up and write.  But I made a mistake.  I clicked on my Facebook account.  For the next hour I listened to an excellent Sam Harris podcast on Donald Trump.  Then I got angry.  So I responded to a few posts from some well-meaning but misguided (my opinion of course) friends.  Then I watched the video of a Louisiana police officer shooting a pinned and defenseless black man.  The last hour spiraled out of control.

Sometimes I feel like a human pinball.  Reacting to one thing, searching for confirmation or dissent, then reacting some more.  I can go days in this mindset.  The entire internet is laid out in service of folks like me.  Going from one viral item to the next.  It is designed to get us worked up so we forget ourselves and what we are doing.

We accomplish little by being a part of it.  It always takes me back to Thoreau and his disdain for reading the newspaper.  If you read one article about some event why do we bother to read another?

We are addicted to reaction.  To this internet form of road rage.  We are obsessed with confirmation of how we think or feel.  This tendency to think in black and white terms is so seductive.

Our normal state of being is distraction.  Our ability to multitask feeds this.  Doing many things and never fully absorbing any of it.

Doing one thing at a time is a virtue.  A skill that seems lost.  It seems too inefficient, too simple.  It’s something only Buddhist monks do.  Yet, isn’t it what we all really should be doing?

I thought about that yesterday as my daughter was performing her puppet show for me.  I kept peering over at my IPhone for the latest update.  I had the noodles on the stove and the chicken in the oven.  So I got up every couple of minutes to check everything.

My daughter kept looking over at me to gauge my reaction to her performance.  She was trying so hard to make me laugh.  She just wanted my full attention, but that’s not how I live my life.  I don’t give my full attention to anyone or anything.

I am like some guy at a bus stop, waiting for the bus to come and take me away from this moment to the next.  Looking down at my watch.

I see this in myself and I wonder how many people live their lives in this way.  I wonder how it makes you feel to rarely immerse yourselves.  This is a skill that we have forgotten.  I see it all the time in children and I long for it.

We wait for the bus in perpetuity, but at what point do we realize it’s never coming?

I imagine there are millions, maybe billions, of people like me.  Living in a stream of reaction.  We are governed by our behaviors.  By the things that reinforce and punish us.  An entire field of psychology was built on our reactive world.

I try to meditate every day.  Often 5 minutes of meditation stretches out into an eternity and the voices in mind head are screaming and clawing at me to break free.  I can’t refuse to react.  Just sit there, be quiet, and consciously acknowledge these stray thoughts but don’t give them any power.  At least in this moment.  It is why meditation feels so foreign to westerners and to many others.

Yet, it reminds me that I am a person distinct from the gases permeating around me trying to draw me in.  There is something that isn’t reactive, that can just be here.  We don’t allow ourselves to just be, unmoved and contemplative.

I woke up this morning.  A little later after all the noises died down I went in to wake up my daughter.  I turned on the radio.  It was an old 80’s classic.  Take On Me by A-Ha.  You know the one.

I started dancing in an awkward 80’s kind of way.  I know it’s not cool but I love that song.  My daughter slowly sauntered out of bed.  She took my hands in hers and then we danced awkwardly together.  Everything else was just forgotten.