“Elephants do something marvelous that I wish we would do more of the time,” says Katy Payne, a bioacoustic researcher who studies the sounds and songs of whales and elephants. “The whole herd, and that may be 50 animals, will suddenly be still, completely still. And it’s not just a stillness of voice, it’s a stillness of body.”
In an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett, Payne describes watching a herd of elephants moving together, some looking this way, some that. Some eating, some nudging their young, others just walking, but all making some kind of noise or movement. And suddenly, for no obvious reason, the whole herd freezes in place for a minute or more.
“They’re listening,” Payne explains. “When they freeze, they tighten and lift and spread their ears. This, among other things, tells us that they’re concerned with what’s going on over the horizon.”
For most of my adult life, and maybe even before that, I’ve also been interested in “what’s going on over the horizon.” For the elephants, the concern is more literal: Is there danger coming? Or is there food available? For me, it’s been more figurative, maybe even spiritual. I’ve wondered about not only what’s coming, but what is here now. What’s real and true. What are the deeper meanings that exist beyond what I can see?
For decades, I’ve sussed out the answers to these questions with books and movies, through art and poetry, by singing and praying and writing. And with listening.
Like the elephants, I occasionally find myself suspended in time and space, face lifted or headed bowed, trying to work through problems, tease out plans, and imagine possibilities. Sometimes, those around me stop too, when the problems or the possibilities affect us all in some way. Usually, whether we realize it or not, what we’re most interested in is hearing the voice of God, His divine presence echoing through the caverns of our lives.
But what happens when the herd grows distracted and forgets about what’s going on over the horizon? What happens when only one or two stop to listen? If the rest of the herd continues noisily along, how will any of us find our next meal or hear when danger is near?
A 2005 New York Times Magazine article called “An Elephant Crackup?” highlights the ways elephants have become more violent toward humans over the past few decades. And not just when provoked. In the On Being interview, Payne mentioned this article, summarizing it as “elephants becoming belligerent so that they are actually killing people and destroying villages, as it were, unnecessarily, not in the midst of a contest for crop food, but just …”
“And the implication was belligerent and depressed, kind of mentally damaged, right?” Tippett clarified.
“Yeah. Sure. Well, it’s all very understandable, and it’s terribly disturbing,” Payne said.
Very understandable after what Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist at the environmental-sciences program at Oregon State University, describes to the Times writer as a “form of chronic stress, a kind of species-wide trauma,” after decades of poaching, culling, and habitat loss, which “have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture.”
Last year about this time, I felt myself experiencing the symptoms of chronic stress―not exactly belligerence, like the traumatized elephants, but a constant anxiety fed by an unexplained anger just below the surface. I was lonely, feeling cut off from my herd somehow, but also distracted. I’d stopped listening, stopped wondering “what’s going on over the horizon,” and instead I just kept looking around at everyone else’s constant motion and noise, feeling like I couldn’t keep up, like I didn’t belong. It was almost as if my own culture had collapsed beneath me.
I’d been wondering for months whether social media might be the culprit and began to seriously consider whether my writing career could withstand a permanent withdrawal. I did Google searches on both “authors who don’t use social media” and “how to use social media as an author.” I attended a weekend retreat called “Attending to God in an Age of Distraction,” just months after I paid for an online course called “Instagram with Intention.” I prayed, I journaled, I had conversations, and then I decided. I had listened and heard what was over the horizon. I was leaving social media.
Just days after my decision, I tripped and fell on the concrete steps in front of my house, breaking my left wrist and foot. For the next several months, I hobbled around in an ortho shoe and a cast, attended occupational therapy, and finally healed. There were no selfies posted from the ER or statuses updated as I sat in the waiting room at the orthopedist’s office. I didn’t post a live video on Facebook when the PA sawed off my cast nor did I create an Instagram story when I first held a gallon of milk with my now-healed wrist. In fact, I didn’t even think about social media all the much in the first few months, mostly because broken bones seemed much more important than closing down my Twitter account, but also because I could barely use my iPhone one-handed anyway.
By the time the new year rolled around, my bones were sufficiently mended and rehabbed, and I was recommitting to my work as a writer for 2019. But as I worked on a blog series and crafted a book proposal, suddenly my absence from social media posed a problem. How would I tell people about my work?
