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Cities, Nature, and Social Media

Written in London. September, 1802

For comfort, being, as I am, opprest,
To think that now our life is only drest
For show; mean handy-work of craftsman, cook,
Or groom! We must run glittering like a brook
In the open sunshine, or we are unblest:
The wealthiest man among us is the best:
No grandeur now in nature or in book
Delights us. Rapine, avarice, expense,
This is idolatry; and these we adore:
Plain living and high thinking are no more:
The homely beauty of the good old cause
Is gone; our peace, our fearful innocence,
And pure religion breathing household laws.

Hyde Park in London, England.

Hyde Park in London, England.

Various studies has shown that overuse of social media can cause feelings of envy and even depression. The studies call it “surveillance use” – in other words, sifting through your friends’ pictures and status updates to see how their lives are so much better than yours.

Much has been written about the subject and most people have experienced the phenomenon first hand, so I won’t elaborate. I wonder, though why have we grown so addicted to Social Media even though it obviously continues to destroy our vulnerable psyche? What are the mechanisms of this phenomenon? And what are their antidotes?

The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth believed that city life encourages all kinds of negative emotions: envy, jealousy, fear, inadequacy… We tread from our small apartments that cost a fortune to our offices, where we await the arrival of Friday with an insatiable desire for approval. The best of us try to avoid the temptation to compare ourselves with others. And most don’t even realize that we live in constant competition with the hundreds of thousands of other jobs, better partners, fuller bank accounts, more beautiful bodies, and sharper minds.

This air of competition exhausts us. Yet we have learned to perceive it as a healthy instinct that turns the wheels of our civilization. As these feelings destroy us from within, confessing them seems even worse for it would expose of our weaknesses. Most people don’t talk about their loneliness in the most inhabited of the world’s cities. And god forbid we admit feelings of inferiority that daily rise like a darkened sun.

Writing in the height of the industrial age, Wordsworth held cities responsible for the deterioration of “plain living and high thinking.” He believed that nature held the antidote to capricious desires and negative feelings.

Wordsworth didn’t think that these feelings are avoidable in the city. But are they truly avoidable in the countryside?

A few days after I arrived in the Yucatan countryside back in April, I checked into a beautiful hostel in Valladolid. I had spent much of the the previous few days hopping between Mayan pyramids, splashing in enchanting cenotes, and swimming in crystal blue waters. My room in Hostel La Candelaria overlooked a quiet plaza where little children sat around eating ice cream. I lounged on the hammock in the hostel’s garden surrounded by trees and flowers.

The Mayan Ruins at Ek Balam in the Yucatan, Mexico

The Mayan Ruins at Ek Balam in the Yucatan, Mexico

The next morning I woke up even before breakfast was served and sat in the garden with my notebook. Just a few days of nature had put a permanent smile on my face. I was elated and filled with positive thoughts. By the time I finished my morning notes, coffee was already brewing on the stove in the garden. That’s when I made a big mistake: I checked my facebook newsfeed.

The Devil in Social Media

As my thumb scrolled through the endless list of posts, I read the engagement announcement of one acquaintance I hadn’t seen in ten years, started at pictures of random others on some trip or another, and read depressing articles about the state of our crazed world… you know, the usual “stuff.” If I hadn’t experienced the bliss of nature over the preceding days, I would have barely noticed the intense effect this mindless scrolling had on my psyche. All those negative emotions that Wordsworth associated with the city—feelings of envy, fear, and inadequacy—came rushing back. I was catapulted back into the city through the screen of my supposedly “smart” phone.

It is human nature to desire what we don’t have and even when we have everything–even if we live in paradise–we want to eat the damn apple. And seeing that the forbidden fruit dangled in front of our face on a daily basis makes all the other fruit trees disappear. That’s what city life does. And that’s what social media is doing to us, even when we escape from the city.

Through social media, the city invades nature. If we don’t learn to disconnect from our city lives and fully inhabit nature, at least every once in a while, feelings of fear, inferiority, and jealousy continue to plague our inner peace.

A few months ago, I wrote about turning my iPhone into a dumbphone in an attempt to increase my productivity and focus. Unfortunately that experiment proved useful only as much as it lasted: a few weeks. The Internet crept back into my phone and I couldn’t resist. Now it is time for a new experiment.

At the moment, I’m in the very city where Wordsworth wrote the poem that opens this post: London! I’m sitting in a quiet library overlooking a green garden in the city that inspired Wordsworth’s ideas on the power of nature to rejuvenate our inner peace and confidence.

As one of the oldest cosmopolitan cities of the world, London hardly compares to the Mexican selva. But since I’m here and not in nature, and since the city can and does invade nature via technology anyway, my new experiment is to live nature within the city.

The first step: to spend as much time as possible in London’s countless parks and finally doing what I should have done months ago: deactivate my facebook account!

The London Eye from St. James Park

The London Eye from St. James Park