On Distractions; or, Fear of the Present

Jeff Winger (2)On last week’s episode of Community, Jeff Winger tells his father, “I am not well-adjusted. More often than not, I am barely keeping it together. I am constantly texting  . . . and there is no one at the other end.”

What a perfect illustration of Generation Y. Although there probably aren’t that many people who frequently text to no one, many Millennials do constantly text, because, like Jeff, they’re not well-adjusted and they’re barely keeping it together. Whether texting, using an iPhone to make status updates on Facebook at all hours of the day, or taking pictures of every banal situation, my generation is constantly trying to distract itself from the present moment, as though deeply afraid of it.

Texting is useful for making plans or getting quick answers to simple questions. But when someone perpetually carries on lengthy conversations via text, particularly while in the company of other people, texting becomes problematic. It’s incredibly rude to the people you’re with, but that’s beside the point. The real issue is why would someone feel the need to be texting at all times, even when with friends? Texting incessantly might suggest you feel deep-seated discontentment that you aren’t able to vocalize. Subconsciously, you might feel that the present is not good enough. No matter who you’re with, no matter where you are, you’re anxious you’re missing out on something better that’s happening elsewhere. And/or you’re anxious you can’t contribute to the situation you’re in, so you intermittently remove yourself from it. Feeling chronically out-of-place, you remove your brain from your body, hurtling your mind across considerable distances to be with whomever you text, so you’re not entirely aware of or immersed in what’s happening around you.

Like texting, incessantly surfing the web on your phone points to this chronic sensation of displacement. Having internet access on your phone is certainly helpful if you get lost while driving, or if you want to find out what stores/restaurants/bars are nearby, or if you’re waiting in a doctor’s office and want to pass the time. But surfing the web or checking Facebook four or five times during social situations removes you from the present moment. Like texting, it suggests you don’t want to be engaged in the present moment, that you are more comfortable in virtual space. Being fully engaged in a situation can be uncomfortable. Maybe you won’t say the right thing, failing to portray yourself the way you want. Maybe no one will know what to say. The ensuing silence terrifies you because it brings into relief that life might very well be an ongoing episode of Who’s Line is it Anyway—that we are constantly improvising our existence. You don’t want to acknowledge that because you might not know who you are apart from the improv show; apart from your familial, social, and work roles; apart from societal mores and values. You’re not sure you’re anybody at all. Ideally, you’d like to seamlessly transition from one moment to the next so you’re not confronted with the notion that everything you do is pretense. So when the present moment disrupts the seam, you burrow into your phone, averting the crisis.

Another way many Millennials cope with their maladjustment is by accumulating and uploading photos of every moment of their lives, banal and otherwise—from the mango salsa tacos they made for dinner, to scaling the Royal Arch, from playing pool at their own version of Cheers, to barhopping downtown on New Year’s Eve. Mass accumulating pictures of your experiences better equips you to construct a narrative of your life you’re comfortable with. All the smiling faces provide tangible evidence that you know who you are and you like who you are. These pictures reassure you that your life is what you want it to be, and that you are “engaged” in it, because you wouldn’t take pictures of anxiety-ridden or fearful moments would you? (Yes, you absolutely would.)

If you spent a night at the bar texting more than you spoke with your friends, pictures allow you to experience that night retroactively. You look back on the photos and effectively move back in time, experiencing the events of your life when you are ready, no longer needing to worry about saying the wrong thing or that monster silence. With such a wonderful antidote to present-moment-phobia, it doesn’t matter if you text incessantly or surf your phone. You can relive the present more fully later.

Certainly, not all Millennials constantly bury their noses in their phones or collect more photos than a professional photographer. Most Millennials probably don’t. The point is that we should try to distract ourselves a little less. Try to overcome any latent fear of the present moment we have and engage with it as fully as we can. Acknowledge that even if all actions are actually pretense, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. That whatever is going elsewhere isn’t better than what you’re doing. The present moment is good enough if you let it be.

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