Sunday, April 8, 2012

Is Timmy Happier Than Hamlet? Thank Lassie!

I’ve been thinking a good deal lately about digital connectedness.  Obviously there are lots of reasons to love it.  Without it, I wouldn’t be writing this blog and hearing from people all over the world who read and enjoy the stories of Cleo.  I check out multiple news sources every day without killing a single tree.  If I have a question about some allusion in an article, that question is answered in .13 seconds—I know that because Google tells me so.  For whatever reason, my local supermarket has stopped selling my favorite tea.  I just bought six boxes of it on Amazon and it will be delivered to my door, for free, by Wednesday.  Yesterday morning, I suddenly remembered that I needed to read a book for work; it was on my iPad in less than five minutes.  Missed the first season of Game of Thrones?  No problem!  It can be streaming to your TV in the time it takes to mix the evening cocktail.  I love this stuff!

But with all of these miraculous advantages come some drawbacks.  I remember the days when you’d hear that someone received twenty-five emails in a single day and you figured she was the CEO of a major corporation.  These days, I empty my deleted emails folder every week because I don’t like it when the contents goes above five hundred items.  That’s just the deleted ones; that doesn’t include all the emails I’ve read and filed because they contain information about a particular student or an on-going work project.  It’s not uncommon for a student to contact me with a question over the weekend.  Could the question wait till Monday?  Sure!  But why wait when you can have instant access.  When I first started working at the school, we had a twenty-four hour turnaround policy—teachers and administrators were expected to answer all phone calls and emails within twenty-four hours of receiving them.  Lately, I’ve had parents who emailed me at 10 o’clock at night complain that I haven’t addressed their question by 8 o’clock the next morning.  Even colleagues have cornered me as I walk to the mail room, head out to the washroom, or take the extremely rare lunch break in the faculty room.  “Did you get my email?” they ask.  “I haven’t heard back from you.”  How long ago did they send it?  About half an hour.  There is never a chance to be untethered from the electronic device.

In his book Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers reminds his readers of the importance of the pause for reflection.  He writes, “If you’re sitting in the office zipping from e-mail to e-mail to text to Web page to buzzing mobile and back again—that is, doing the usual digital dance—you’re likely losing all kinds of opportunities to reach” the depth of reflection that leads to creativity, to insight, to a meaningful human experience.  He argues that digital devices can actually provide us with moments of connectedness so significant that they can “feed our emotional, social, and spiritual hungers,” but only if we build in gaps that allow us unconnected time to nurture the inner life.

When I first began bringing Cleo to work with me, when she was a tiny puppy with a tiny bladder, a colleague at school who spends a good deal of his time outdoors overseeing the physical aspects of the campus, remarked that he’d never seen me outside so much.  “That’s got to be good for you,” he added.  These days, when a potty break mid-day is all she needs, it’s a fabulous excuse to get me outside and onto the field for a romp with Cleo.  Even on the busiest of days, when the thought of having to take twenty minutes or so to let her pee and run around sniffing at gopher holes fills me with palpitation-causing anxiety, I know I have to go.  Within minutes of breathing in fresh air, of watching those tasseled ears flop, the tongue loll and the mouth gape in a smile, my stress level has dipped below the red line.  After a walk and some play time, I go back to the office or into the classroom refreshed, more patient, more creative, certainly more centered.

The other day, a friend at work sent me a link to an article titled “Man’s Best Friend May Be His Best Co-Worker, Too.”  According to the article, the first quantitative study ever done on the effects of pet dogs in the workplace showed that “Dogs in the workplace can make a positive difference. The differences in perceived stress between days the dog was present and absent were significant. The employees as a whole had higher job satisfaction than industry norms."  Not only was stress reduced, the employees communicated better with each other, they were more cooperative with and supportive of each other, and felt more supported by their employers.  Perhaps dogs provide us with that gap that William Powers champions, that pause for reflection and renewal.  They make us disengage from the cold, hard digital and connect with the furry, warm-tongued analog.  It’s long been known that pets lower our blood pressure, raise our spirits, and generally lead to self-reported higher levels of happiness.  Any dog owner could list dozens of reasons to explain this.

This past week, I made it a practice to sit with Cleo and make a fuss over her every time I returned to the office, whether I’d been away for an hour-long class or just for a quick pop out to the bathroom.  As much as I could, I disengaged from the small screens and took my work to the couch where I could sit next to her as she snoozed or gnawed on a toy.  I tried to build gaps of reflection into my day.  Maybe next week I’ll use the Out of Office feature on my email to send a canned reply: “I am currently away from my computer, communing with my dog.  I will get back to you when I feel like it.”

Okay, maybe not.  But I still vow to disengage from the digital and allow myself the gift of reflection.  With plenty of Cleo time.

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