SUPPORT REQUEST :
Part of my job requires knowing what's happening on Twitter and other social platforms, but lately I've spent far more hours on these sites than necessary. The addiction itself is like any addiction, which is to say it’s not particularly interesting. I want to keep scrolling, but I wish I didn't want this. The only workable solution I've come up with is to download an app that prevents me from accessing these sites during certain hours of the day. This has allowed me to be productive, but I'm embarrassed that my willpower is so weak, and worried that outsourcing it to a computer program only makes the problem worse. Should I be focusing instead on exercising my resolve?
>Dear [ 424 ] ,
I find this an odd question in that your most immediate problem has already been solved. You wanted to waste less time on these platforms, and now you do. You wanted to be more productive, and now you are. The fact that this solution has only spurred a new fear about your will being weakened—which is, as far as I can tell, precisely the problem the app was supposed to solve—might strike some as a neurotic attachment to anxiety itself.
I can understand, though, the pragmatic dimension of this concern. If your capacity to overcome temptation relies on this barrier, it may be more difficult to resist in situations where you have no such assistance—though it’s hard to imagine what those scenarios might be. We live at a moment when behavioral economics has joined forces with the surveillance and tracking capacities of digital technologies. You can download apps that prevent you from drunk texting, from impulse-buying online, from opening your refrigerator between meals. Fitness fanatics can send their exercise routines directly to their personal trainer; recovering alcoholics can rig their phones to alert their sponsor when they’re nearing a bar; porn addicts can buy screen-monitoring software that notifies their accountability partner when they slip. It’s possible, in other words, to create a life so thoroughly corralled by nudges, blockers, triggers, and alerts, one need never resort to old-fashioned willpower at all.
But it seems to me that your distress is about something entirely different—something that has little to do with productivity or efficiency. The fear that you’re “outsourcing” your will to a program suggests that you suspect you’re becoming part-machine yourself, that you’re automating your volition and perhaps compromising your humanity in some irreparable way. This is a legitimate concern, one that raises a larger and more complicated question: Is there any intrinsic value in disciplining the will? Is there something worthwhile or even noble in struggling against oneself?
We should probably acknowledge at the outset that some people are more prone to such struggles than others. In his lecture on “the Divided Self,” the psychologist and philosopher William James argued that there are two kinds of people in the world: healthy-minded souls, who see their lives as a simple balance sheet of happiness and suffering and are content so long as they stay on the positive side of that equation; and “divided” souls, who are unable to reconcile their warring desires. For the latter type, “peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life,” James writes. The solutions that satisfy others strike them as false and inauthentic, and “their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.” Most people find it easy to diagnose themselves as one of these two types, and I hope I won’t offend you in saying that you strike me, unmistakably, as a divided soul. Your description of your internet compulsion—wanting to scroll, wanting to stop—calls to mind the words of the Apostle Paul, who was similarly bewildered by his inability to act on his higher impulses. “I do not understand what I do,” he writes in his epistles, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
James draws many of his case studies on the divided self from the writings of religious figures. In fact, if your waning internet use has created more time in your life for reading, you might glean some valuable insights from these monks and early church fathers. There is perhaps no more eloquent writer on this dilemma than Augustine, whose will was so at odds with itself, he once prayed “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet.” His Confessions documents, in painstaking detail, his battles against the temptations of lust, food, music, even—notably—distraction. One might think that a fourth century theologian had little to divert his attention from pure contemplation, but the mind is endlessly inventive in its efforts to wander. “Even when I am sitting at home,” Augustine complains, “why does a lizard catching flies, or a spider binding them when they blunder into its web, often have me gazing intently?”
Augustine points out—and this seems especially relevant to your dilemma—that the most insidious temptations are those that we cannot completely banish from our lives. We need food, of course, for our health and survival. But there is a fine line between nourishment and gluttony, and our weaker nature can exploit this ambiguity. In the face of these uncertain cases, “the wretched soul cheers up and marshals excuses in its own defense,” he writes. The internet is yet another gray zone where virtue bleeds seamlessly into vice. We need it to do our work, perform our duties, and stay informed, and it is all too easy to rationalize our addictive impulses with these more noble motivations.
But to return to the main question: What, ultimately, is the point of such struggles? For Augustine and Paul, temptation belonged to the moral drama of the Christian life; their trials were opportunities to grow closer to God and reap rewards in the afterlife. For those of us, on the other hand, who are simply trying to do our jobs and get through the day, self-opposition seems entirely worthless. It’s even hard to understand, from our modern point of view, what it means to have conflicting desires.For those of us who are strict materialists, it makes little sense to speak in dualistic terms—and yet, in daily life, it often feels as though the body escapes the control of the mind, that the flesh is at war with the spirit.
Contemporary philosophers tend to account for warring impulses in terms of first- and second-order desires. First-order desires are motivated by impulse, appetite, and instinct, whereas second-order desires involve something quite different: the desire to want to desire something different, or to be rid of a given desire. As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt argues, second-order desires are a uniquely human phenomenon. Other animals are moved by instinct and impulse, but they do not reflect on their desires or wish they could change them. (Nor, I might add, do machines. The app that is designed to stop you from accessing Twitter might be said to have certain “goals” or “objectives,” but it does not trouble itself with whether these are worthwhile. It does what it’s programmed to do.)
One might conclude, with this in mind, that we are at our most human when we struggle against ourselves. Perhaps battles of the will do have intrinsic value, in that they are the fullest expression of our essential nature. They belong to a distinctly human song, echoing down through the ages, a chorus that includes Paul and Augustine and all the other divided souls who have lamented their self-alienation. One might further conclude that our very capacity to form higher-order desires means we have the ability to control our destiny, that we can perfect ourselves through discipline. But I would actually caution against this second conclusion.
Much of Augustine’s writing was intended to dramatize the futility of perfecting the will. He was writing during a time when Christianity was divided over what is now called the “Pelagian controversy,” named after a sect who believed in the unqualified power of the will and taught that it was possible to live a morally blameless life. According to the Pelagians, if you found yourself struggling with temptation, you needed to toughen up, draw on your inner resources, and try harder. It is a recognizable impulse, and indeed, many Pelagian-like doctrines still abound today—in corporate self-help books that warn against “limiting beliefs,” for example, or the resurgent Stoicism that has driven Silicon Valley CEOs to submit themselves to ice baths, silent retreats, and weeklong fasts to prove their inner fortitude.
Augustine did not believe such perfection was within humanity’s power. He is, after all, the theologian who solidified the doctrine of Original Sin, the notion that humans cannot, despite their best efforts, attain the self-mastery they desire. Contra the Pelagians, he insisted that humans were completely dependent upon God to remove the feeling of temptation. It was only through the free gift of divine grace that we could obtain the strength to overcome such vices, which required not the exercise of the will, but the willingness to surrender it.
We in the modern world are still in need of such assistance. If you happen to be a spiritual person, you can follow the traditional path, admitting your fundamental weakness and imploring your higher power to grant you the power to resist. But grace these days comes in strange and various forms: in recovery communities that offer addicts and alcoholics a path to restoration; in medications that quell, or eradicate, the warring demons in our heads; or even—why not?—in the zeros and ones that have been programmed, through the mystery of human ingenuity, to save us from ourselves. Downloading an app may not feel particularly transcendent, but it is very much an act of Augustinian surrender—an acknowledgement of our continued dependence on solutions that are simple, miraculous, and free.
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