Recently I’ve been reading Digital Minimalism (affil.) by Cal Newport. A friend recommended it after hearing about The Dimmer Switch: Reflection as a Path to a Brighter Future, the book proposal I’m working on on the subject of reflection — and I see why. In addition to painting a stark picture of the mental health effects of our constant technology usage (particularly social media, but really all forms of connectivity), the author writes a lot about the benefits of solitude — and the detrimental effects of what he calls “solitude deprivation.”
The book, and Newport’s research, proves true much of the hypothesis of The Dimmer Switch: Time alone with our thoughts isn’t just a modern-day luxury, it’s critical to our health and wellbeing.
Newport defines solitude not as being alone, but as being without the input of other minds, and I think this is an important distinction. We can be alone but not have solitude if we’re scrolling our Facebook feed. Newport goes so far as to say that even reading a book qualifies as “input from other minds” — which for a bibliophile like me is pretty scary. I can imagine a long stretch of time without being on social media (in fact, I crave that!), but without reading a book? That is difficult to wrap my head around.
But I see the author’s point: we don’t know our minds or ourselves if we don’t have time alone with our own thoughts.
In my family, when our older child is out of school, we have enforced an hour of quiet time every afternoon ever since she outgrew naps. It started out as a way to keep our sanity when we no longer had the natural break of her naptime, but we quickly saw how important it was going to be for her to learn how to be alone in her room for stretches of time. If she had her way, she’d be glued to us 24/7. Recently, though, we’ve realized that us grown-ups need solitude, too. Not just the afternoon quiet time we give our 5-yr-old, but entire days where we can safely disconnect. Jeremy and I have both, independently, been working on breaking bad habits with our technology use — and now we’re taking things a step further. We’re going to take turns giving each other the gift of solitude on a regular basis.
I realize what an immense privilege this is, and I don’t take it for granted. My hope is that we’ll not just be healthier human beings, better partners and better parents because we have time to disconnect every so often — but that we’re setting a positive example for our daughters. Our children are growing up in a different world than we did. With smartphones, social media and all the digital communication technology available instantly and at their fingertips, our kids are going to have to consciously decide to take the solitude they need to be healthy human beings. I want my girls to see what it’s like to balance solitude and connection.
In The Dimmer Switch, I’m adding conscious thought to the conversation of solitude. Healthy reflection isn’t just about letting your mind wander (though that’s part of it), it’s about intentionally processing the information we’ve consumed. It’s about not letting the constant input we’re subjected to in this modern world become a stream of information that goes in one ear and out the other — but capturing the important information and consciously processing it to figure out what it means to us, what we really think about it, and how it connects to other information that we have. It’s about making critical thinking part of our everyday lives.
Writing this proposal is a massive undertaking, and I’m still writing fiction too. In fact, I’m working on a paranormal novel right now that should be complete by the end of March and published in June. But now more than ever, I think the conversation around reflection, solitude, and more intentional connection is an important one, and I want to encourage that conversation with The Dimmer Switch.