Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true. – Charles Dickens
By Kristy Jansen
The Friday before Christmas, I left town for the week to meet up with my extended family to share the holiday. My 13-year-old son had left the day before with his cousins, so I was traveling light. My husband, Rick, had to stay home to work, and tend to our house and dog. I was traveling from Santa Barbara with my sister and her 18-month-old toddler.
The first leg of our flight was scheduled to depart at 4:38 PM. Since Santa Barbara is a small regional airport, we were planning to arrive by 3:15 to drop off our luggage and get through security with plenty of time to spare.
Around 1:30 PM, the airline texted that the flight would be delayed until 6:30 PM.
Yippee, I thought, 2 extra hours! Now I can go finish my Christmas shopping and grab a few more cards for miscellaneous family members. Since I was leaving my beloved dog behind for the week, I brought him with me on my errands. We first stopped at the pet store, and I got him a few treats; I dropped into a local salon to get a last-minute eyebrow wax. And then I ran into Target to grab some ribbons, cards, and wrapping. By then it was about 3:45, and as I got back into my car in the Target lot, I pulled out my phone to see if I had any missed messages.
Two texts from the airline.
#1: Your flight is now leaving at 4:38 PM.
OMG. Can they un-delay a plane?!? I hadn’t even finished packing yet.
#2: Your flight is now delayed to 5:01 PM.
OK. Maybe I can make it by the skin of my teeth.
As I raced home, I called Rick, who had just gotten home. He had left work early to say goodbye and drive me to the airport.
“The flight leaves at 5 now! I can be home by 4, but need to run as soon as I get there!!! Can you throw my things into the duffle? Everything is out on the bed ready to go.” Our house is literally 5 minutes away from the airport, so there was still a chance to catch the flight.
“No problem.” He said, “See you in a minute.”
I got home, and the dog and I ran inside. Rick handed me my packed duffle. It was up to me to finish packing my backpack carry-on. There were precious seconds and only what HAD to come was making it in. I threw the last few things into my bag, made a last-minute decision to NOT to take my computer or my iPad (it clearly would have added minutes to collect the chargers, etc.), and that was it. Oh well, no long goodbye with my husband. But hey, I was proud of myself to be leaving my computer behind. It would be a great break from working.
I called my sister as we drove and she kept telling me to chill, that I’d be totally fine. She and my nephew were already through security and waiting at the gate. The plane was scheduled to leave at 5:05. It was 4:14 when Rick dropped me off and kissed me goodbye. I ran inside.
They accepted my luggage at baggage drop (whew!), and it wasn’t until I was going through the security check that I realized my toiletries bag was still sitting on our bathroom counter. Oops! What a start to a family Christmas vacation.
Let me ask you. What are you touching right now?
In early December, I attended a 600 person lecture event featuring the groundbreaking couple’s psychotherapist Esther Perel. She’s a wonderfully interactive speaker and started the evening asking questions of the audience. She asked things like: “How many of you want a romantic relationship?” “How many are in a romantic relationship?” “How many men in the audience have felt diminished when you are around other men?”
For each question, she asked those who would say yes to stand up, so the audience got a feeling for how common that issue was across the room. Quite impressive to see everyone sitting and standing and sitting again.
One question she asked went like this: “Please stand up if the last thing you stroke before going to sleep is…
(pause for effect)
I stood for that question, along with about half of the room.
Wow, phones these days get a lotta action…. Don’t they?
Despite missing my toothbrush and face lotion, I was actually grateful for the last-minute rush that allowed me a week sans computer or iPad, and as I flew to meet my extended family I made a conscious choice to limit my screen time as much as possible while I was away. Esther Perel’s question had made me think, and I had already been making an effort to reduce the late-night phone stroking, so this was a chance to reset my habits more deeply. In my role as Chief Content Officer at The Optimist Daily, being connected is an integral part of the gig. However, it was not required for the week. Yes, I had my smartphone, but I turned off all notifications and relegated that tiny screen to the bottom of my purse, only to check in with home twice a day. It ended up being one of the most unencumbered and restful weeks I can remember.
A few things I noticed on my screen-free vacation:
- I slept better.
I hated to admit it, but often the last thing I touch before I shut my eyes for the night is my phone or iPad. This is a habit I share with my husband, for better or worse. A last-minute check of emails, searching for something we suddenly remembered we need to order or setting an alarm. If it’s not a small screen, it’s often a show on Netflix or a movie that keeps us up, eyes glued to the screen. And when I wake in the middle of the night, I’ll often plug into my iPad and listen to a podcast or an audiobook, distracting my mind instead of relaxing it.
