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He Was Once Possessed

Andrew Sullivan on how expelling the Internet delivered him into a new life

The Catholic philosopher Michael Hanby has said, “Before technology becomes an instrument, it is fundamentally a way of regarding the world that contains within itself an understanding of being, nature, and truth.” If you want to know the truth of this insight in a way that every single one of us can grasp, consider this must-read essay by Andrew Sullivan, about how technology nearly killed him. 

Before we dive into it, let me testify to the accuracy of what Sullivan says in this piece about himself. We had coffee in Boston in the spring of 2015. It was the first time I had seen him since he abruptly left his highly successful blogging gig. He looked like a different man: radiant with serenity, skin glowing, in physical shape, with a palpable sense of inner peace about him. What on earth happened to you? I asked.

He told me that he got offline, and that it had made all the difference in the world to his health and well being. Now, in that essay, Andrew tells all. Excerpts:

A year before, like many addicts, I had sensed a personal crash coming. For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week, and ultimately corralling a team that curated the web every 20 minutes during peak hours. Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. Throughout the day, I’d cough up an insight or an argument or a joke about what had just occurred or what was happening right now. And at times, as events took over, I’d spend weeks manically grabbing every tiny scrap of a developing story in order to fuse them into a narrative in real time. I was in an unending dialogue with readers who were caviling, praising, booing, correcting. My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

I was, in other words, a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.

If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”

But the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day; a new-media business that was actually profitable; a constant stream of things to annoy, enlighten, or infuriate me; a niche in the nerve center of the exploding global conversation; and a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego. If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.

Eventually he checked himself into a meditative retreat center for a kind of information detox experience. It was really hard at first, living in the silence, without his smartphone or an online connection. But then:

Soon enough, the world of “the news,” and the raging primary campaign, disappeared from my consciousness. My mind drifted to a trancelike documentary I had watched years before, Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence, on an ancient Carthusian monastery and silent monastic order in the Alps. In one scene, a novice monk is tending his plot of garden. As he moves deliberately from one task to the next, he seems almost in another dimension. He is walking from one trench to another, but never appears focused on actually getting anywhere. He seems to float, or mindfully glide, from one place to the next.

He had escaped, it seemed to me, what we moderns understand by time. There was no race against it; no fear of wasting it; no avoidance of the tedium that most of us would recoil from. And as I watched my fellow meditators walk around, eyes open yet unavailable to me, I felt the slowing of the ticking clock, the unwinding of the pace that has all of us in modernity on a treadmill till death. I felt a trace of a freedom all humans used to know and that our culture seems intent, pell-mell, on forgetting.

Andrew goes on to talk about how he had a sudden breakthrough at this retreat, one in which he had to face painful memories of childhood trauma. It overwhelmed him emotionally. He struggled to deal with his feelings, but the counselor at the retreat told him to hold on, that this is normal, and it will pass.

And in time, it did. Over the next day, the feelings began to ebb, my meditation improved, the sadness shifted into a kind of calm and rest. I felt other things from my childhood — the beauty of the forests, the joy of friends, the support of my sister, the love of my maternal grandmother. Yes, I prayed, and prayed for relief. But this lifting did not feel like divine intervention, let alone a result of effort, but more like a natural process of revisiting and healing and recovering. It felt like an ancient, long-buried gift.

Read the whole thing. Seriously, do, and pass it on to everyone you know. It’s one of the best things Andrew has ever written. This is far from a generic anti-technology, anti-Internet screed. There is profound religious insight in this essay. The gist of it is here:

In his survey of how the modern West lost widespread religious practice, A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor used a term to describe the way we think of our societies. He called it a “social imaginary” — a set of interlocking beliefs and practices that can undermine or subtly marginalize other kinds of belief. We didn’t go from faith to secularism in one fell swoop, he argues. Certain ideas and practices made others not so much false as less vibrant or relevant. And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

Andrew says that if churches stopped trying to outdo the secular world with light shows and racket, and instead offered a place of silence from which to escape the noise of modernity, they might draw more people. Maybe he’s right.

