Our “Invisible” Sickness

Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

I want to briefly interrupt my “How Change Happens” series to share a reflection on a topic that has become a fire in my belly. In the big picture, the topic is how consumerism is the enemy of creativity and connection. What follows is not the grand manifesto that I hope to one day write; it is just some observations on one symptom of our consumer-driven culture, namely, cell phone addiction, and the impact it has on our ability to be present with one another. In what I hope is a spirit of humility, here are my thoughts…

I’ve been living “cell phone light” recently, deleting apps one by one to wean myself off of my iPhone until I can switch back to a landline. I’m now at the point where 95% of my usage is for texting and calling, and I’m keeping texting to a minimum. Needless to say, this “alternative lifestyle” is opening my eyes to many of the ailments of our culture that we have come to accept, or even embrace, often without noticing them at all. For example, I now see more clearly how tragically easy it is to be a flake in our technology-mediated, consumer-oriented world. Since we zip everywhere in our cars, and everyone has a phone at their fingertips, we assume that the cost of canceling plans is nothing. “Sorry, can’t make it,” we can text five minutes prior to our designated meeting time, and that’s all there is to it. We’ve reduced the value of human presence to almost nothing, if our actions are any indication.

But what if the person you were meeting didn’t have a phone, and would sit for 30-45 minutes before concluding that you couldn’t make it. Imagine also that they had walked to the coffee shop. In the best of circumstances, it may have been a pleasant, invigorating walk. But nonetheless, it was 30 minutes of their time, and it will be 30 minutes to walk home. In this universe, would you make more of an effort to show up?

Now it would be easy to conclude that this is exactly why our technology-obsessed culture is superior to this backwards world I am invoking. But pause for a moment and consider – is it really superior to minimize, and even “erase,” our ability as humans to have an impact on one another? Because I would argue that the extent to which we can negatively impact one another is equal to the extent that we can positively impact one another. When our actions are “weightless,” we cannot hurt each other, but neither can we bless or heal or love. We become trapped in our castles of self-sufficiency, where we need nothing, and so we ask for nothing, and so we receive nothing. Human connection, in this world, is a formality at best. It is certainly not a necessity. It is certainly not something we would risk sacrificing for.

Without texting, and especially without cars, setting out to meet a friend for coffee is an act of faith. I am trusting that you will show up. And when you do, my trust in the goodness of the world is strengthened. My faith in humanity in general is strengthened, which makes it that much easier for me to trust strangers and receive help from neighbors and give people the benefit of the doubt. Imagine the impact this has on the human psyche over time when, day after day, week after week, you keep showing up. And on the rare occasion that you don’t, I am not frustrated or annoyed, because I know there is a good reason, and I trust that the universe has something else for me that day, something good and beautiful, whatever form it may take.

Conversely, in the text-obsessed culture, every time I “check in” the night before or the morning of to make sure we’re “still on,” I’m feeding flakiness and the perception of “weightless” action. I’m strengthening paranoia and anxiety. Why would you not show up? We both agreed, we both put it on our calendars. And yet, we all live such distracted lives that it seems more likely that you might have forgotten. Unless I remind you, your absence seems more likely than your presence.

And of course, “presence” is a relative term these days. There’s physical presence, of course, which some of us can manage some of the time. But anything beyond that is considered, well, above and beyond. There is a spectrum of presence that I observe as I sit and write in this coffee shop. Next to me are three young people, two girls and a guy, who arrived together and sat together, but are drinking their coffee while staring at their phones, completely enraptured, completely cut off to human beings who are 12 inches from their bodies. There are two men sitting at a booth across from me, and they are engaged in conversation, but they are talking about something on the screen of one of the phones. It’s as if the phone is the interesting third party without whom conversation would be dull. There are others scattered throughout the shop who are participating in genuine “phone-less” conversation. And yet, their phones sit on the table with them, face up, so that at any moment a call, text, or notification can light up the screen and take immediate priority over whatever beautiful energy is passing between them. This, it seems, is the most presence we can hope for. Tell me, how is this superior?

