An Internet Tale

[Sarah Shapiro, noted Orthodox writer and daughter of literary icon Norman Cousins, would be a welcome permanent addition to Cross-Currents if I can finally talk her into it – YA – Updated Apr. 29 to attribute this article to our newest Contributor…]

A big writer’s block showed up one day and settled down right in front of my laptop. Generally speaking, I try to ignore this phenomenon. My philosophy is: don’t say its name out loud, since that affirms its reality and encourages it to stay. You’re better off preserving its illusory cloud-like status as a passing figment of the imagination, like an ice floe that will drift off to sea if you keep looking the other way.

But months were going by and it wasn’t drifting off. Since I’d grown accustomed over the years to the glow of the computer screen, I continued showing up for “work” each morning at my desk, and continued exercising my civic duty (as I had since the start of the Democratic primaries) keeping track online of the ongoing American Presidential campaign. Attacks and counter-attacks, prophecies and predictions, polls, blogs, bulletins, headlines, breaking news and shaking news, updates and pundits and Op-Eds…a lot of words all over the place. But none of them were mine, and it was getting scary. Silence such as this scares anyone who depends on writing to convince himself (or of course, herself) that he (or of course she) has value. And given the fact that vast regions of many writers’ left brains have been known to turn out the lights and simply shut down, sometimes remaining vacant for decades as the right brains sit around stringing sentences together, what would I do with myself if I never wrote again?

In the past, I’d been comforted at such junctures by the reply of the 1930s artist Kathe Kollwitz, who upon being asked if she ever had intervals in which she was unable to draw, declared: “Of course I do! Doesn’t the land have to lie fallow sometimes?”
On this occasion, however, the silence was getting to seem less cloudlike, or ice-floe-like, and more ice-berg-like.

This situation went on for I don’t know how long – probably all the way from New Hampshire to Iowa and back around to Texas. The Republican Vice-Presidential nominee was getting me nervous; I had to keep an eye on her. Hilary Clinton and Obama were also keeping me up at night. To make a long story short, it was a very big writing block.

Finally Obama was elected and the news began leveling out. But even though it was no longer my responsibility to monitor events every hour on the hour, my brain had been formatted, somewhere along the line, for computer compatibility. The medium had indeed become the message, and my neural pathways seemed to have merged, structurally speaking, with those of the Internet. “Only connect!” was one of the 20th century’s best-known mottos, and passive surfing had, without my realizing it, afforded me a connection with my fellow man (and with many famous celebrities) minus all the bother and fuss of dealing with human nature, mine or other people’s.

I felt a little lost, almost as if I were…Well, it wasn’t that bad.
But it was. With fear and surprise, I realized – no joke — that I was addicted. Not so much to the news itself, perhaps, as to the medium: the flicker, the flash, the zip, the zoom, the interactive this and interactive that, the cursor flying around the globe at the whim of my Touch-Pad. Like a moth drawn involuntarily to a warm, bright lamp, the soul’s instinctual desire to grope its way back to the original primordial light had been perversely transformed. I’d always congratulated myself on television’s absence from our home, and from all Orthodox Jewish homes, but there’s something about the nature of Internet — passivity in the garb of activity — which makes its warmth and brightness exponentially more addictive than TV.

It is a cliché that any phenomenon in Creation can of course be put to use by either the yetzer ha tov or the yetzer ha ra, so the power of the Internet, like any other invention to have affected the course of history for good and for ill, is currently used for mankind’s great benefit as well as our destruction. An obvious example is its use by Torah organizations to reach Jews around the world, whereby we see one of the harbingers of the Messianic Era, when “knowledge of G-d will fill the earth.” Yet if left to its own devices in an individual’s daily schedule, the medium tends naturally to take him for a comfortable ride elsewhere in cyberspace, coasting and surfing on the endlessly incoming wave of external events and entertainments, losing track of time, producing the illusion in the brain of movement, change, growth, travel, creativity, companionship, communication, and becoming a substitute for the full living of one’s life.

In my case, this process was accompanied by classic symptoms of addiction, such as startling from embarrassment when family members found me online, and gravitating like a sleepwalker towards the luminous screen in the middle of the night.

Withdrawal was slow and painful. As echoes of the campaign died down and piles upon piles of garbage were being carted out (though some will surely remain in my brain for eternal recycling) I felt empty. Without minute-by-minute news of Joe and Hilary and Sarah Palin and Barack, I was a lonely soul adrift in space, thrown back into my inner nothingness.

But the nothingness, emptiness, and darkness in an individual’s life serve in microcosm as the necessary tohu and vohu that preceded the Creation of the world. One by one, like mute lambs coming back home, little words started to appear, some of which were mine.
Whereupon my soul stirred, and opened her eyes.

All of which just goes to show: if you, too, have become addicted to the screen, you, too, can recover, and reclaim your thoughts, and go on doing whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing with your fast-diminishing minutes and hours and days.

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10 comments to An Internet Tale

  • Ori

    Maybe it’s a generational difference, but I find that I can’t write very well if I don’t take breaks and surf. Or maybe it’s the nature of the writing – I usually write technical material.

