The Art of Graciousness

graciousnessgrey-shuhs-nis ] the quality or state of being benevolent, courteous, and kind: noun

A mere three days ago, many in our country participated in a holiday celebrating the United States. Chicago witnessed the latest carnage due to a semi-automatic weapon mowing down parade attendees. Instead of using this space to celebrate our country or writing about another tragedy, I want to discuss graciousness and how we interact with one another in today’s technological world. It has come to my attention lately, more and more, that we, as a society, are losing our manners. The art of graciousness, empathy, and understanding is slowly eroding into a state that normalizes angry online rants, a void of factual posts, ghosting, and a craving for immediate gratification. With little regard for who is on the receiving end (or lack thereof), our messages are getting neatly packaged into 280 characters and 15-second videos by way of Twitter, texts, and TikTok. Words are becoming neatly jumbled letters carelessly tossed about. Meanings divorced from the sender’s intention or maliciously thrown about behind hidden online identities.

image courtesy of Medium

For four years, we endured he who shall not be named utilizing Twitter rather than taking the traditional path by a trained press secretary. Online wars between left and right continue to burn with statements set aflame by comments that would never be said face to face. What has happened to the social contract? There seems to be a void of mindfulness and humanity that is becoming the norm. The social bonds that we once experienced are being overshadowed by technological advancements.

image: University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth

There are many ways that our phones enhance our lives. Medical devices can now be linked to apps for immediate assistance. Facetime kept us in touch with our loved ones during the COVID pandemic. The Kindle app allows easy access to our latest read at the click of a screen, and they assist my lack of direction. Allowing me easy navigation from point A to B. Yet there are downsides. The psychological impact includes loneliness, feeling self-centered, losing touch with reality, and experiencing a loss of empathy.

To highlight how smartphones encroach on our lives, American photographer Eric Pickersgill photoshopped away the digital devices from his portraits. In his project “Removed,” the artist shows our addiction to modern technology, social media, and its impact on our everyday lives.

Cuban artist Angel Boligan highlights the disturbing reality that our children are facing today. No longer are children playing outdoors. The days of kick-the-can and afternoon dodgeball have been replaced by Fortnite and a steady stream of stupid pet trick videos, forever feeding the digital hankering. The impact that technology is having on our children’s brains is significant.

Angel Boligan. Let’s Play.
Jean Jullien

While in New York City, I frequently ride the subway. I purposely put away my phone during my commute, allowing me to observe everyone around me staring down at their small screens. I’m sure that my contrarian instincts contribute to this behavior. Yet, the exercise continually reinforces my desire to be offline, however faltering I am at times. Having my phone tucked away allows conversation with someone in person and making eye contact with a stranger across the car who is also engaging in our surrounding environment. Parisian graphic artist Jean Jullien portrays my experience with his subway drawing.

The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley provides reasons for taking a technology break that supports physical, mental, and emotional well-being. These suggestions include:

  1. Present-moment awareness – due to a constant barrage of incoming calls, texts, and data, “our moment-to-moment experience is being fragmented on an unprecedented scale.”
  2. Improved sleep – late-night scrolling that produces “blue light” on the screen impacts the brain’s production of melatonin and creates a disruption of sleep.
  3. Deepened connections – social media tricks individuals into feeling more connected to their contacts and followers, yet human relationships thrive in face-to-face interactions. One research study revealed that a phone’s presence inhibited deeper, more meaningful conversations, which require trust, vulnerability, and undivided attention.
  4. Productivity and learning – In his 2017 essay “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds,” Nicholas Carr highlights the idea that “any work that requires a focused mind will benefit from a media break.” Carr points out that mobile phones disrupt learning for students who “task-switch” by alternating between traditional classroom learning with texting or surfing the web.
  5. Breaking the habit – allowing oneself to take a brief technology break, for many, can lead to a long-term shift in usage. Awareness of the impact and addiction stemming from being online can support the need for a change.
Mary Cassatt. Children Playing on The Beach.

Perhaps this summer, challenge yourself to take a social media break and enjoy time with your family. Attend the BBQs without feeling the need to post on Instagram. Call a friend rather than doom scroll on Facebook. And if you must be online, I suggest you check out sources supporting reproductive justice. Furthermore, I put forth the challenge to shift the online narrative to one of an inquisitive, supportive learning and reaching across the aisle, if even just a bit.

For more information on how you can participate in a collective effort like Screen-Free Week, you can go to: www.screenfree.org.

Tamara White is a visual activist, artist, and optimist who reluctantly and imperfectly attempts a weekly tech shabbat.

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