It’s okay to opt out

I have a confession to make. Several times a week, people will recommend things to me: books, TV series, movies, podcasts, articles. These things always sound interesting, and I always say “Ooh, that sounds so good! I’ll check it out!” And I mean it, I really do. I want to check it out. But the idea gets filed somewhere in the back of my mind, and 95% of the time, it stays there to die. I never actually get around to reading/watching/listening to said thing. I may even forget the title entirely, when my brain periodically empties its recycling folder. But what does stick with me is the sense of FOMO, and guilt, that oh yeah, there are all these things I should be reading/watching/listening to, and I’m not.

The thing about living in this Year of our Lord 2021 is there’s just so MUCH. So much of everything, more than there’s ever been. Take books, for example. With every year that goes by, we have all of the books that have ever been written in history available to us, plus the newest year’s worth of books coming out on top of them (of which there are record numbers, every year). Then the next year, there’s another year’s worth of books on top of that. How am I supposed to read The Vanishing Half when I’m still trying to catch up to the Renaissance?

It’s not just about time, but technology, and the rise in society’s standard of living over the decades: we now have more access than ever to content and information, but also to destinations to visit, causes to support, restaurants and recipes to try, museums to see, people to meet and keep in touch with through social media, workouts to do (we really don’t need any more workouts to do). Even the pandemic, as much as it’s slowed life down for many, has sped it up for others. For instance, I used to look for writer and reader events to attend at local bookstores and libraries. Now that most of these events have moved to Zoom, I have an entire world’s worth of events to choose from. All of this is wonderful, but it’s also overwhelming.

We’re told to opt in, lean in, be doers. Movies like Yes Man (still haven’t seen it) and books like Year of Yes (still haven’t read it) laud the life-changing power of the affirmative. And so much of what’s out there is enticing and important. So we cram our lives with as much as we can. We watch YouTube videos or lectures at double speed, listen to podcasts while driving and audiobooks while doing the dishes, and check social media while watching TV. We’re reading and learning more than ever, but what are we retaining? Our attention spans shorten and our understanding grows more shallow. I’ve noticed that, in the last few years, I literally read differently, skimming over the page for the gist and doubling back to anything important instead of truly absorbing each sentence one by one. It’s easier than ever to fall into the trap of considering yourself an expert on a topic when you’re not, having read only one article, or half an article, or even just a tweet. It’s also too easy to read a single sentence a person has said, out of context, and jump to judgment of that person. Our relationships are shallower, too. We can keep in touch through social media with people who would otherwise fade from our lives, but how meaningful are these relationships? Personally, I always feel guilty about how little of friends’ updates on social media I get to see, and how seldom I interact with their posts: relationships become one more overwhelming obligation.

While there’s more of everything else in the world, there’s still only so much of us. With finite life spans, and attention spans, we can cram more into our lives, but we’re really getting less of each thing. Opting in to anything—truly experiencing it—requires opting out of other things. While we champion the virtues of the yes, we also have to affirm the importance of saying no. It’s okay to preserve your time and energy so that you have more of yourself to give to the things that matter most. It’s okay to say that you haven’t seen that TV show, and accept that you’ll probably never see it. It’s okay to not join TikTok (BookTok, stop calling my name!).

And now WordPress is giving me a frowny face for readability and informing me that I have done insult to your attention span with this article, so… I’ll stop.

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