The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World

The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World by Christina Crook

Our technological advancements have one trajectory: up. Up the corporate ladder, up in social status, up and away from our surroundings, our physical demands, from the bore of the everyday. We are headed up, yet the happiest people in the world are the Danes sitting down to have dinner.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Christina Crook’s new book, The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World published by New Society Publishers. It is available on Amazon.com: Buy now.

An Upside Down World

The June 2014 cover of Wired magazine heralds the next great global shift since the iPad: Oculus Rift—the world’s most immersive virtual reality goggles. Mark Zuckerberg gestured at the possibilities himself in a post announcing that Facebook had purchased Oculus VF for $2 billion: “Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home. That’s the true promise of VR: going beyond the idea of immersion and achieving true presence—the feeling of actually existing in a virtual space.”

That’s because, by combining stereoscopic 3-D, 360-degree visuals, and a wide field of vision—along with a supersize dose of engineering and software magic—Oculus has found a way to make a headset that does more than just hang a big screen in front of your face; it hacks your visual cortex. “As far as your brain is concerned,” writes Peter Rubin for Wired, “there’s no difference between experiencing something on the Rift and experiencing it in the real world.” 

What happens when we are all immersed in our virtual realities the way we’re swimming in the sea of our smartphones? If we are able to live inside our best dreams—like immersion virtual reality promises—why would we ever want to leave? Perhaps because we have needs to meet: a baby that needs feeding, a sick spouse to tend to, a friend to visit, or an aging father to care for.

To return to the central question posed by Albert Borgmann: What happens when technology moves beyond lifting genuine burdens and starts freeing us from burdens that we should not want to be rid of?

Instead of rejecting our limits, we must abide in them more fully, together holding firm to our humanity with the strength of a giant. It is time to turn the tide.

“The hatred of the body and of the body’s life in the natural world,” writes Wendell Berry, “always inherent in the technological revolution (and sometimes explicitly and vengefully so), is of concern to an artist because art, like sexual love, is of the body. Like sexual love, art is of the mind and spirit also, but it is made with the body and it appeals to the senses.

“To reduce or shortcut the intimacy of the body’s involvement in the making of a work of art (that is, of any artifice, anything made by art) inevitably risks reducing the work of art and the artist itself . . . I am not going to use a computer because I don’t want to diminish or distort my bodily involvement in my work. I don’t want to deny myself the pleasure of bodily involvement in my work.”

When we make or fix something ourselves, we feel a fierce attachment to it, whether it be a lamp, a limb, or a marriage. Fixing is motivated work; it requires mental and bodily engagement as we connect to the particular. Repair Cafés and iRepair.com have emerged to feed the growing desire to take broken or damaged items and give them a new lease on life.

Begun by Martine Postma, in an effort to increase sustainability in her local community, the first Repair Cafe opened in Amsterdam in 2009. Since then The Repair Café Foundation, a Dutch non-profit, has supported growing numbers of “hackerspaces” around the world where people come together to fix items (vacuum cleaners, toasters, even old sweaters) that would normally have been tossed out. They are finding what Berry calls “the pleasure of bodily engagement” in their work.

Interestingly, the groups aren’t entirely comprised of mechanical people; some are IT workers, but there are also sewers, gardeners, editors, and even anesthesiologists. Knowing how to make repairs is a skill quickly lost. Society doesn’t always show much appreciation for people who retain practical knowledge, so they are often left standing on the sidelines. iRepair online tutorials, YouTube videos and Repair Café events create a space for valuable practical knowledge to be passed on, learned and used.

In the same way, something made for us by others—whether it be a pair of mittens, a piece of furniture or a home-cooked meal—holds a sensibility that bought things don’t share. The investment of time, energy, thought and care are wrapped up in the yarn, the heartwood, and the root vegetables.

It was a desire for this kind of investment that led journalist Andy Johnson to turn his hands to woodworking. Johnson grew up helping his dad, who was a painter, with home renovations. These early experiences resulted in an appreciation for not just the act of working with his hands and doing something tangible, but for the men and women who do it as a way of earning a living. As a result, growing up and into adulthood, Johnson was always making things, whether it be building a bookshelf, turning old doors into a hutch, or renovating his own house.

“I had to,” said Johnson. “Although it was just a hobby, it was essential.”

As a journalist working at newspapers and later in online news, his daily work didn’t provide much opportunity for working with his hands. And after 10 years, his job had become more about generating traffic, baiting social media clicks, or getting on top of the latest “trending” topic on Twitter. Johnson felt more desperately than ever the need to be doing something tangible with his 40+ hours per week.

“When I first got into journalism it was because I loved being out in the community, on the front lines reporting the news, telling stories, informing readers about important things. I felt like I was giving back and actively contributing to my community in an important way. As that changed and the job became more about watching the Internet for trends and then jumping on them, trying to capitalize on stories that were developing or already out there, it just started to feel soulless to me. Not what I wanted to be doing with my life.”

Johnson traded in his byline for a ticket to California to study woodworking at College of the Redwoods, one of the most well-respected woodworking schools in the US. Following in the tradition of legendary cabinetmaker James Krenov, whose books had inspired Andy for years, Andy is learning about commitment to craftsmanship, the subtle use of hand tools and techniques, and woodworking basics such as dovetails and mortise-and-tenon work.

“We are becoming aware of the fact that much of our life is spent buying and discarding, and buying again, things that are not good,” wrote James Krenov. “Some of us long to have at least something, somewhere, which will give us harmony and a sense of durability—I won’t say permanence, but durability—things that, through the years, become more and more beautiful, things we can leave to our children.”

It’s this longevity, this power and meaning in permanence, that speaks to Johnson, who plans to open his own custom-order shop in Toronto.

