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☑️ Boxing Ourselves In
We see life like LEGO, but it doesn't work this way.
Welcome to the 5th issue of Cathexis, a creative’s take on humanity’s relationship with technology. If you enjoy thought-provoking ramblings, unique collage art, and personally curated links from a curious teenage girl, why not subscribe?
Hi everyone! It's great to be writing again; the ideas of this issue have been ruminating in my head since last year, so it's a relief to finally have them realized. I don't know why, but I always feel like I'm lagging behind with living my life, and it takes all of me just to catch up. Not sure what to call it. An evolved form of impostor syndrome, perhaps? This pushed me to pour a lot of myself into this piece, because I'm sure that I'm not the only one who feels this way. I dedicate this issue to those who made sure I never felt alone: my friends and family. It's thanks to my support system that I'm able to keep going.
Also, shout-out to my lovely Internet friend, Emily deGrandpe! We connect on so many levels; it's insane. This issue wouldn't be possible without the influx of inspiration I get from her. Check out her Embodied Interactions podcast (which I'm so excited to help out with in the future!).
We see life like LEGO.
Why? Because we're breaking down our lives into blocks. Checkboxes in our to-do lists. Colorful blocks in our Google Calendars. Cards of content in our social media feeds. Blocks of boards & databases in our Notion workspaces. All these make up the environments we occupy everyday.
Whether they're physical or digital, our environments are man-made constructs. Like the homes we live in, the platforms we use online were designed with intention. Even time can be considered as an invention. Sundials, clocks, calendars: these measuring systems were created so that we can understand how the world around us changes.
However, the map is not the territory. Clocks & calendars aren't time itself, like how social networking platforms aren't society itself. But we forget this. We've lived with these representations for so long, we believe that's how life is. This is the power our environments have over us; they're so influential on our behavior, from what we do to how we think. And being man-made, these environments aren't neutral at all.
They've all been designed with a purpose, often capitalistic in nature. Take, for instance, time. It eventually became correlated with labor since it was a way to measure workers' efficiency. The more our science and technology developed, the smaller units of time became, even breaking past the point of human comprehension (i.e. nanoseconds).
Nowadays, this need for optimization can be seen in the advent of productivity in our culture. It's affected how we perceive time and space, as seen in our environments. Even language is affected. I've lost count of how many times I've thought to myself "What's next on my to-do list?" or "Why am I procrastinating so much?". I can't help it when I keep seeing self-help books and how-to articles telling me how to "get things done". If this is what we're surrounded by everyday, no wonder we see our lives like LEGO. But life does not work this way. Here's why.
First, life doesn't have exact measurements. Your preplanned schedules and task lists are approximations at best. No matter how much we prepare, we can never fully guarantee that things will go according to plan; there'll always be meeting extensions, urgent matters, last minute cancellations, etc. Nothing's under our control. By assuming that everything in our lives can be accounted for, we limit our worldview.
Thus, pieces of our lives won't magically fit together; they just weren't designed that way. We're bound to experience conflicts. For instance, say you're a working student. Even if you believe you can balance academics and work, there'll be times when you need to choose between catching up with modules and finishing sprint deliverables. If you decide to tackle both, there goes your time with family and friends. Don't forget that your body still needs 7-8 hours of sleep. What will you do then? In the end, something's got to give.
How you deal with these conflicts is up to you, because life does not come with instructions. Instead, you have to figure out how to assemble your life yourself. So why are we so pressed to follow set paths? The typical university and career routes won't apply to everyone, even if many people attribute their success to these. When it comes to life decisions, the one who should get the final say is you — not your parents, teachers, or productivity gurus — because it's you who knows yourself best.
Finally, there is no difference between the model and the builder — they're one and the same. You are building yourself. But productivity makes us detached from ourselves. We treat ourselves like machines: committing to work, work, work, but forgetting our need for rest. We only realize the brunt of our workload when we're swamped in it; by then, our commitments dictate our days. Instead of being architects, we've become prisoners of our lives instead.
