The Solitude Challenge: Living Deliberately

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau famously said that he went into the woods to live “deliberately”. He meant to live carefully, in an unhurried way. His chronicle of his time in the woods, Walden, emphasizes the importance of solitude, contemplation, and closeness to nature in transcending the “desperate” existence that, he argues, is the lot of most people. Considering that Thoreau lived  160 years ago, one can only imagine what he would have thought of the desperate lives we lead today, with little time or inclination for solitude, as we welcome a constant intrusion of beeps and tweets delivered by our technological umbilical cords.

Thoreau’s was the most famous Solitude Challenge of all time – he lived in a 10′ X 15′ cabin on the edge of Walden pond for two years, two months and two days. My Solitude Challenge, the one  I was tasked with for a class I am taking, only involved sitting alone, sans technology or talking, for 30 minutes.

Rather unexpectantly, I find myself in Florence, Italy this week. Which, it turns out, actually is my Walden Pond. For me, visiting Italy is a kind of home-coming. All four of my grandparents hail from here and in some ways, I was raised more culturally Italian than American. I feel very connected to Italy. For me, there couldn’t be a more perfect place to do the Solitude Challenge .

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We took a drive deep into the heart of Tuscany, to Greve in Chianti. On this late fall day, the weather was a comfortable 55 degrees. The sun was shining and the Italian countryside was, as it has been for centuries, beguiling. In my 30 minutes of solitude, I too moved over the hills and fields, these covered with olive trees and vineyards. With the exception of the small Fiat we were traveling in, I too was free from worldly engagements.

I noticed that the pace of my breathing slowed almost immediately. My pulse decelerated and time passed here as I imagine it has always passed: with purpose. Since it was a national holiday (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), most shops and galleries were closed in the small hill towns. If they weren’t closed for the entire day, they were closed for the afternoon hours of siesta or riposo, a tradition also born out of the human need to retreat, disconnect and regroup.

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Even though I was the only one sworn off technology for a short while, I noticed that the people around me weren’t obsessed with their phones. Men, young and old, were gathered in the town square, drinking wine and telling stories. Women strolled arm and arm into the town church, to light a candle to celebrate the virgin’s feast day. Children played soccer in the piazza. Not a single adult checked their phone for texts, or tweets, or Facebook posts. Instead of the sounds of beeping, buzzing, and text swooshing, I heard birds chirping, balls bouncing, children laughing.  They all seemed so relaxed and so natural. When my 30 minutes of The Solitude Challenge were over, I felt no need to check my phone to see if I had missed any important texts or e-mails. I knew I hadn’t.

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The Accidental Boricua and “friend”, Greve in Chianti.

Perhaps, the old real estate adage – location, location, location – isn’t just about property values. Maybe, as Thoreau discovered at Walden Pond and I discovered in Tuscany, place is as important to our ability to disconnect from our daily interruptions as is our willingness to do so. It shouldn’t take a trip across the pond or a cabin built next to one for us to detach from meaningless distractions, be they technology induced or otherwise. But as both Thoreau and I can attest to, it sure does help.

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I Would Tell You, But Then I Would Have to Un-Friend You

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A friend of mine was just diagnosed with a serious, but thankfully, non-life-threatening illness. There will be a surgery, and then, hopefully, it will all be in the past. She has all of the obvious worries of her impending major surgery: her health, insurance coverage, recuperation time, leave from work, telling her children. And also, a not-so-obvious one. When asked, “What can we do to help?” Her answer: “Please don’t post anything about this on Facebook.”

It seemed sad that at a time when my friend needs to be taking care of herself, she has the added concern of controlling her privacy on social media. The HIPAA regulations were created in 1996 to protect a patient’s privacy regarding their heath information. The laws specifically allow a patient to request that their information not be shared with “certain groups, people or companies”. We can’t stand too close to someone who is filling a prescription in the pharmacy, lest we have an encyclopedic knowledge of the PDR. We can’t even hold their hand with them in their doctor’s office without their expressed written consent. But there aren’t any regulations stopping us from outing their health issues on social media sites.

My friend’s privacy concern comes on the heels of reports this week that Facebook in considering expanding into the healthcare field by creating “online support communities. The concept is that Facebook would connect users suffering from various illnesses.  Their objective: healthcare communities could increase engagement on Facebook.

Now the last time I checked, it seemed that most people were already pretty engaged on Facebook. Sometimes, they seem over engaged. Facebook itself estimates that the average American spends 40 minutes per day checking a Facebook feed. That’s more than we spend each day on taking care of our pets, exercising or doing volunteer work.  And Facebook is by far and away winning the social media war — they have roughly seven times the engagement of Twitter, their closest competitor. I’m pretty sure we don’t need to be spending even more time on Facebook.

Creating on-line support healthcare communities sounds like a nice thing to do. It certainly helps to humanize the company. But call it a hunch, methinks that Mr. Zuckerberg and the folks at Facebook aren’t just concerned with helping their customers cope with health issues.

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The privacy issues this venture brings up are mind-boggling. And the burning question:  Can users trust their personal medical information to Facebook?  After all, they have had numerous privacy breaches in the past and they are still making amends for their “experiment” involving users news feeds.  And this time, the privacy stakes will be higher than ever before.

In the New York Times article Disruptions:  Seeking Privacy in a Networked Age (Oct. 2012), Dennis Crowley, chief executive of FourSquare, ponders the idea of a service that would allow users to cloak themselves — kind of like Harry Potter’s Invisibility cloak — for a particular time period. “You can imagine a service that says ‘I don’t want my name to show up on any social services for the next three hours’ and then integrates with other social services,” Mr. Crowley said.

So until Facebook can enlist J.K.Rowling to help develop said Invisibility Cloak for their user’s private medical information, I would hold back on joining one of their on-line health communities. Because when all is said and done, J.K. Rowling did a better job protecting her darling than Mark Zuckerberg has done protecting his.

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