“Making your own plane, tuning it to sing like a fine instrument, and training your hand and arm to work in such a way that whisper-thin shavings fly from this piece of ancient technology . . . it leaves behind a surface that is smooth to the touch but somehow glows with handmade warmth. That is an awesome thing to experience.”

“Woodworking is just so different from my work before,” says Johnson. “It’s not about jumping on the latest trend and trying to cash in (at least for me it’s not). It’s about finding a way to do good work, to make good things, to share those things with people, to improve their quality of life and ultimately to make them happy. Most importantly, it’s about building things well, so they can last for generations. So you only have to buy them once . . . There’s something about using a handsaw, chisels and a plane to shape boards into a piece of furniture that is good for the soul . . . And though it may never be very lucrative, though I may struggle to make ends meet, it will be a happy struggle. It will be worth it.”

Making is personal and powerful more than ever in a throwaway culture. “Time is precious,” says Janine Vangool, editor, designer and publisher of UPPERCASE, an international magazine for the creative and curious. “Showing someone that you took time out to make something heartfelt is powerful.”

Putting together a good old-fashioned made-by-hand gift for someone doesn’t have to be something complicated, just something simple showing your loved one that you took some time. It could be a handmade card, some banana bread, a handwritten letter, a collage of pretty pictures, or a quirky little figurine—something from the past, packaged up with care.

Perhaps our greatest concern with “technological progress” should be the degradation and obsolescence of our bodies, suggests philosopher and farmer-poet Wendell Berry. “Let us see the good of the work, the good of the body, and ensure we do not, consciously or unconsciously, say good-bye to these things,” writes Berry. “It is in being tethered to land, to people, to body that we find our meaning, and without them we are left adrift.” 

Where Do We Find Happiness?

The other evening, instead of texting my next door neighbor to ask a question, I bundled my two elder kids up and scurried across the front lawn in -15°C winds. Instead of firing a couple of short texts back and forth (which seemed like better judgment once we were outside, freezing) my neighbor and I stood on the front porch talking about the challenges of parenthood. And then I saw it: the crack in her demeanor, tears at the ready. My neighbor was needy, and my physical presence let it come out.

“Weakness carries within it a secret power,” writes Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. “The cry and the trust that flow from weakness can open up hearts. The one who is weaker can call forth powers of love in the one who is stronger.”

Consider this scenario: the kind older gentleman on your block has had nothing to eat tonight. In fact, he’s had little all week. His pension check got misrouted, and he hasn’t had the wherewithal to get himself over to the food bank. Upon learning of this, you fill a bag of groceries, carry over a meal and some money to help him through. You see the need, it is at your front door, and you rise to help.

If people of character are formed by attachment, local cultures and local responsibilities, this suggests that our “up-at-all-cost” mentality may be the wrong target. Our technological advancements have one trajectory: up. Up the corporate ladder, up in social status, up and away from our surroundings, our physical demands, from the bore of the everyday.

We are headed up, yet the happiest people in the world are the Danes sitting down to have dinner.

In 2013 the United Nations declared March 20 the International Day of Happiness, recognizing the relevance of “happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world.” In 2014, Denmark was listed as the happiest nation in the world. Apparently, one of the key factors in their happiness can be found in their spirit of “hygge,” which translates as “coziness,” but is really more of a complex sense of intimacy, community and contentment that generally comes with having meals with friends and family.

As much fun as it seems to read old classmates’ vacation plans, the reality is that passive engagements don’t truly make us content. “Happy people tend to be more spiritual and engage in more active leisure—things like dancing and joining a sports team,” says Mark Holder, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “And happy people are less likely to engage in passive leisure, like being on the computer or watching TV.” The happiest people in the world feel deeply committed to their families, neighbors and immediate community.

While time spent alone can recharge you, research shows that happiness comes from more “pro-social” behavior. “Happy people tend to be energized by the social world and thrive on the company of others,” says Holden, “even if it’s an impromptu conversation at the grocery store.” (Source: “Four Surprising Happiness Busters,” Chatelaine, Feb. 2012)

The value of pro-social behavior is what Kristine Stewart, head of Twitter Canada, found during an afternoon of face-to-face conversations. In her role as a top executive at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, she was slotted to participate in a Human Library event at the broadcaster’s Toronto hub. Visitors to a Human Library are given the opportunity to speak informally with a varied group of “people on loan”—living, human books. In 15-minute slots, Stewart engaged one-on-one with a wide variety of individuals, tweeting at the end of the afternoon that she felt unexpectedly “rejuvenated.”

Often, it feels like too big a hurdle to get out the door or, in Stewart’s case, down the elevator. We expect to be sapped by in-person interactions when, compared to the same amount of time spent in front of our laptop, we experience the opposite. Broadcasting information, whether it be on TV, through social media, or by way of mass emails, does not allow for the give and take communication demands: that is, the exchanging and analyzing of ideas. These exchanges lead us closer to the Danish experience of “hygge.”

Even “speaking [on the phone] is easy,” says one executive interviewed by the Harvard Business Review, “but careful, thoughtful listening becomes very challenging. For the most important conversations, I see a real trend moving back to face-to-face.”

Even in corporate America, it seems, the personal is making a comeback.

The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World is published by New Society Publishers. Purchasing a copy through the following link will send a small portion of your purchase back to Second Nature.

Buy The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World, by Christina Crook

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About the Contributor

Christina Crook

Christina Crook
Christina Crook is an essayist and author of the new book The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World ("Utterly readable" - CBC, "Well-researched" - Ryerson University, "Timely, thought provoking" - Psychology Today.) Her TEDx talk, “Letting Go of Technology: Pursuing a People-focused Future,” was presented as part of the 2013 Global TEDWomen conference. For more information, visit www.jomobook.com

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