I know that I am, technologically speaking, a dinosaur. I exhibit many of the symptoms of an octogenarian – a preference for a landline over a cell phone, a tendency to drive under the speed limit, the desire to head to bed when the sun goes down– so I understand that many people will see no reason to take me seriously. I am an anomaly, an aberration, a glitch in the system, some might say. But what if the system itself is so sick that what appears to be a “glitch” is what’s left of our collective sanity? The late Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti said it this way, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick culture.” And our culture is profoundly, grievously sick. There is no arguing about this. Our bodies are riddled with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and stress. Our minds are consumed with anxiety and depression. Our hearts are so heavy that we anesthetize ourselves with alcohol, medication, and ungodly levels of media consumption. And our souls? Who has the capacity to be connected with their soul anymore? The closest we get is the gnawing at the back of our neck when, phone battery drained, we sit alone for just a moment, waiting for our friend to show up for coffee.

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Reflection Questions:

  1. What gets stirred up in you as you consider this post? What resonates? Where do you feel defensive?
  2. How does your cell phone usage impact your ability to be present with others?
  3. When you imagine cutting down on cell phone use, what would be easy? What would be challenging?

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Experiments in Living:

  1. Create phone-free spaces
    • When you are having a conversation with someone face-to-face, put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” and place it completely out of sight. I promise you that the world will not come crashing down if you miss a text or phone call. Even if you are a parent and feel responsible toward your children, consider that being unreachable for an hour or two actually grows their creativity and resourcefulness by forcing them to solve their problem for themselves or to find another adult to reach out to. (Of course, as a courtesy, you can let your child know that you will be out of reach for a couple hours, and give them a suggestion for who else to contact in case of emergency. Or use this amazing hack that imitates the old AIM away messages!)
    • Make your bedroom a “phone-free” space by putting your phone on Do Not Disturb or airplane mode before you cross the threshold. This has the added benefit of allowing you to use your phone as an alarm without forcing you to start your day with an assault of notifications. (Consider the long term consequences of starting every day with the ritual of confronting missed notifications. Aside from the jolt of anxiety it incurs, it also immediately puts you in the mindset of doing, striving, achieving. What if, instead, you started your day with 5 minutes of being, where you reminded yourself that your value doesn’t come from your “productivity” as defined by a capitalist society?)
    • Choose one day a week where you turn your phone completely off. If this is unrealistic for you right now, then make it a half day, or just 3-4 hours. Whatever you’re able to do, do it. This one simple choice will have a profound impact on the rest of your week.
  2. Delete apps that don’t serve you
    • Start with what’s easy – which apps do you already know are crushing your soul and sucking your life away? Delete them. You have nothing to lose and much to gain. If you find you have made a mistake, you can always add them back later.
    • Notice which apps you use most compulsively. Wonder about this. Why do I check the weather 18 times a day? How does this serve me? If I deleted this app, I might regain the ability to dress myself without knowing the precise temperature, something I did my entire life until I got a smart phone in 2017.
  3. Replace phone time with something life-giving: If you have an iPhone, you can check your “Screen Time” app to see how many hours a day you typically spend on your phone. If you’re like most Americans, it’s an average of 3.5 hours per day. Can you imagine what you could do with 3.5 extra hours in your day?? Aren’t we always complaining about how little time we have? And yet, if you aren’t intentional about using that time in a way that gives you life, the vacuum created by minimizing phone use will just go toward a different addiction.
    • Make a list of all the things you wish you had more time for – e.g. playing an instrument, cooking at home, reading a book, creating art, writing, walking outside, visiting a neighbor, catching up with an old friend.
    • Be sure to include relaxing options in addition to creative ventures, since you need something to replace the “unwind” function that phones can pretend to serve. For me, cooking something very simple and sitting out on our back porch eating it slowly with no other distractions or media consumption is a zen paradise. I look at the yard, I breathe in fresh air, I listen to the birds, I enjoy nourishing food, and I feel a deep gratitude for all of it.
  4. Become a conscientious observer: If all of the above is too much for you at the moment, no shame. Often the best first step to change is to start by observing your current reality. So for one week, don’t change a thing. Simply pay attention to how you use your phone, how it intrudes in various settings, how you feel after using it for different purposes, etc. Record you observations in a notebook and share them with a friend.