  • tzippi

    I’d comment but gotta run, turn off the computer, reclaim my life ;-)
    Oh, or does internet addiction only apply to politics and not sites like this…

  • Raymond

    I have prided myself on not owning a television for 22 years now. Yet I find myself completely addicted to the Internet, so much so that it has become a substitute for real life. But the Internet is so much easier: just think how many sites and interactions one can have, with a few clicks of one’s mouse. And behind this screen, I do not have to be super handsome, super wealthy, or super self-confident. All I need to know is how to verbally respond to what people say. Perhaps, in a way, the Internet allows us deeper communication, precisely because it is an exchange of ideas, without the distractions of superficiality such as appearance or wealth. It is a great equalizer.

    Besides, even as I write this, I can look up Norman Cousins (Anatomy of an Illness) on Wikipedia, to learn some of the details of that famous and inspiring man’s life that might have otherwise taken me far more time and effort to discover.

  • Bob Miller

    I’ve grumbled about how long it can take to get a comment moderated and posted on this blog, but maybe this delay is for the best, to keep our blog addiction under control.

  • Shades of Grey

    If someone is interested in further exploring the topic, there is a book I am currently reading, and would recommend, called “Caught in the Net”, by Dr. Kimberly S. Young (John Wiley & Sons, 1998). It gives time-management strategies applicable to internet usage, and also focuses on how one can identify the point when internet activity begins to function as a virtual substitute for, rather than supplementing, personal communication, and normal social interaction and friendship.

    What I found fascinating, was that while the author was taking a break from reading the responses to her online survey on internet addiction, she describes how she detoured to an online personal column, which she needed to understand, professionally, how it worked. Also being single at the time, she decided to participate, responsibly, by registering without giving her address or other information.

    Dr. Young writes how she was drawn into an online friendship, which one day, abruptly ended when the other party, without any forewarning, deleted his email account, vanishing into cyberspace. She concludes(pg. 105), “…when I soon got over my loss, I was amazed at how quickly I had trusted and poured my heart out to a stranger, how connected I felt to someone I couldn’t see, hear, or touch.” This, from a professional, who was simultaneously involved in researching and compiling statistics on the very subject!

    I’d actually like to write quite a bit more on this fascinating topic, but I suppose I’d better sign off :)

  • Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

    I really appreciated and gained from this excellent, articulate piece.

  • Raymond

    In response to Shades of Gray, I can only answer for myself, although I suspect what I feel, applies to many other Internet users as well.

    When I talk to complete strangers online, I really do not have to worry much about consequences. I will never actually meet these people in real life, I do not work with them, and I do not see them in the synagogue or walking in the local Jewish neighborhood. And, as an added bonus, I cannot see their indifferent or disapproving facial expressions. So, I feel very free to speak my mind. In a way, then, I am more myself online than I am in real life.

    What I have found ironic about this, is that I am a whole lot more popular online than I am in real life. In real life, people barely remember that I even exist, or perhaps wish they never met me. Online, in sharp contrast, I often spend hours every day answering people’s messages to me. So, even though I am not nearly as polite or diplomatic online as I am in real life, I am nevertheless a lot more approved of.

    Maybe this is a lesson that life is too short to worry too much about niceties. Just say what you mean and mean what you say. And I say this without reservation, since I am safely hidden behind my computer.

    Shabbat shalom, everyone.

  • Ralph Kostant

    “I’d always congratulated myself on television’s absence from our home, and from all Orthodox Jewish homes.” Ms. Shapiro has just written my home and the homes of probably the majority of Orthodox Jews in America and Israel out of the ranks of Orthodox Judaism. I do not take great pride in the presence of a television in my home, and certainly recognize its potential dangers in terms of bitul Torah and exposure to non-Torah values, but at the same time I never thought that watching television meant that I was not an Orthodox Jew. Doesn’t regular Torah study and observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and family purity count for something in determining whether one is an Orthodox Jew? Does my membership in the Orthodox Union and service as an officer and board member of an Orthodox Jewish synagogues and day school count for nothing? Has the glow of the television screen melted away any merit from my tzedaka contributions? While I am sure that Ms. Shapiro would indeed be a welcome addition to Cross-Currents, I hope that she does not truly view everyone to the left of her pattern of Torah observance as failing to qualify as an Orthodox Jew.

  • sarah shapiro

    That line about television certainly wasn’t meant as any sort of definition of Orthodoxy. Had that been the case, I myself would be in trouble, since the Internet in our own home carries so much material straight out of TV.

    I should have been more precise, and said that I’ve never taken a poll, but am personally unaware of Orthodox homes with TV’s.

    This could be because I’ve lived in Israeli haredi neighborhoods for 35 years and have never experienced life in an American Orthodox community. Or it could be that the televisions are hidden in people’s closets.

  • Raymond

    I am not religious, and yet I have not owned a television in 22 years, because I think that its negative effects far outweigh any positive effects it has. I seriously doubt that there has ever been a meaningful eulogy where it is said that the person who just died, did not watch enough television programs.

    Now, I do watch things on youTube that come straight from television, such as the recent Susan Boyle phenomenon. I also happen to love listening to the many Mozart pieces (and the Carpenters, sorry) that they have on youTube as well. But in all such cases, I am picking and choosing what I watch, and what I do watch, only lasts for a few minutes. I also see very little wrong with restricting one’s television watching to just the one hour before one’s bedtime, after a hard day of productive work.

    What I do find appalling, though, is the practice of having the television on every waking moment, keeping one from really focusing on anything important, including even one’s thoughts. Sadly, some families with bad communication, uses the television to shield themselves from having to talk to other family members. Unless one watches nothing but the History channel or something similar to that, I do think that watching television compromises one’s ability to think clearly or deeply.