Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Put Down The Phone

My son finally admitted to me a few months ago that one of the problems he had with a woman he'd been dating was that she rarely put down her cell phone and stopped texting her many friends, even when they were on dates or in the middle of conversations.  

I felt sad for him, because I too have known the loneliness that comes from sitting in a restaurant or strolling the beach with someone whose face is buried in their "screen," but it was odd hearing it from someone so young. I thought everyone that age had just come to accept those interruptions as part and parcel of living, something that always made me sad because I spent so much of my life not having to deal with it.

I am sure there comes a time in everyone's life when they miss the world they grew up in, and so it may be with me.  For me, what I miss more than anything is the lack of "screen time," meaning the distractions of our handheld devices and computers, which are now capable of going everywhere with us due to smartphone technology, and which immediately diminish the real world we are currently experiencing due to their many attention-grabbing characteristics.  

But there's a long and storied history of this kind of nostalgia:  The old Victorians probably felt a loss when the flickering shadows cast by the gas lanterns and hurricane lamps were replaced by Edison's constant and bright electric bulbs.  Or our grandparents did, when television replaced sitting around the radio listening to music or serials, allowing the mind to conjure up what it would in its shadows.

But never has a technology so allowed us to never be alone -- and at the same time to be more alone than ever because of it.  If I had to think back on what would have changed the most in the advent of the cell phone and iPad, it probably would have been my trip to Europe in 1986, when I traveled across that continent with a backpack and was "missing in action," so to speak, for several months. Of course I was only missing in my regular world. In actuality, I  knew exactly where I was, and without getting too Zen about it, I found out this is all that ever really matters.

Those days and months by myself (or with new friends) changed me for the better, partially because traveling like that allowed me to disconnect from everything that was familiar back home. By doing that, I also disconnected from a part of myself which was no longer needed. Enter change, enter growth. Nowadays, world travelers are emailing missives or blogging their traveling experience like crazy, and if not, they are at least sitting in internet cafes getting caught up on all the US news while checking in with everything they left behind.  

I'm relatively convinced that all this communication defeats the purpose of the "walkabout," where you immerse yourself in a kind of global "absolute elsewhere" for awhile, in order to discover who it is you might become when no one you know is around to tell you exactly what that is.

I also wonder how technology twists and shapes the roots of new relationships as they are forming.  I know for me, with the two or three great loves I've had in my life, early on there was usually one evening (sometimes more) where a conversation of shared experiences started and then expanded, until it filled the entire night with tales of the paths that led us to that exact moment, and how auspicious it all seemed.  

Some of those conversations went on until, with sleepy eyes, we realized we'd spent the entire night talking and that the sun was coming up behind the park bench where we'd sat down hours ago.

Does this ethereal and cosmically romantic experience fundamentally change when your friends are checking in every couple of hours to see how your date is going, or there is a "chirp"every time someone comments on your latest Facebook post, or your calendar beeps and tells you that you have a meeting coming up at 11 a.m.? Yes, I suspect it does, probably just enough to ruin that golden flow of ideas and your perception of the light in his eyes that you lose when you turn away, if just for just a moment, and check the alert on your phone. It's gone and its not coming back. Those are moments you catch now, or not at all.

Put down the phone, people.  When you walk on the beach, look at the sun on the water.  Feel the spray on your face. And when you find the person with the light behind their eyes, hit the "off" button on your phone so you don't miss a moment of the experience. Maybe even light a hurricane lamp and sit together in the shadows listening for awhile. If we're willing to be open to it, life is able to supply us with a spectacular and unrepeatable past. But you have to be looking up in order to see it. 


  1. I so totally agree. I am one of the few people I know that refuses to make calls while driving. I do take them if I have remembered to turn on my blue tooth. I get so tired of waiting for the person in front of me at the red light that is so engrossed in texting that they almost allow the light to turn red on them (& me) without ever moving. I must say my horn on my vehicle gets a pretty regular workout here in the city. Not so much in the country thank goodness.

    1. Luckily for those of us in the country, there are plenty of "dead zones" out in the middle of nowhere, where cell phones are useless. One more advantage to rural living!

  2. Amen! Your son made a hard choice, but the right one. I feel that social media brings about a new/unique form of neurosis. There is a feeling of people ALWAYS watching. One compulsively thinks "oh, this is a good post" "people are posting about X, I need to share my opinion" "if I post this, X will see". It's exhausting. And the reason I quit Facebook and twitter. I'm neurotic enough as it is. It's shocking how few people are comfortable genuinely alone.

    1. That is the truth, and how sad that when they are posting their opinions about whatever on Twitter and Facebook, they really are alone but with a racing, unquiet mind. They're plugged into some bright screen instead of taking advantage of the moment to enjoy some peace and serenity, or just a moment of reflection.