Like Thanksgiving

The weather finally feels right for the time of year, but it’s a little confusing. August felt like September, and then in October we had more of the June weather that should have come in July. It’s November now, but just a few days ago the frogs were croaking in our frog pond and the grass is as green as it was in May.

I saw the first Halloween decorations in the stores in August, and Christmas decorations showed up two weeks before Halloween. The calendar says Thanksgiving is this week, but the year cannot possibly be this old. Was it really over a year ago that we were recovering from historic wildfires in the mountains?

That feeling of time slipping by unnoticed is becoming more common. It’s a side effect of our hyper-connected culture and technology which affects our brains like drugs and alcohol, though the “blackout” is not as intense or debilitating.

Let’s take Facebook, for example. For all its positive benefits in enabling people to stay in touch, a significant amount of study has gone into getting us to spend as much time as possible using the platform and contributing content.

Here’s how that works: We post a picture or a comment and we look to see how many comments and “likes” we get. For every little red number we see, we get a small hit of dopamine. In the brain, exactly the same reward pathway is stimulated when we eat chocolate or use cocaine, and it’s also addictive.

A case can be made that any activity can be addictive. We release neuropeptides and create new neural pathways when we take drugs, but we also do that every time we learn something, or experience an emotion.  Addiction happens when we create neural pathways which cause us pain when they are not regularly maintained.

How many people can go to sleep now without checking that smart phone one more time? I dare you. See if you can do it without feeling at least a little bit unsettled, or making an excuse to look for that important message – at 11 o’clock at night.

The vast majority of human history was spent in close contact with the natural world and its rhythms. Time moved more slowly. Its passage was measured by the movement of celestial bodies, the sun , the moon and the stars.

We lived our lives in sync with those natural rhythms. They told us when to plant and when to harvest. Holidays were so much more than ritualized shopping extravaganzas. The Winter Solstice was vitally important because it marked the return of the sun after its long retreat, and the other major observances of the year, the Spring Equinox, Summer Solstice and Autumnal Equinox, reflected the movement of the earth itself on its long journey around the Sun.

As science and technology replaced myth and magic, we became detached from the origins of our natural observances. We invented new holidays to mark the year. They were just as important to us, for they reflected our values, our beliefs and our history.

The holidays no longer circumscribe the year. Now the passage of time is measured by the next opportunity to binge-watch our favorite television series. One holiday runs into the next. Every day is Black Friday, but there is no darkness at night, no rest, and no escape from the hive mind. We’re afraid of the dark, and we can’t see the stars anymore.

The large part of humanity which is technologically savvy today is entering the undiscovered country. We have disconnected, some of us permanently, from the natural rhythms of the earth. We have been drawn into an addictive, hyper-connected union which provides continuous stimulation and distraction, and it happened so quickly that we have no idea of the long term implications for our species. We are losing our sense of the passage of time, of historical context, of our national identity and even our sense of self.

We have a wonderful opportunity to reverse that trend every Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is about gratitude, and nothing is more effective than gratitude for centering us in the here-and-now. This holiday celebrates and renews the bonds of family and friendship. It is a quintessentially American holiday, and it comes without the religious and political baggage which has graffitied some of our other, more commercialized observances.

We invite you to disconnect from the Matrix this Thanksgiving. Savor every moment, every bite of stuffing, every conversation, and every nap. Look around the table and cherish the faces you see there. Remember the empty chairs, and speak the names of the departed to keep their memories alive. Know that there will be more empty chairs as the years go by, and no amount of “likes” will ever fill them.



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