Overall, productivity turns us into black boxes: all that's known of you is what you're doing, not how you are. At first, I found solace in this ignorance. Amidst the chaos of 2020, what kept going everyday was checking boxes off a list. Keeping busy excused me from addressing the pain in my body and surroundings (i.e. inner conflict, social issues). But pain can't be ignored forever. Eventually, my coping mechanism became suffocating for me.
It starts with your body. Muscle tension. Insomnia. Constant exhaustion. Then your mind. Brain fog. Irritability. Lingering anxiety. Finally, your spirit: you become torn inside. For me, this manifested through creative constipation. Despite all the creative work I've done in the past year (i.e. teaching workshops, designing startups), I barely made anything for myself. Ideas for passion projects would accumulate in my head, but they'd stay there due to my busyness. Whenever I'd get time for myself, I struggled to make anything at all. Disheartened by the difficulty of creating, I'd often default to consuming instead: eating, reading, scrolling. But I was always tormented by this conflict: why do I see myself as a creator when all I do is consume?
In the end, I could no longer identify with myself. Others couldn't as well. I was isolated from my family and friends; to them, it seemed like I had my own world, where I didn't have time for any of them. "Where did my ate (big sister) go?" my sister cried out while confronting me. This was a wake-up call. I realized that if I stayed any longer in this box, I'd miss out on life beyond its four walls.
It's time for us to realign with nature: not just ourselves, but also the world around us. We can start by doing "nothing". We need to make way for white space in our calendars and planners. It doesn't stop there. For Jenny Odell, doing nothing is an active process; it allows for so much to happen. First, we should use this newfound space for self-care: thinking, reflecting, healing, and sustaining ourselves. With our minds clear, we can then relearn how to truly listen — perceiving the world instead of reacting to it; this can be done with activities like bird watching and leisure walking. Finally, with heightened self-awareness, we're empowered to bring about real change: planting the seeds for other ways of living, ones without the pressure of productivity.
Slowly but surely, I'm trying to rebuild my life. Deciding not to apply for internships. Making time to create for creation's sake. Allowing myself to be vulnerable with others. It's disorienting not to be working towards a goal. Productivity still nags at the back of my head. "You've made yourself into a fortress, yet here you are demolishing it", it says. "Look at the debris of your life! So much waste." To be honest, I'm still afraid to stop working like how I've always been. But I persist, because beneath all this doing, I know I'll rediscover who I am as a human being. So for now, maybe it's okay to have my life in pieces. If it means that I get to live outside the box, then so be it.
Thanks to the following sources for inspiring this piece:
"Wellness Wisdom vol.34: why we suffer" by Patricia Mou
"R.I.P. Productivity" by Jocelyn K. Glei
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
🎨 Amazing Art
In Search of Personalized Time
An attempt to live unreal time in a real-time world. Instead of bolstering the universal standard of time, Taeyoon Choi and E Roon Kang facilitate a multitude of flows by building timekeepers and new measurements; this makes use of our perception, which is subjective and temporal. I recommend watching "Circle of Moment Measurement", a participatory performance under this project; it was interesting seeing how the people experienced alternative measurements of time, and ponder about how it'd affect daily life. Check out the project website here.
Aside from being an author and teacher, Jenny Odell is also an artist whose work often involves acts of close observation. She is compelled by how attention (or the lack of it) can shift our perception, whether for better or for worse. In this project, she composites collected screenshots and pictures of nature in order to denaturalize the Facebook interface. This quote she featured explains her intentions so well:
"... the more intuitive a device becomes, the more it risks falling out of media altogether, becoming as naturalized as air or as common as dirt."
– Alexander Galloway, The Interface Effect
Check out the project here.
Evan M. Cohen is able to communicate themes of embodiment, growth, connection, acceptance, and more all with just a few panels; sometimes words aren't even needed. His latest comic, Life, exemplifies this skill; he translates simple sentences into profound sequences. Simple, colorful, and intricate work. I read this shortly after finishing this issue's essay, and the last panel just...struck me at my core. Read the whole comic here.
🤯 Interesting Innovations
Mental wellness + tech is so much more than meditation and journaling apps...(I swear, the more of these that get created, the less I'll be able to tell the difference). Below, I feature products and games that I believe help us see things a new light.