At the same time, I found myself still more distracted and less focused than I expected. Sure, the constant anxiety I’d felt using social media had abated. I wasn’t spending hours on Facebook, outrage growing with each new political post. I also wasn’t spending time setting up photo shoots for Instagram posts when I should have been writing. I’d also begun reconnecting with my herd more. I wrote more letters to people and started calling them when they came to mind rather than relying on algorithms to prompt me. I also sent more personalized text messages to friends or family with updates about health scares or vacations rather than flinging the information out to the masses. I was reading more too, and thinking better, but something was still off.
When I was bored or waiting for an appointment or even sitting on the couch watching TV with my family, I still found myself grabbing for my iPhone. In the absence of Instagram or Facebook, I began checking the weather a lot (and by a lot, I mean multiple times a day). Then there was email: even when I wasn’t expecting a message, I’d pick up my phone and check my email app dozens of times a day, just to see. At night, I watched Netflix or Amazon Prime on my phone or iPad until I drifted asleep, sometimes even turning an episode back on after midnight if I woke up.
By the late spring my anxiety level began to rise again. My book proposal had been summarily rejected because of my lack of a social media presence, my blog series had very modest views, and I began to panic. Maybe I’d been hasty to give up social media completely. I had no regrets when it came to my personal life. I’d long gotten over the sting of being the last one to hear about family members’ new cars or repaired hernias or friends’ dreamy vacations and new jobs. I also was more and more convinced that social media companies cared very little for my privacy and cared a lot about gaining my attention. I was fed up with the details of my private life being the “product” that social media companies were selling to corporations, political campaigns, and even churches for targeted ad campaigns, talking points, and product development. But could I continue being a professional writer and not be on social media? And maybe more importantly, why was I still so distracted even after months of no social media?
Elephants, as you may know, possess an impressive capacity for long-term memory. Thus the saying, “Elephants never forget.” But it’s not just an anecdotal or observational conclusion. According to the New York Times Magazine’s Siebert, functional M.R.I. scans began to be used to study elephant brains back in 2006, and the imaging showed “a huge hippocampus, a seat of memory in the mammalian brain, as well as a prominent structure in the limbic system, which processes emotion.”
The well developed memory of elephants means early traumas and long-term stress can impact an elephant’s behavior and emotions for years, memories keeping the pain and distress front of mind. But it also means healthy relationships within the herd and experiences of safety stick with elephants, too. They can be reminded of what’s good and important.
Near the end of Krista Tippett’s interview with bioacoustic researcher Katy Payne, Payne told a story about an old elephant named Rosie, whom she had recorded at the Portland Oregon zoo early on in her career.
Several years later, Payne visited the same zoo again in her work on a documentary film. Rosie had died a few years earlier, but Rosie’s granddaughter, Sunshine, still lived at the zoo. When Payne played the earlier recording of Rosie, suddenly the elephants lit up.
“The elephants went into paroxysms of groaning and roaring,” Payne explained. “Well, I do expect that they were recognizing that voice. You know, there’s a real memory, and voice is part of it. There’s something very physical about this kind of memory and this kind of emotion.”
But like the elephants, we have to listen in the first place if we ever expect to remember.
In June, as I wrestled with whether or not to re-enter the world of social media, and if not, how I would continue on as a professional writer, I began reading Cal Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism. I had read his Deep Work a few months earlier and was inspired by his commitment to eschew all social media, hold “office hours” instead of engaging in time consuming email threads, and block off large chunks of time for focused work. Of course I wasn’t exactly able to mimic his work life as a tenured computer science professor. In fact, my life as a work-at-home freelance writer who doubles as a card-carrying member of the sandwich generation, caring for teens at home and an elderly mother in a nursing home, looks almost nothing like Newport’s. But his tips in the first book inspired me to think differently about my days and my work. I had high hopes for this second one.
If Deep Work is a manifesto for a distraction-free professional life, than Digital Minimalism is a credo for our personal lives, Newport says. He wrote the book in response to readers who “agreed with [his] arguments about office distractions, but as they then explained, they were arguably even more distressed by the way new technologies seemed to be draining meaning and satisfaction from their time spent outside of work.”
While reading the book, I began to recognize the root of my own problems with social media, and really all new technology. For one, I saw how our relationships with these technologies is complicated by the fact that our uses of them, and even their place in our culture, are neither all good or all bad. “This reality creates a jumbled emotional landscape where you can simultaneously cherish your ability to discover inspiring photos on Instagram while fretting about this app’s ability to invade the evening hours you used to spend talking with friends or reading,” Newport writes.