Not the best for mental clarity. Not the best for intimacy. The week off from the screen has opened my eyes to the benefits of putting the screens down long before bed. Instead, I’m opting to read a book, talk to my husband, cuddle and more. And turns out I can fall back to sleep without listening to something.
- I still love reading. Paper books!
When I was a kid, I always had a book with me, and I read several books a month on average. Lately, though, I find it hard to finish anything I start. There always seems to be something else that needs to be done. Plus, with a smart device that serves so many purposes, it feels super-efficient to do everything, including reading, on that one item. It’s simultaneously a phone, a music player, an e-book, a watch, a computer, a game room, and more. Reading on a smartphone can be great in some ways – less mess, less paper, no extra weight to carry on a plane trip. BUT – having a paper book means that I don’t get a pop-up text or reminder in the midst of a chapter. And the urge to check my email or look at Facebook is just not there. I only have the typeface letters in front of me, no extraneous magic to distract my attention.
I finished 2 complete books in the week I was gone and took great pleasure in focusing on what was on the page in front of me. I’m making this one of my new habits for 2020 – to read paper books again.
- I’m not the only screen addict in my family.
Sitting in a living room with 8 or 10 other people, ages 5 to 85. I’m the only one not on my device. I’m sitting and watching and thinking about the scene. I miss eye contact.
I’m at a table with 7 others for lunch later the same day. Everyone else at the table is checking their texts, Instagram, snap chat, etc. I make a joke about how it’s like being sober at a party where everyone else is drinking. Suddenly everyone looks up and laughs. They put their phones away and we talk and laugh through the rest of the meal.
- Silence is calming, and paying attention to the moment is easier when I don’t have my phone with me.
Walking around without a phone on my person feels eerie as if there’s a piece of me missing. On the other hand, the lack of cellular connection makes me feel somehow lighter. I’m not distracted by that mysterious antenna connecting me to the digital world. I’m completely analog for the moment, and it’s lovely. I notice color shifting as the sky darkens, and listen to the wind in the leaves. I smell the rain. The solid ground grows soggy underfoot. I taste the dampness in the air. I am here. Now. Awake.
- The swimming pool is a great place to hang out if you aren’t using screens
One of the best afternoons on my trip was spent standing together in the shallow end of a pool with another sister, talking about everything. No screens, no mental chatter, no digital distractions. We spent several hours throwing the ball for her 5-year-old to catch. Also laughing a lot. Water and screens don’t mix well. Another reason to take up swimming. Or scuba.
- It’s rewarding to be screen-free with kids, friends or family – and really talk about what’s going on.
Highlights of my week included:
- A card game with my 13-year-old son. He beat me at gin, and we joked about life and talked. He kept looking at his phone while we played, so I asked him who he was texting. Turns out he’s got a “girlfriend”, though they’ve not met face to face yet. I understand he met her on a group chat. Hmm…digital dating? Time for a serious talk.
- Shared meals were not all lost to tiny screens – I caught up with my 17-year-old high-school senior niece and learned that she too has a girlfriend. I also reconnected with an old friend, Jocelyn, sharing over a meal about our children, our spouses, our shared friends and the vicissitudes of life, love, and aging.
- We found a digital free game room and I spent an evening playing hand-shuffleboard and shooting pool. The physical connection of the pool cue in my hands and the soft felt of the table on my wrist as I took a shot; the feel of sand and smell of varnish from the shuffleboard as I slid the puck. Playing these games with my nephews and nieces and actually doing a thing instead of watching it was tremendously fun. I surprised myself and won a game of pool. Then lost every game afterward. A terrific time was had by all.
The screen fast helped me reset, and break away from the habit of constantly being distracted by my digital devices. Now that I’m back in Santa Barbara, back to my normal routines, back at work, back with my computer, my iPad, and back with my digitally connected husband, how will I employ these lessons and stay mindful of not being so mystified by screens going forward?
Early May has become a week of screen fasting for many, and there are other breaks we can build into our routine, with a bit of mindful attention. Two books I plan to add to my reading list this year may help keep me in check: Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” and Nir Eyal’s “Indistractible: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life”. Both books teach how to wrest one’s attention back from the brink and ask how can we participate in the digital world without losing ourselves completely? It’s about building limits around the use of the devices that are designed to hook us.
Something I plan to ask myself the next time I compulsively reach over to stroke my phone late at night: Is it serving me, or am I serving it? Then I’ll shake my husband awake so we can discuss the answer together.
For more on this subject, see this View Article:
Life in the Digital Age