Mindful Productivity Tools
A Pomodoro timer and website blocker all in one adorable Chrome extension. It makes use of a simple point-based rewards system: health points. Every time you visit a blocked site, Otto's health will deplete; every time you successfully complete a session, Otto regains health. Download it here.
Did you know that Tabagotchi is the inspiration behind Otto? It's also a Chrome extension with a character that can have its health depleted, but this is affected by the number of tabs opened. The more tabs you have, the angrier and sicker your Tabagotchi gets, and vice versa. Download it here.
Your digital mindfulness assistant. When you turn it on, it can disconnect you from distracting apps like social media (thanks to a local VPN). When you decide to use these apps, Opal will help you set an intention and give you a timer for using the app. You can even set a daily time saving goal and track your progress. Overall, the app helps you take control of your phone, save time, and find focus. Also, the Opal mascot is so adorable :') Download it here.
Do you struggle to write because of too many distractions? OmmWriter is the tool for you. It makes it easier for you to concentrate by creating a stimuli-free environment with nature-inspired backgrounds, ambient music, and classic typefaces. It also opens in full-screen mode, so that you can be fully immersed in your writing expereince. OmmWriter is a paid app, but you can try out the experience for free here.
More than a game or an app, #SelfCare is an AI companion for joy and self-connection. Instead of the usual gamification metrics like a rewards system, it's all about the team's own tend-and-befriend responses, which refers to how processing stress becomes easier with mutual care and connection. There are many rituals to choose from: cat cuddling, consulting tarot cards, journaling, and more. Overall, the entire experience is designed to be a safe space for the user. In an App Store saturated by for-profit games, I'm grateful that exists. Check it out here.
A gardening sim that grows in your phone/computer while you're away. Here, you nurture a small pot of succulents that grow in real time. You even get to learn more about real-life succulent varieties. If you need to take a break, instead of compulsively checking social media or your email (guilty as charged), how about tending to plants instead? Check it out here.
PLAYNE: The Meditation Game
In the world of PLAYNE, you get to grow your own island by building a daily habit of meditation. If you're a beginner, no worries; the game holds your hand all the way, providing you audio-guided meditations and a wise animal companion. To help you get truly immerse, aside from offering a range of beautiful settings that you can customize, there's even a free VR DLC. This game's truly effective; over 90% of feedback from over 1,200 players is positive. Check it out here.
You don't need words to tell a story; That Game Company is a master of this. Thanks to gorgeous 3D visuals and high-quality music, All of their games are amazing experiences to play (i.e. Journey, Flow), but I found the most relaxing of them to be Flower. Playing as the wind, you help bring environments back to life. At its core, it's all about the tension between urban bustle and natural serenity. Even after years of having played it, I still remember how much this game moved me. Check it out here.
📖 Rabbit Hole Reads
This is Water
Just like young fish who don't know what water is (despite swimming in it), most of us live out our lives without much. In this commencement speech, David Foster Wallace discourages this, urging us to live a compassionate life. After reading this speech a few years ago, it has remained one of the inspirations my life philosophy. This quote in particular struck me:
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
Listen/read to the whole thing here.
The War of Art
Everyone encounters creative blocks, whether you're an artist, entrepreneur, athlete, etc. Steven Pressfield calls this the resistance. In this book, he motivates readers to win the internal wars they're going through by making use of motivation, experience, and self-help. It is quite the powerful pep talk. After reading this, I realized I've run out of excuses; it pushed me to stop procrastinating and start creating. Here's one of my favorite quotes:
“Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.”
🧘 Wise Words
Do you too feel like you need to escape the thrall of productivity, but you’re also terrified with going outside your comfort zone? Because same (I find it hard to do nothing on purpose). This quote reminds me to keep being intentional; hopefully, it does for you too.
"Which do you want: the pain of staying where you are, or the pain of growth?"
— Judith Hanson Lasater
Thank you for reading Cathexis! This took me longer than usual to write because I just had so so much to say about productivity and burnout (and still do, haha, not sure if I’ll ever shut up about it). If you’re going through a similar struggle, I hope you too find the courage to rebuild yourself. Take care, everyone <3
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