The other day I was driving the familiar stretch of road between the grocery store and our home when I made an error in judgment that very nearly led to my plowing into another car.
Not paying full attention, I assumed a driver who stopped in front of me was trying to turn right into a parking lot – but actually he was stopping to let another driver make a left-hand turn into the road from behind a huge snowbank. As I passed the first driver on the left, the turning car suddenly lurched a few feet forward, nearly pulling right out in front of me before he slammed on the brakes. I had to swerve out of his way, realizing too late that he thought he had clear passage.
I drove the rest of the way home feeling a little sheepish and shaken, but forgot about it quickly enough.
The very next morning Clara and I were on our way to the gym. I was driving and she was peppering me with questions, which I answered thoughtfully for a few minutes. Until my mind wandered to something that I’d read on the computer right before leaving the house.
As we reached the gym I realized that Clara had been asking me questions relating to her birth, and I’d been giving her mindless “mm-hmm” answers to every question she’d asked for at least five minutes. I asked her to repeat back what she’d just said, and as it turned out, I’d unthinkingly approved a birth story in which she was born in the river amid biting fish and had floated to the surface with the help of arm floaties she’d apparently been wearing in the womb.
At that moment it struck me that, two days in a row, I’d been guilty of very distracted driving. And it wasn’t because I was texting, or talking, or singing along with the radio. No…both times, I’d been distracted because I was thinking about something irritating I’d read on Facebook. I was guilty of my own special kind of DWI – Driving While Irritated.
The world is so full of opinions these days, isn’t it? Or maybe we aren’t any more opinionated than we once were, but now have endless outlets via which to air our opinions, and a developing sense of entitlement, even obligation, to let the world know exactly how we feel about…everything.
Yes, the big stuff, like politics and the environment and religion. But the small stuff, too, like whether or not it’s OK to recline your seat on an airplane or whether or not it’s funny to film kids falling down on ice (two real-life examples of “debates” that sucked me in over the last few days.)
It feels harmless enough to share whatever random opinion is on my mind or weigh in on someone else’s Rant du Jour, sure. But I’ve found that in the end, it almost always leads to an unmanageable influx of other people’s opinions, many of which conflict with mine, creating a virtual tussle that rarely leads anywhere constructive (you can’t really change somebody’s mind via a Facebook status update) and often leads to a lingering sense of anxiety or discomfort.
In my conversation with Kristen Race, Ph.D on the Home Hour Podcast earlier this week, she told me that each stress-causing interaction, like getting in a tiff on the Internet, triggers the fight, flight or freeze response in your brain. After a trigger, even a small one, our brains don’t return to baseline right away, meaning that we are constantly experiencing a state of low-level anxiety. And because of the way technology is completely integrated with our lives, our days have become long chains of small triggers, leading to spike after spike after spike.
As I listened again to our conversation yesterday after getting entrenched in a heated Facebook debate over something most definitely not very important, I recognized that this is exactly what I’ve been allowing to happen to me. The distracted driving was just one example of the fallout – when I’m feeling irritated, anxious, or frustrated over a exchange gone wrong, it affects everything from the way I feel physically (tight chest, racing heart) to the way I interact with my family (definitely not present and engaged.)
There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam via a spirited discussion on Facebook or Twitter. But what it comes down to for me is this: I’ve almost never regretted not climbing up on my social media soapbox to unload an opinion, but I’ve often – quite often – wished afterward that I hadn’t stepped into the fray. And maybe just because I can spout off – just because I have this ready-made platform and access to thousands of people – doesn’t always mean I should.
There are opinions worth expressing, fights worth having. Speaking out against injustice or ignorance matters, and may lead to important change. When I’ve stood up for a cause or person I believe in, or have made a case for compassion over cruelty, I have always felt that any possible fallout was worthwhile.
On the other hand, venting about a pet peeve – or defending myself because it turns out that something I regularly do is somebody else’s pet peeve – may feel good for a moment, but so often devolves quickly into a sort of petty aggression that only serves to wreck my day and keep my energy tied up in something that ultimately doesn’t matter.
It turns out there’s no real reward in being right about something inconsequential.
There is still much I love about social media. It’s just plain fun to be able to walk into a crowded virtual room and ask a simple question like “Stripes or polka dots?” and see the enormous variety in responses, how different we all are and yet how much the same. I love the fact that I have access to this platform to share fun and silly things that pop into my head or that happen to me during an ordinary day.
Short of going off the grid, there’s no getting away completely from the pull of technology and the intoxicating brew of opinions, opinions, opinions, in which social media now allows us to swim at any time of day or night.
But I’m realizing that not all self-expression is worth indulging in, and that I can much better control those spikes of anxiety if, instead of giving into those urges to tell everyone exactly how I feel about the silly email I just got, I take a deep breath and let it go instead.
After all, there are better things to save my energy for, yes? My kids, my work, my home, my friends, my family. The things that matter, the people I can engage in a face-to-face conversation with, instead of just serving as recipients of my random thoughts.
Like anything other form of communication, we’d probably all be better off it we did a lot less talking and a lot more listening.
And then, when even the listening gets to be too overwhelming, turning it off and taking a soul-calming break from all the billions of opinions in the world.