Is modernity antithetical to serenity?

I recently found myself on a 14 hour non-stop flight from Dubai to Washington D.C.  I don’t travel well.  I have a tendency to get airsick, I can’t sleep on planes, I get dehydrated and stuffed up, and wind up with jet lag and more often than not, a cold.  Ironically I love to be in foreign places, and frequently find myself wishing for transporter technology.  On this trip, not only was I coughing, slightly nauseous, bleary/sand-paper-eyed, but my legs were swollen and covered in bruises from climbing in and out of helicopters.  Long story.

To alleviate my discomfort, I turned on my ipod, full blast, and crankily searched around for the perfect music or audiobook that would magically render me peaceful.  No such luck.  I dozed fitfully.  When we landed I pulled out my cell phone checking for messages, then turned on the blackberry making sure there were no emergencies at work.  Both had low batteries, contributing to my sense of unease.  I searched around for a bathroom and ATM, worrying that two major needs wouldn’t be met.  My luggage hadn’t arrived, owing to the fact that I had been thoughtfully tagged as a quadruple security threat by the lovely and patient airport officials in Dubai (which incidentally had also earlier led to two very invasive and personal “pat-downs.”)  About an hour or so after the other passengers had left to go home, my luggage rumbled up the carousel, leading me to believe that it had been handsearched for the third time.  I flagged down a cab, then tried to get home in the morning rush hour in Washington D.C., made worse by construction on the beltway that also necessitated cutting down all the beautiful trees on the side of the road.  I got home, and turned on my computer, only to find that my wi-fi wasn’t working because the fuse in the basement tripped while I was gone.  I finally laid down to sleep, to the sound of jackhammers from the freeway construction going on nearly a mile away.  This, I thought, was ridiculous.  Modern comforts, my ass.  My body wasn’t designed to fly, and I wasn’t designed to hurtle through the sky in a giant metal tube at 500 mph, zipping past time zone after time zone.  The sense of bodily misplacement that only goes away with a good night sleep and hot soup is a most disconcerting feeling.  Since when did I become thoroughly and disturbingly addicted to the crackberry?  Why do people need to get in touch with me 24 hours a day?  My parents and grandparents got along just fine without cell phones.  I realized that my present state could most easily be described as the opposite of serenity.  I was utterly non-serene.  And when the serenity was stripped away, there went my patience, compassion, perspective, and sense of humor.  I was less of a person.  Certainly a less spiritual person, because of my utter immersion in the trappings of a modern life. 

So are we unable to experience real serenity or spirituality in a modern world?  Do we have to separate ourselves from the modern world to be our most peaceful and whole selves?  Does that separation have to be physical, or is a mental discipline enough to keep out the scratching persistence of modern anxiety?  Do we need to evolve?  Our hunter gatherer ancestors had to tie themselves to a life of agriculture.  Technology is almost always disruptive.  Is the answer that we must evolve to find peacefulness amid the airplanes and jackhammers and constantly ringing phones? 

I think that in general I have evolved.  I prize the peacefulness of my life, and usually do not notice the phone, computer, cars, etc.  I live in this world and am happy. In fact, the ability to be happy in most any circumstance is, I think, one of my defining attributes.  However, sometimes a particularly long plane ride will remind me that I need to feel a breeze instead of conditioned air, that I need to smell cholorphyll instead of asphalt, and that I need to look a friend in the eye instead of staring at a computer screen.  Sometimes the modernity is a bit much for me, and I need to grab for that bit of serenity by hitting a metaphorical ctrl+alt+delete in my life.  If I’m not around to police the comments, I’ll be off weeding my garden…


  1. Naismith says:

    Oh, sister! You described that condition so well. I just got back from a 35-hour trip home that included two red-eye flights. I’ll get back to you in a few days when I can finally sleep.

  2. Is modernity antithetical to serenity?

    Yes. The next question is, how much do we, or should we, value the serenity which modernity makes less likely?

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Or, for that matter, how much should we value “modernity”?

  4. Exactly.

  5. Stephanie says:

    In fact, the ability to be happy in most any circumstance is, I think, one of my defining attributes.

    What a blessed attribute. I want to be like you.

  6. Mark Brown says:

    I’ll take modernity any day. I’d rather worry about a low battery on the cell phone than about whether my kids will get polio or scarlet fever, or whether the milk cow will get mastitis and the hens will quit laying. Those were some of my parents’ worries. The only way the past looks better to me is when I put on extra-strong rose-colored glasses.

  7. It’s a balancing act. I don’t want my kids to have polio, AND I want to smell the chlorophyl. I love your defining attributes, and will add my testimony that this is true Karen.

  8. From listening to conference talks I am lead to believe that there is nothing more important to good character than growing up on a farm. By that standard, my family is screwed. And yet, I am with Mark Brown.

  9. MikeInWeHo says:

    I’m with Mark Brown. Since most aren’t going to give up modernity regardless, perhaps a more useful question is this: How can we find serenity in the modern world?

  10. Molly_MW says:

    I don’t know that modernity is necessarily antithetical to serenity, but for me at least, air travel is. I used to love flying, but have come to loathe it of late.

    I think MikeInWeHo is right right, most people aren’t going to give up modernity. I’m certainly not going to anytime soon. However, I went to a presentation last week by this couple who are part of a small but determined anti-aviation movement. I had never heard of such a thing before but I find the idea of never flying again to be really appealing and am considering jumping on their bandwagon (I think I might draw the line at the ocean liner though). The thought of never again having to stand in a security line for a 6:00am fills me with immediate serenity!

