REMEZ: TRACES, MYSTERIES, AND MUSAR
Our digital lives leave an imprint on both our guf/body and neshamah/soul. We now know that there is a biochemical phenomenon triggered by the release of dopamine into our bodies. Dopamine feels very, very good. It is associated with sex, chocolate, and, most relevant to our conversation, the ping signaling an incoming email or text. All of these cravings need to be embraced, sanctified, moderated, suppressed, sublimated, or eliminated.
The journalist Adam Alter, in his provocative volume Irresistible, makes the case that various forms of screen time qualify as behavioral addictions. They leave biochemical residues that become congealed into repetitive habit.
We rarely choose these behaviors rationally. The very neuroplasticity of our brains makes us subject to their power. Perhaps most interesting and disturbing to this writer was Alter’s discussion of the relationship between evening screen time and sleeplessness. It turns out that the emissions of light from our smartphones is a signal to our brain to wake up. It is morning for our brains even when it is indeed the middle of the night. This waking up suppresses the production of the melatonin which is the body’s ally in creating our most restful sleeping patterns. A new technology has led to a less disruptive form of light but the temptation to interrupt sleep to work or play remains strong.
The larger point is that we human beings are indeed creatures of habit and making sure that these habits are good ones requires ethical and spiritual effort. Musar classes and support groups, which have recently become ubiquitous, can provide a model for creating a curriculum that strives for moral and spiritual completeness in the way they bring midot/character traits to awareness.
The tools of the Musar movement are critical allies in charting the remazim, the mysteries of who we are and what we are becoming. In Alan Morinis’ volume Everyday Holiness twenty six midot are outlined. Seven of these seem to have particularly strong relationships to our digital lives.
Occupy a rightful space, neither too large nor too small. Focus neither on your own virtues nor on the faults of others
How do you understand the claim that a smartphone puts the world in the palm of your hand?
Whatever may obstruct me from reaching my goals, it is possible to bear the burdens of the situation
What visceral assumptions do you make when someone has not responded to an email or text in a timely way?
Awaken to the good and give thanks for it
Do I take for granted the countless nisim shebhol yom asah imanu/the countless miracles of good communication facilitated by digital life?
Be satisfied with one’s portion and position in life
Does the easy availability of online shopping make my life more efficient or more complicated (or both)?
Nothing soothes nor is better than silence
When I unplug do I fill my life with other kinds of noises?
Keep distant from falsehood
Do I ever exaggerate to enhance my social media profile?
Awareness allows me to observe the pull of impulse and then provides wisdom to guide the response
On the whole, do I feel well balanced in my uses of technology?
The number four has special Jewish potency as it is associated with the four questions asked at the Passover seder. In that spirit the reader might consider these four broader questions:
- Is this midah one of ethical strengths or weakness in my own moral makeup?
- In what ways do I embody the positive side of the midah? In what ways is it challenged or undermined by my everyday routine?
- What enters my life digitally (smartphone, computer, social media) that either strengthens or challenges my relationship to the midah?
- When is my spiritual/ethical core shaping my use of technology and when is technology shaping my spiritual/ethical core?