Elena Sheppard
January 15, 2015 11:59 am

The list of things we demand instantly is epic and ever growing. There are our benign instant desires (instant coffee, instant oatmeal, instant transportation); the slightly more complicated terrain (instant streaming, instant access, instant online e-matches); and then the most complex of all (instant takes, instant profundity, instant opinions). While there are big-time perks to this instant life (be still my Seamless-ordering heart) our instant-mania is also leaving some pretty essential human necessities in the dust – most notably, time devoted to languid thought.

Where this absence of dreamy, unhurried think-time becomes most troubling is when it comes to how we process and share (in the social media sense of the word) our opinions on the most serious of issues. With the Internet always a one-two tap away, it can be tempting to tweet out a reaction in real time, but what we lose when we immediately upload our emotions (or keep a feed open, filling our screen and thoughts with other people’s feelings) is time for us to really digest and consider what is happening – be that a tragedy, a political outcome, a very public misspeak.

What I mean is that by existing in a culture that asks for an instant response, no matter how grave or nuanced or complicated the issue, we’re robbing ourselves of one of the most important parts of working through said issue: really thinking about it.

This whole topic came into hyper-relief for me last week when Roxane Gay (feminist superhero) was asked via Twitter for a pretty immediate response to the terrible Charlie Hebdo tragedy. Roxane tweeted back:

Her response hit on two truths. 1) Not everyone is qualified to give a public opinion on every single topic (preach) and the stakes only get higher the more nuanced the issue. And 2) asking for an immediate opinion on a complicated matter (like a tragedy) rids a person of time for that oh-so-important thinking. Like all of us, Roxane needed to process what happened and she was bold enough and brave enough to tell people that that’s what she needed to do.

We see this demand for instant opinions repeat itself ad nauseum online. News sites are often warring to get the most immediate story, and live blogs offer real-time reactions to the news of the moment. Readers, and writers, and tweeters, and status-updaters are providing up-to-the-second thoughts which does have extreme benefits, but sometimes what we really need is time to ponder, to mull over, to consider, and muse, before we share our perspective. Not all opinions arrive fully formed like Aphrodite on the half-shell.

The writer Pico Iyer wrote a piece in the New York Times three years ago called “The Joy of Quiet” about what constant connectivity is doing to us and how essential quiet, reflection, and introspection is to our happiness, our development, our thoughts. I read it often, have written about it before, and will likely write about it again. In it he quotes the philosopher Marshall McLuhan who roughly 50 years ago said, “When things come at you very fast, naturally you lose touch with yourself.” That is exactly what happens in our instant-life. Iyer elaborates, ““breaking news” is coming through (perpetually) on CNN and Debbie is just posting images of her summer vacation and the phone is ringing. We barely have enough time to see how little time we have (most Web pages, researchers find, are visited for 10 seconds or less). And the more that floods in on us (the Kardashians, Obamacare, “Dancing with the Stars”), the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet.” If we’re living in feeds, living for reactions, living to give reactions, we’re never actually processing how we feel – we’re just getting bogged down or swallowed up in other people’s opinions.

This importance for quiet that Iyer writes about is also linked to the total, absolute necessity of daydreaming – which is another thing that’s fallen by the wayside when there are constant status updates to check, and photos to like, and people to swipe left on. As a piece in the New Yorker all about the virtues of daydreaming said, “We always assume that you get more done when you’re consciously paying attention to a problem . . . That’s what it means, after all, to be ‘working on something.’ But this is often a mistake. If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, then you need to give yourself a real break, to let the mind incubate the problem all by itself.”

Daydreaming time, thinking time, doesn’t happen in an instant and it’s what allows us to process news – both good and bad – so we can actually feel how we feel, not just mimic what we’re supposed to feel. It seems it was this time that Roxane Gay was asking for in her tweets, and it’s this kind of time we should all be asking for and allowing ourselves. Time to process, particularly when the going gets rough.

Our best ideas often come when we’re spacing out, and the way we work through our most complicated thoughts isn’t by thinking really, really hard or immediately jotting down reactions, but by rolling the idea over and over in our mind like sea glass in sand. Roxane Gay actually wrote about this topic earlier this week, commenting on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy and, yes, the demand for instant response. In the Guardian she wrote, “Life moves quickly but, sometimes, consideration does not. And yet, we insist that people provide an immediate response, or immediate agreement, a universal, immediate me-too — as though we don’t want people to pause at all, to consider what they are weighing in on. We don’t want to complicate our sorrow or outrage when it is easier to experience these emotions in their simplest, purest states.” Again, a vote in favor of taking time to think.

Ferris Bueller knew exactly what he was talking about when he said “life comes at you fast,” and it’s only getting faster. Our world may be instant but our brains are not, and they’re not wired to be. It’s on us to give our minds the space they need to stretch and think and really understand — and to allow the people around us to do the same. Before we update our statuses to weigh in on the day’s conversation we should make sure we’re not shooting from the hip, but rather speaking from the heart. Reflection is under-rated and the only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by giving ourselves the one thing that can’t be found on any screen: Time to think.

[Image via Shutterstock]