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Think Small, Look Deep

Practicing Peace in the Digital Age

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I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the facts of life

__Henry David Thoreau

In 1845, Henry David Thoreau began his famous exodus into the woods, resulting in a two year settlement next to Walden Pond. It was here that Thoreau would battle his own “quiet desperation,” by examining his life and the truth captured by the details of nature. His writings would later reveal that “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” His thoughts assert that life requires intentionality, personableness with one’s “internal voice,” if it is to be truly experienced. In a tone not altogether confident in his fellow man, he questions whether or not some are ever really awake. Presumptive though it may be, Ralph Waldo Emerson later shared this sentiment in his infamous echo, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In an effort to learn from these masters of thought, this essay serves as an ode to self-reflection, to honest thoughts in private moments. It assumes the belief that truth and revelation often dwell in quieter places, recognizing that they require something of our character that constant commotion and busyness do not. Solitude and reflection, especially in this age we find ourselves, must certainly be learned. Finally, it offers a few lessons from the humble and great soul seafarers of the past – may they serve as a guide to navigate that internal ocean.

Reflection is an emotional muscle, requiring training and skill to wield properly. As with any skill, there are obstacles on the path to mastery

Western society professes that the reach of our efforts to change the world are the measure of their efficacy. We are told to “Think Big,” and cast our nets at a worldwide level. Globalization offers a web of connectivity, enabling rapid-fire communication and results, but requiring a steady input of energy. Social networks and an onslaught of information constantly light our screens, blinding us. Often we even attempt to reinforce our moments alone with community a click away, but held at arm’s length. We convince ourselves that in the physical absence of others, we are alone with our thoughts.

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But in truth, our moments alone are still filled with the constant competing updates of others. While we may convince ourselves that quiet is quiet, it is simply not. For reasons we do not even know, we retreat from our own thoughts in favor of the statuses, retweets, and adventures happening elsewhere, accessing them from a safe distance. The sun never sets on the digital age and Thinking Big now masks Rarely Thinking. We start to feel dissatisfied, fractured at best. As a result, the fragility of the human frame spreads thin from being continuously “plugged in.” While there are irrefutable advantages to technology at our fingertips, the digital landscape dominates our horizon. We have created an inescapable interconnectedness.

Yet, the problem is not the consumption; it’s the balance of ingredients.

To live and work in the modern world, technology is an indispensable asset. But it’s hard to hear the heart with all of this noise. Many wise souls have suggested a return to the voice within as an act of reclaiming control of our internal existence, to make peace with our dependency on technology by reestablishing a degree of self-reliance. The struggle is not a new one. In each age there has been comparable distraction available, competing voices ready to weary rather than renew the mind. For most of us, a freshness of thought is a distant memory. If we are to prioritize our own lives, our own adventures, a change is in order. Emerson proposed that, “Whenever a mind is simple, it receives divine wisdom.” Laozi referred to this inner life as the Tao; Plato called it the Good and the Beautiful; Jesus told his followers that the Kingdom of Heaven is within.

It’s time to Think Small and Look Deep

To return to Thoreau’s example, he left society to examine himself. While he still held close proximity to civilization, he was farther removed for more time than most ever are. For him, the woods became the metaphorical “Kingdom of Heaven within.” Walden was a place to think small, to listen to the whispered notes of the heart to see if he could not make out a symphony. He knew that environment affects thought, that in a very real sense, nature is a sanctuary.

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To redeem the connection we need with our own souls, we must first know our blind spots. Marshall McLuhan in his book War and Peace in the Global Village proclaims, “One thing about which fish know absolutely nothing is water.” Their immersion is paradoxically their blindness. Wherein lies the difficulty of technology as we know it: we are immersed. How can we truly understand our connections, our environments, our relationships, if we only engage with a poor, digitized substitute of each? Self-examination and contemplation are essential nutrients to a healthy, more human version of connection. They render the ‘user’ more apt to empathize and articulate; better yet, less likely to criticize.

How then, do we begin? Maybe it looks different for each of us. But with the time you have, and as much as you are able, consider this quiet revolution. It may begin without a sound, but will reverberate as far as you will allow it. So: let’s start small. In practical terms, this means exchanging the digital for the tangible. The nebulous for the natural. Instead of pinning and posting your favorite outdoor images, may we suggest finding your own sanctuary. You might just discover that the adventures you take alone – from far and wide, to just outside your front door – don’t even need retelling; their joy is most deliciously savored in silence.

Even without the woods (though they are my drug of choice), self-examination can be practiced in a number of ways and spaces. Waldens are everywhere; they are the momentary escapes that provide perspective. We must each find our own. When travel and retreat are unavailable, I most often find mine between the covers of a book. Each provides a portal into different worlds of thought and narrative. They provoke the heart within, causing us to identify why we connect with or reject particular characters, philosophies. Books are a holistic experience in that they require everything: hands to hold, eyes to read, heart and mind to consider. Another path I often take to examine myself is writing, journaling specifically. Writing our thoughts gives them a sense of Being, a substance. Writing releases them outside the confines of our heads, making room for new thoughts to freshen the air. It is in that emancipation that we either see the magnitude of our genius, or the frailty of our fears. For just a moment, we act as our own confidant, providing space to vent, recenter, and remind one another of goodness, truth, and beauty.

The roads that lead to the inner voice are as many as the personalities that our world holds. So pack the tent or the book; prepare the pen so that the heart can be known. Escape that you may invest in yourself, at long last.

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