Also, because we can see the benefits of these tools, and in some cases even feel that they are an essential part of modern life, we spend enormous time and energy trying to temper the downsides of them through “modest hacks and tips,” even though in my case, and apparently in the case of many whom Newport talked with when writing Digital Minimalism, the moderate approach doesn’t work.
“Minor corrections, willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape―the addictiveness of their design and the strength of the culture pressures supporting them are too strong for the ad hoc approach to work,” he writes.
Instead, Newport commends readers to develop a “philosophy of technology use,” and spends the rest of the book offering his own philosophy, which, as you could guess, is called digital minimalism. It’s simply this: “Focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support the things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”
As I thought about that philosophy, I began to see it simply as this: use new technology to support your life rather than adapting your life to support new technology. It sounded like what I needed.
Like any belief statement or creed, each of the words in Newport’s philosophy of technology use was chosen for its exact meaning, which he explains in great detail throughout the book. But what did those words mean to me? And was digital minimalism a philosophy I could ascribe to myself?
I spent the next month attempting to define “online time,” which for me happens across many devices, trying to determine what it is I actually value, not just on a high level but in the particulars of my personal and professional life, and seeking to discern the ways that technology already supports the way I live and work and play and rest.
I also tried out Newport’s suggested 30-day digital detox, though not perfectly, trying to apply that mostly ineffective “willpower” mentioned above to temporarily cut out Netflix in bed and email on my phone, among other things. I tried to remember what life was like before we were all so connected and so disconnected at the same time. How did I make plans with people before texting? How often did I check my email back when it meant sitting down at a desk, powering up a PC, and then waiting for a dialup connection to refill my inbox? And didn’t I used to have a camera that required film and flashbulbs? I wondered what had happened to those “old” technologies that once seemed so shiny and new: not generally, like how entire industries are now just gone, but specifically, like where did my actual camera end up? Do I still have it?
In the end, I decided I am, or want to be, a digital minimalist. I came up with a list of things I value and a few rules of engagement to help me implement the philosophy, and I also made a few more permanent decisions that would prevent me from having to return again and again to the ineffectiveness of willpower: like taking all email and internet browsing apps off my iPhone.
But I also made this commitment to myself: this is not just a game to win or lose. This is about the health of my soul, my attentiveness, my investment in relationships, my ability to be creative and to work. If I break a rule one day, it doesn’t mean I abandon the philosophy. It’s a rule of life, a way forward, and along the way, I’ll need to make new lists and new rules to fit new seasons of life.
And the goal can never just be about how to use technology better. The goal has to be to live better and to listen better. To be concerned again about what’s going on over the horizon. If using technology better helps me do that, then I’m all in.
As it turns out, wild elephants aren’t the only ones experiencing belligerence caused by chronic stress. In fact, in the United States, most Human-Elephant Conflict, or HEC, occurs in zoos or circuses where elephants, who often have been ripped from their herd, sometimes violently, are kept relatively isolated, “a kind of living death for an animal as socially developed and dependent as we now know elephants to be,” writes Siebert, in that New York Times Magazine article.
Several of these elephants who’ve been involved in HECs end up at the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, a 2,700-acre rehabilitation center and retirement facility. Here, elephants receive medical care, along with psychotherapy to help them deal with the traumas they’ve experienced.
“Great pains are taken, meanwhile, to afford the elephants both a sense of safety and freedom of choice — two mainstays of human trauma therapy — as well as continual social interaction,” Siebert writes.
Mostly, these elephants are given the chance to be part of a herd again, to be out of the isolating, anxiety-inducing life of distraction they lived as performers and living exhibits. Here, someone else isn’t making money off their antics or using their images on billboards and social media posts to attract audiences.
At the Elephant Sanctuary, they also have the chance to stop and listen again. To be concerned about what’s over the horizon, and have the choice of what to do about it.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about using or not using social media and other new technologies. I’ll be writing more about what these changes have meant for me as a writer in the coming weeks, along with some thoughts about how those who are interested might create and introduce a philosophy of new technologies in their own lives. In the meantime, if you’d like to print this article to read more closely or share with friends, you can download a PDF copy.