Nature Deficit, Information Surfeit

As if I could really get more inefficient, I have a new commitment to walking. Last week when I was going to see Dave in the hospital, I rode the train to 5th and Market so I could go to my bank (which Wells Fargo closed), so I ended up traipsing all over the place figuring out how to make my deposit. It was good for me. There are many advantages to traipsing. For one thing, I discovered a bakery that had “communal table” in their title and bought my cell the largest loaf of bread I have ever seen in my life. But the best thing about traipsing was being out in the sun, being with people, getting exercise. It was good for my soul.

How the world is not good for us

In the latest Newsweek, Andrew Weil verifies scientifically what most of us know instinctively. The modern world is not really that good for us. We experience what Dr. Weil calls, “nature deficit” and  “information surfeit.” As a result, a lot of us are depressed. Depression is a “disease of affluence.” In general, people who live in places that are furthest removed from modern standards have the lowest rates of depression. Amish people are ten times less depressed than the “English” who live in Philly. The human body was never designed for the postindustrial environment. We were not designed to be indoors so much, to eat industrially-altered food, to be isolated with our machines swimming in a deluge of electronic info. We all know we should be running around in groups hunting mastodons or sitting around in groups sorting seeds. Instead, we are vainly trying to adapt our brains and bodies to do what they can’t really do and they are rebelling by making us depressed.

Playa Samara, CR

My favorite solution to this dilemma is moving to Samara beach in Costa Rica and increasing my vitamin D intake enormously via my new-found skill of wind-surfing. Given that I sense God’s call to maintain my part of his mission to the megalopolis, I need to exercise some other options and so do you, probably. Let’s maintain ourselves well so we have the brain-health to be creative lovers in the Philly region! The church, as it turns out, is right in line with the scientists in this pursuit. We Jesus-followers, knew a lot about positive psychology before UPenn’s Martin Seligman and others popularized it sans Jesus.

How to encourage our mental health

1)    Practice meditation. We do this in our meetings sometimes. We’ll have an Advent day retreat to teach it and do it. As an every day discipline, meditation is a strong antidote to the brain-poisoning modern world. Our brains overeat mental junk food. Meditative prayer helps us develop concentration and the ability to attend to ourselves and to God. Rather than multi-tasking our way through life, we learn to be aware in the present moment.

2)    Sleep in the dark and get out in the sun during the day. Walk somewhere! Our sleep rhythms are impacted when we spend all our waking hours in artificial light and extend that into the dark. If the city lights are getting through your blinds at night, get some blackout curtains. Better sleeping means less depression.

3)    Stay social. This is a gift the church gives big time, since we make community a priority. It is a powerful safeguard to emotional well-being. The way of post-industrial society is toward more atomization all the time. We are often locked up in machines or relating through them. It is isolating and dangerous.

4)    Cultivate silence. Listen to pleasant sounds. Again, the church is good for this. We often practice silence together. Sometimes our music is beautiful; at least it is human and allows us to experience some natural sounds that relate to who we are most deeply. Some noise-cancelling headphones might be nice to have if you live in a  noisy neighborhood. Making regular field trips to places where you can hear the wind blow or listen to running water is a good idea. Fortunately, we have Fairmount Park. Just sitting by one of our rivers can absorb a lot of sound and cultivate some inner silence.

5)    Discipline your devices. The mobile internet so many of us have now dilutes our attentiveness even more. Info overload cultivates ADD. There has to be some limits to the amount of time we spend on the internet, with email or on the phone. Some of us have more capacity to work the machines than others. All of us, however, need to be the masters of our machines and not vice versa.

On another walk the other day, I passed by St. George Cathedral and the doors were open. It was time for daily mass. I had never been in the building so I decided to check it out, even though I was a bit afraid that I was interloping. They did not kick me out and I had a few minutes of quiet, listening to the priest chant the mass. I felt invigorated, like I had been hunting mastodons and stumbled upon a beautiful waterfall. The city is full of healthy things to do. The church is a big help.

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7 thoughts on “Nature Deficit, Information Surfeit

  1. Thanks for this Rod. I LOVE traipsing. I once took 2 1/2 week cross country trip with 2 close friends. We traipsed (via car) the whole time. we took no map. the logic was, we need to get to California, which is west. So we took only roads that went west or south. When we crossed state lines we knew where we were “on the map”, close enough at least. We got out of the car often, and talked with people in small bars and roadside flea markets. we got “lost” on backroads of backroads more than once. It was the most inefficient and invigorating trip Ive ever taken. i wouldnt want to do it any other way. ive also always instinctively traveled TO a place going one way, and have taken a separate route going BACK, no matter how close or familiar the places are to me. Its been my instinct as far back as I can remember. dont know why i do it, dont want to question it. I just want to see all the ways we can get to all the places God is making I guess. I think the worst thing to happen to the world recently is the advent of GPS navigation systems. Theyre making us insensitive, unaware, unconscious of our placements in the created world……more lost than found. If one pays attention to the sun’s arc across the sky, and can develop relational skills to ask for help…..oh, and can read a map, you wont get lost too easily. I hope we dont depend on a GPS device to follow the Spirit ever, but I could foresee that tragedy happening soonish given our slavish dependance on such technologies. I have hope though, with all that Ive experienced being a Circle of Hope. I have a lot of hope that we’ll stay traipsing, stumbling merrily towards the dawning of the light of God.

  2. I agree and I think the church has been a great way for me to experience a lot of these things. Having a safe, encouraging venue to process past and present conflict has been particularly beneficial to my mental health.

  3. This is really valuable stuff, thanks Rod. I hope we don’t just ingest this info and move on, but take time to figure out what we need to change to be healthy for ourselves, our families/friends, and the work of Jesus.

  4. Nathan and I spent a lunch hour in a center city park yesterday. What a beautiful November day! Philly has such long, mild autumns. Very restorative.

  5. Also perhaps not-so-coincidentally, I stumbled upon this quote from Henri Nouwen’s “Making All Things New” this afternoon which strikes me as relevant:

    “To bring some solitude into our lives is one of the most necessary but also most difficult disciplines. Even though we may have a deep desire for real solitude, we also experience a certain apprehension as we approach that solitary place and time. As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distractions, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. It is thus not surprising that we have a difficult time being alone. The confrontation with our inner conflicts can be too painful for us to endure. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.”

  6. I read this and immediately thought of Walter Benjamin’s “le flaneur,” or “the stroller,” who wanders aimlessly through the Paris arcades without direction, destination, or motive, for the sole purpose of actively engaging with the world around him/her, it’s sights, smells, and sounds and people. Discovery via traipsing is indeed quite refreshing, something worthy of practice, that I have found much joy in, though still don’t do nearly enough.

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