In Search of Depth


I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel busy. Most days my brain feels like an overstuffed file drawer in danger of collapse at any moment due the sheer amount of information that must be processed and dealt with.

I think this is fairly common. It’s staggering how many balls we all keep in the air everyday. Besides the pressures of work and family, we live in an always-on, always-connected world that seems inescapable. We’re so busy that eventually we forget why. Busyness starts to become an end in itself. And when we start to question why we’re so busy, why we live the way we do, we often find that we just don’t know. It’s a question that can be really uncomfortable. We don’t want to think about it because it quickly leads to deeper questions, such as “Am I living the life I really want?” And from there it’s a short trip to the existential crisis of “Why am I here?” and “Who am I?” But even if we wanted to process these questions, we don’t have time.

Why is this a problem? What’s wrong with being busy? It’s unsatisfying. There’s a yearning that can’t be quenched with activity, and it’s universal. That’s why the mid-life crisis is so cliche. We all desire space to think and let our minds wander and process the experiences of life. And this doesn’t just happen at mid-life. I’ve felt this yearning for as long as I can remember. Yesterday, I found this paragraph in one of my old journals from college:

I walk around in sensory-overload most of the time, because there are so many things I want to think, read and write about. All these ideas are fighting for space in my head, and there doesn’t seem to be any winners. I think they end up killing each other because by the time I sit down to write, there is nothing. Nothing at all to say. None of the ideas have been left standing. They have all fallen in the fight. There are so many things vying for my attention that sometimes I just want it all to stop. I want to go away to an island with nothing but a few well-chosen books so I can just sit there and think.

We all, at some point, experience this longing for something more, something more than days filled with activity and picture taking and Facebook posting. I think what we’re searching for is depth.

Depth creates meaning and a sense of fulfillment. But it’s hard to define. It’s elusive. We know it when we feel it, but can’t exactly put our finger on what creates it or how we can grab hold of it.

At first, I thought depth was achieved through quantity and quality of time. And I think in some ways that’s true, but it’s not enough. First of all, what is quality time? When we say we are going to spend quality time with someone, what does that mean? Defining it with certain activities or quantity doesn’t work. I can spend an hour in the park with someone and walk away feeling like it was a waste. On a different day I can spend an hour in the park with the same person doing and saying the same things and walk away feeling that we had some “quality time,” that we achieved depth. Why is this? Why are we able to recognize quality, but can’t put our finger on what exactly it is?

The reason I think defining depth is so elusive is because it’s different for each of us. But there is some common ground. William Powers is an author who defines it this way:

It’s the quality of awareness, feeling, or understanding that comes when we truly engage with some aspect of our life experience.

It can be anything at all–a person, a place, a thing, an idea or a sensation. Everything that happens to us all day long, every sight and sound, every personal encounter, every thought that crosses our minds is a candidate for depth. We’re constantly sifting among these options, deciding where to deploy our attention. Most float around in the periphery of our thoughts and remain there, but a select few wind up in the mental spotlight. We train our perceptual and cognitive resources on one conversation, one fascinating idea, one task to the exclusion of all others. This is where depth beings.

There are times when I’m able to experience this with work. When I’m focused on doing one thing really well (and not thinking about everything else that needs to be done) I get into a sort of flow where time disappears.

And that’s why busyness is such a detriment to depth. Not necessarily busyness in action, but busyness in thought. Everyday we become more connected to everyone around us. And even activities that used to provide solitude are now connected because we keep our iPhones or Androids with us at all times. We live in a constant, hour by hour connectedness to the people and world around us.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for the technology of our age. I like being able to access anything I want whenever I want. But I wonder if this access is diluting real enjoyment and depth. We’re spread so thin that we don’t have the time or mental energy to give each experience its proper due.

Information and media consumption is one area that, for me, is severely affected. I listen to a lot of music and I’ve often wanted to try an experiment. What if I picked one of my favorite bands or musicians and decided for a whole year to only listen to their catalogue? Let’s say U2 or Counting Crows for example. Limiting myself in this way would mean that I would listen to every single song they’ve ever produced and I would listen to each of them over and over again. I would have the time and opportunity to contemplate the shifts in thought and style through the years and discern the experiences behind their writing, all of which would bring depth to my experience of their music.

I could be wrong, but I think I would experience more enjoyment and have a greater appreciation of music in general. If a singular focus is one of the elements (or at least the starting point) of depth, then limiting ourselves to fewer options could be a catalyst for great joy.

Another way of thinking about this is, if you’re always on the lookout for more and better, you’ll never really be happy (go deep) with anything.

This has ramifications beyond media consumption. It impacts all of the choices we make. For example, how much more community would I experience and sense of purpose would I feel if I made a point to get to know and get involved in the lives of my neighbors?

The big hurdle for me is that the busy, always-on, always-connected world in which we live seems unavoidable. It’s part of life in the 21st century. However, I’m not sure that’s really true, or at least I hope it’s not.

I don’t have a solution. This post has been an almost stream-of-concious musing born out of an insanely busy week. I feel like I want to try something drastic, like delete my Facebook account and all my RSS feeds, get rid of my iPhone and pick a few good things on which to focus my attention. But that’s harder to do than to say, or maybe I just don’t want it badly enough yet. If you don’t hear from me for a long time, then you’ll know I took the plunge.

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