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As I delve deeper into the conundrum of what it means to live in this perpetually connected digital world, I’ve come to a point in the book “Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy For Building A Good Life In The Digital Age” where author William Powers describes how the personal regimen of one man in the 18th century can teach us valuable lessons for mastering our 21st century life.

That man is Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, as well as being one of a few truly outstanding polymaths, excelling in many fields including politics, science, invention, music, civil activism, statesmanship and diplomacy.

He was a deeply social and active person, so much so that one of his early writing pseudonyms was “Busy-Body”. He was constantly on the move, thinking, reading and connecting…Powers says that Franklin was a master of “doing the eighteenth-century equivalent of social networking”. Everyone that observed him saw that he was a man going places…but it wasn’t until he had a moment of profound “disconnection” that he realized he didn’t known where that place was.

At the age of 20, Benjamin Franklin voyaged from London, England to Philadelphia, leaving him with a great deal of time for philosophical soul-searching, of his life so far, and where he wanted to go. This is an excerpt of his journal from the travel:

Man is a sociable being, and it is…one of the worst punishments to be excluded from society. I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude, and I know ’tis a common boast in the mouths of those that affect to be thought wise, that they are never less alone than when alone. I acknowledge solitude an agreeable refreshment to a busy mind; but were these thinking people obliged to be always alone, I am apt to think they would quickly find their very being insupportable to them.

Despite this, Franklin reflected in his voyage that too many things in his life weren’t going at all the way he wanted. He was pulled in too many directions, and far too busy to properly put his life in order. Despite our hectic lives often seeming to be a very new, digital age phenomenon, Franklin’s writings give us a stark reminder that this type of busyness and “quiet desperation” (next post will examine the life and work of Henry David Thoreau) have always been with us.

From these reflections, he built a philosophy and personal regimen that he attributed to building the man he would become.

Seeing Franklin’s teachings and his own personal struggles in a rapidly expanding and connecting world gives me hope for us. How simultaneously empowering and frightening it is to consider that we are really all the same people! As much as we like to distance ourselves from many of the murky chapters of human history, I find it reassuring to know that there is so much already lived and written behind us to draw from in our own often torturous lives.

I found Franklin’s teachings as shared by Powers deeply interesting, both as a period study, as well as a broader examination of human nature. Take a minute to consider these 13 virtues he developed at the age of 20, and how it can inform us today:

  1. Temperance: Eat not to Dullness. Drink not to Elevation.
  2. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself. Avoid trifling Conversation.
  3. Order: Let all your Things have their Places. Let each Part of your Business have its Time.
  4. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought. Perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Frugality: Make no Expense but to do good to others or yourself i.e. Waste nothing.
  6. Industry: Lose no Time. Be always employ’d in something useful. Cut off all unnecessary Actions.
  7. Sincerity: Use no hurtful Deceit. Think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Justice: Wrong none, by doing Injuries or omitting the Benefits that are your Duty.
  9. Moderation: Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Cleanliness: Tolerate no Uncleanliness in Body, Clothes or Habitation.
  11. Tranquillity: Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Chastity: Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation.
  13. Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

With some small modifications and updating of language, it can be easy to image how these goals could speak to us here in the 21st century. Franklin was confident that with discipline, anyone could follow his philosophy, so much so that he exhorted his readers “follow the Example & reap the Benefit”.

One of the things that I hadn’t considered on first reading that Powers points out is that, though the wording is austere, the goals are positive aspects to work towards, noting as one example “who doesn’t want tranquillity?” Instead of things like “The No Ice Cream or Any Other Goodies Diet”, he gives 13 targets to aim towards (noting in writings that he never comes near to the centre of any of them, but that it is the effort that is rewarding).

It has a great deal to do with attitude, as well. Franklin apparently moved through life and his philosophy in an easy and affable manner, not becoming undone by each failure to live up to these massive ideals, but in quiet congratulation and good humour with each success.

Powers also notes that the power in Benjamin Franklin’s example and challenge is not an easy path to walk, but can be truly transformational…in fact, that is the reason the path isn’t easy to walk. We want to change for the better, and talk about transformative experiences at great length, but how many of us truly want to experience it?

I’m not so sure I do. Not really.

But if we find the courage to work at it, we may be astounded by the results.

To push back against the seeming onslaught of activity and information in our hectically connected lives, many groups (including families, companies and organizations) have tried to enforce e-mail/digital device free time. However, this puts only external pressure on us, instead of enticing us to discover what it is that drives us, and to through personal examination and reflection to reshape ourselves.

This is something I hope to continue to reflect on and practice as I write this series. My first thoughts on this is a goal to reawaken my appreciating and enjoyment of simple pleasures – though sad that it takes such concentration to do. As I move through this process, I realize that many things I used to enjoy are done without the pleasure I used to feel. I realize that, though my desires and passions haven’t changed, I am always thinking on things I feel I should be doing, and often, that the mental itch of social media and online activity are distracting me from the physical present and the now.

How simple it can be to say “cherish life”, but realizing, with the haste of everything that life can entail, how little we actually do it. I hope that we can each, in small steps, recapture our lives, our meaning and ourselves. As we do this, it will empower us to step out into the digital world refreshed, rejuvenated, and more able to enjoy it as a tool and not as something that controls us.

In my next post, I’ll examine the example of Henry David Thoreau and building a zone of solitude in our homes.

Next post: Overwhelmed – Home of Refuge

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