Last night after my daughter went to bed, I was hanging out with my partner in our bedroom. This is our daily routine; we retreat to the bedroom like clockwork after bedtime, and usually watch something (a movie or streaming tv show) on the laptop while lying in bed (I know, I know, this is a big no-no according to relationship gurus. Let's set that aside for the moment.). After we watch our stories, we usually wind down by reading for a bit, and then we turn out the light. Often, instead of or before reading, one of us will interact with our phones (check email, Twitter, Facebook, play a game, etc). Last night while I was doing just that, my husbutch leaned over and said teasingly to me: "My wife's a Facebook junkie."
My first reaction was pure defensiveness. I pulled back, and said something like: "You don't know that... That's rude... I don't judge your phone time..." She didn't really respond, and we were still in uneasy silence when we went to sleep.
I was annoyed because I felt judged, and because I felt that she had no right to do so, given that her own attention is frequently attached to her phone as well. This morning, however, I was still thinking about the exchange, and wondering where my defensiveness was really coming from. Am I a Facebook junkie? More generally, am I addicted to technology?
I used to be in awe of my ex-girlfriend's sister, who would stay with us occasionally, because she frequently didn't take her phone with her when she left the house. She would just leave the house without it (and without a purse or any other baggage -- nothing but keys), and not seem to give it a second thought. She even left her phone turned off for hours at a time. She was the only person I knew who didn't seem to need her phone or view it as an extension of herself. And while I often teased her incredulously -- how could you not have your phone?? -- I was deeply very jealous of this non-attachment. I knew that if I left the house without my phone, I would feel an underlying anxiety all day, of not knowing what's going on, not being connected.
Ironically, when I don't have my phone, or when I purposefully set it down or turn it off, I notice a lot. I notice other people on their phones as a default activity, from people on the bus to people standing in line. I notice kids talking to their parents, who reply with distant non-responses as they scroll or tap with their thumbs. I notice that everybody seems to have walls up, blocking out the world by occupying their ears, eyes, and fingers with technology. When I quit smoking, one of the hardest things for me was figuring out what to do with myself on break. I used to enjoy going out to smoke on break, partly just to get outside. Smoking was something I could DO outside. Without it, I wondered, what would I do outside? Stare into space? Watch people as they walk by? I found that I could just "be on my phone" during these times, and not feel weird. I was doing something.
Not only does being on the phone make me feel like I'm busy doing something; it also sends the signal to others that I'm not available for conversation or requests. Checking my Facebook feed makes me feel more connected to the truncated lives of the people I know or used to know, and also allows me to be alone in public, protected from the actual presence of strangers. I've been known to pretend to be having a conversation on my phone when in public, in order to avoid other people approaching me. I suspect I'm not the only one who does this.
Avoiding human contact with strangers is different than avoiding it at home with my partner and child, however. I want them both to know that I'm really there when I'm there, and if I'm staring at my phone, I'm not there. Being there means listening with my whole body (as I tell my daughter): making eye contact, being still and present. What would it look like if we all did that, all the time? I try to remember my life not too long ago before I owned a cell phone, and although I had less external distraction back then, I can't say that I was necessarily more present with everybody. There's more to being present than not fiddling with technology. It's about listening without judgment, without thinking about what I'll say next. It's being open to whatever or whoever is in front of me.
This is the heart of what I want in my heart. I feel like it's the answer to any question I have, whether it's about being a better parent, partner, employee, friend, or human. It feels both simple and impossible. Putting down the phone is certainly not the whole of it, but sometimes it's the least I can do.