Andrew’s recollection of his experience at the meditation retreat reminded me of this passage from A Time For Silence, a thin book the English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about his stays at monasteries. He was not a religious man, but he sought the silence of the abbeys:

The period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality is slow, and, at first, acutely painful.

To begin with, I slept badly at night and fell asleep during the day, felt restless alone in my cell and depressed by the lack of alcohol, the disappearance of which had caused a sudden halt in the customary monsoon. The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the house I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy  and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity. This new dispensation left nineteen hours a day of god-like freedom. Work became easier every moment; and, when I was not working, I was either exploring the Abbey and the neighbouring countryside, or reading. The Abbey became the reverse of a tome — not, indeed, a Thelema or Nepenthe, but a silent university, a country house, a castle hanging in mid-air beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations. A verse from the office of Compline expresses the same thought; and it was no doubt an unconscious memory of it that prompted me to put it down: Altissismum posuisti refugium tuum …. non accedet ad te malum et flagellum non appropinquabit tabernaculo tuo. [Thou hast made the Most High thy refuge … no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. — RD]

Along these lines, here is a relevant passage from the philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek, from her book A Little Manual For Knowing:

Many people don’t think much about how we know because we take it for granted. But we tacitly presume some things about knowing. We tend to think knowledge is information, facts, bits of data, “content,” true statements — true statement justified by other true statements. And while this isn’t exactly false, we tend to have a vision of knowledge as being only this. We conclude that gaining knowledge is collecting information — and we’re done — educated, trained, expert, certain.

This is a philosophical orientation, an unexamined one. It has a lot of appeal, because it is quantifiable, measurable, assessable, and commodifiable. It offers control and power. But we’ll see that the knowledge-as-information vision is actually defective and damaging. It distorts reality and humanness, and it gets in the way of good knowing.

What Meek is saying, and what Andrew discovered, is that our insatiable craving to consume data, we are actually making it impossible to know some truths that only become accessible in silence and stillness. Decades ago, I went with a friend out to Wimberly, Texas, far from the lights of Austin. I was stunned to see so many stars in the sky. They were there all along, but I had always lived in places that had too much light pollution for me to see them. It was a revelation. This is how silence works.

St. Benedict begins his Rule with this call:

Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts, and incline the ear of your heart (Prov. 4:20).

If the ear of our heart is not inclined to listen, we will be lost. This is why Benedictine monks traditionally keep silence: so they can listen for the voice of God. In writing my book on The Benedict Option, I have come to believe that the chapter on Technology, which tracks closely with what Andrew discovered, is perhaps the most important one.

What does this have to do with the Michael Hanby quote with which I started this essay? Let’s recall it:

“Before technology becomes an instrument, it is fundamentally a way of regarding the world that contains within itself an understanding of being, nature, and truth.”

We who immerse ourselves in information technology become a people who regard the world at the level of sensation. What does surrendering to this technology teach us about being, nature, and truth? It is not a neutral tool. As Andrew’s essay makes plain — and this is something he had to discover for himself from experience — the particular content of the data we take in is not as important as the form in which we receive it. You might even say that the medium is the message. 

I wonder how my life and my physical health would improve if I did what Andrew Sullivan had the courage to do, and just cut the cord to the Internet. I can’t afford to do it now. I make my living via the Internet, and I have a family to support. But I hope that if the day ever comes that I do have that option, that I will have the good sense to do what he has done. Look, I love being on the Internet. Andrew’s experience of finding pleasure in it is my own. But it’s a disordered, and disordering, pleasure. At some point you have to face up to the fact that if you keep going like this, you’re going to lose if not your health, then at least your humanity — and maybe even your soul.

Ultimately, Andrew’s essay is a humanist religious testimony, bearing witness against one of the most powerful gods of our place and time. It is an essay about possession and deliverance. One lesson I take from the piece is that we don’t have to wait for genetics laboratories to abolish man, in the sense C.S. Lewis meant. We are doing it ourselves, one click at a time.



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