  11. Almost thou persuadest me, Karen.

  12. Gavin P says:

    For some one who gets a sunburn just by looking outside, reconnecting with nature is not on my top list of priorities. I think however that the balancing of modern life and finding peace comes from choosing those things from each that contribute to joy. Being in Arizona means that I am away from friends and family, but modern conveniences allow me to video chat with them wherever they are. On the other hand, coming home from a job where I stare at a computer screen all day means that I am more prone to enjoy cooking a meal for my wife and I or taking five minutes to read a book.

    Maybe you just need more serene music on your ipod. Talk to BCC’s friends over at Linescratchers…..

  13. I’m with Mark Brown in #6.

    As I was reading David McCollough’s “John Adams” one thing really stood out to me. In Philadelphia, particularly during the summer, the city was plagued with outbreaks of various illnesses. Kids would die. Regular adults would die. I was fascinated by how John Adams normally talked with his wife over these outbreaks. I can’t imagine he and the others of their time would rather have the good and the bad of their world over the good and the bad of our world if they were given a choice. It took them several months to get just across the Atlantic, something which takes now, from New York to London a mere six hours. They could only dream of going to Dubai (did it even exist as a city back then?). I would rather have the challenges and the spoils of this life than any other in the world’s history. But then again, I live a very luxurious life in the United States of America, the richest country in the history of the world. How could I desire anything else?

  14. Karen H. says:

    I’m not trying to start a Luddite movement here. Believe me, I appreciate penicillin. But I think Molly synthesized the best question coming out of this discussion. How do we find serenity in modern life?

  15. I’ll jump on the bandwagon of how do we find serenity in our modern lives. I just counted up and figured I (and my 2 kids) have 12 long-haul/international flights coming up in the next 6 months. It’s rough. And my kids took that nonstop Dubai – San Francisco flight last Christmas with my husband!

    You’re right about time zones and craziness and dealing with stuff our bodies just aren’t meant to do. However, I love my MacBook and iPod and traveling all over the place and vaccinations, and modern dentistry, etc.

    For me, I think the key is to make my home have a few pockets of tranquil space — for example, we have no TVs or videos upstairs in our bedrooms. I’m trying to think of ways to redo my bathroom so it feels more like a spa. You know, that kind of hokey stuff. I also think that built into the modern world, we may need to budget for those things that have been traditionally seen as self-indulgent, like a much needed massage, or some time alone.

    What can I say, except Serenity NOW!

  16. StillConfused says:

    I would love to go to Dubai. That sounds awesome.

    I can relate to sensory overload. When I am in my car, I rarely have any music or noise on at all. Same at home. If stuff gets too noisy (such as visitors with noisy children), I just go into my bedroom, close the door and meditate until my nerves settle.

  17. britt k says:

    I lke modernity…I like air conditioning, medicine and the ability to travel.

    I think we do have to gaurd the ability to be by ourselves…no input, no music, no informaiton, no screen, no texting…just ourselves. If we can keep the ability to completely disengage so we can really be “in the moment” we will mainain serenity. So yoga and zen and that kinda stuff.

    This is the second time in recent posts I’m reminded of “dirt therapy” that my mom told me was the new thing in therapy. playing in dirt…

  18. Karen,

    You can find Serenity right here. :)

  19. Natalie B. says:

    I wonder to what extent longing for serenity is a function of living in modernity? I’m not sure that I would value quiet, isolation, nature and the other things I associate with serenity if I did not see them as a retreat from the norm. If I had to survive by working the land, maybe I wouldn’t find nature so peaceful.

  20. Karen,
    The call to go to the temple seems to be a call to create serenity in the midst of modernity (certainly folks strive to create a calm, peaceful atmosphere there). Pres. Hinckley used to counsel us to create a space and time for meditation daily. Scripture study can also do the same.

    Also, I hear that yule-log channel can be quite soothing.

  21. I am also able to find happiness under pretty much any circumstance. When I start feeling stressed it is usually a physical thing, like low blood sugar, making it’s presence known. I am a poor one to talk, but I think if we take care of our bodies even under crazy, hectic conditions, serenity will follow more easily.

  22. Harikari says:

    I’m surprised this post did not get more comment. Really, are most readers here that content with the hurlyburly of modern life? Idunno, maybe it’s just me. Unlike OP, I utterly lack the ability to be “happy in most any circumstance.” If you have that gift, any lifestyle will work for you, I guess. For myself, for most of my life I bought into the philosophy, taught in the church as much as anywhere, that we must constantly do more and be more to find happiness. For me that is not true; less is more.

    You don’t have be scheduled out and multitasking 80 hrs/week to enjoy the miracle of penicillin, and I don’t see serenity/modernity as an either/or. I think @2 asked the right question: do we even value serenity? I’ve never heard that term used in the church, and don’t know what to Gospel equivalent would be (if there is one). But I’m finding it personally, slowly, through my evolving practice of voluntary simplicity and mindfulness. If you’ve never heard of either concept, they are worth a google and some consideration.

  23. “do we even value serenity? I’ve never heard that term used in the church, and don’t know what to Gospel equivalent would be (if there is one)”

    Well, I think we do, but we use different words:

    “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.”

  24. Steve Evans says:

    MCQ, we don’t value that nearly enough.