Regenerating the Tree of Life

Post-retirement is often advertised on birthday cards and in Art of Living books as the "golden era" of a fulfilling life. The reality is quite different, though. Sometimes I wonder if I am the only person in the world who is experiencing "ageing pains", since I cannot keep up with the pace of "twittering", "instagramming" or "whatsapping". While I appreciate the benefits of internet connectivity, I seem to be out of the groove with the ongoing tech revolution. The limits of my social media expertise extend to a Facebook account. Fortunately, it serves my purpose quite adequately: I can stay in close touch with my immediate family and close friends.

The past 17 years of the new millennium have meant a sea of change for those who grew up communicating face-to-face. Many like me are going through a period of adjustment trying hard to keep up with the internet era where feelings and opinions are shared on the phone or computer screen. Even FaceTime comes across as a second-best option. How can anything replace a close physical encounter where facial expressions, body language and eye contact express what a thousand words cannot?

One would have thought that with multiple opinions and ideas available in the public forum we would have gained additional wisdom. But I feel I am becoming increasingly inept at coping emotionally because there seems to be no certainty about anything anymore. And this is not on account of the widespread existence of fake news, "alternative facts" or the onset of a "post truth" era. Today, the weight of an opinion seems to be preponderantly determined by its popularity on social media: often two views are vying for the winning position based on the number of twitter or Facebook followers rather the intrinsic value of the issues. There was a time when we watched a movie and read its reviews. While we allowed critics to guide us, we articulated our opinions quite openly. But now there are multiple views expressed by twitter and ultimately everyone falls in-line with the most popular one—not because they agree but because they are scared of backlash. Who wants to be contradicted in public and be accused of being a "Philistine"? In today's internet savvy age, education is not about reading and then analysing and processing the information to form well thought out opinions, but being part of the "web crowd".

The spirit of referendum through the internet seems to have permeated into all aspects of our lives. We are increasingly making decisions about social and political issues guided by polls and twitter—even the media is swayed by these opinions. It's no longer kosher to say "I agree with both views in some ways"—we must be either for or against something. In this context, I am reminded of a pertinent observation by the American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald, who noted that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

Even while planning vacations we seldom indulge in those "tea and samosa" sessions with friends who have visited a location and can give us interesting views on what to see and what to avoid. The travel guidebooks containing valuable information about planning trips have also gone out of vogue. Instead, we make choices and decisions by switching on our computers or smart-phones and checking out customer reviews on restaurants, hotels and even monuments that have been standing there for centuries. As if the pyramids need reaffirmation from twitter or instagram followers about their appeal!

I'm aware that I should be grateful that I am alert and agile enough to keep up with the times—at least partially. For, there are friends who are in physical discomfort or describe their days as "unending" and "hard to fill." Truth be told, I have also started to experience senior moments—I forget a friend's birthday or, worst, cannot put a name to a face. Some have suggested that I practice the neurological exercises available on internet sites: Google "brain exercises" and you will be given several options, even a quick fix of "10 best exercises that boost memory"! But the spontaneity of an afternoon coffee with a close friend or a challenging bridge game with neighbours can do more to invigorate my neurons than a thousand brain exercises recommended by Google. What can be more exhilarating than my annual visit to Dhaka, reconnecting with childhood friends, spending the entire evening extending into the wee hours listening to heavenly classical music and simply watching the setting sun in the city's hazy horizon! Despite all the technological advances that are supposed to help you discover the world, there is nothing like a warm voice or a consoling hug to tell you that living is all about real life relationships and not "virtual" communications.

I realise that my mental resistance to the technological revolution will not add even one day to my life or change the pace and direction of the world. But I believe it will allow me to step off the conveyor belt and recapture some of the passion and adventure of my youth, even if for a few fleeting moments. It will help me feel that I am "alive" rather than passively observe my life pass by on a phone or computer screen!

Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.

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