Week Ten: A Weekend Without Phone, Internet, or TV (and Other Reflections)

We live in a world that applauds the ability to multitask. While in law school, I could keep one ear on the professor’s lecture while flipping through Facebook photos, scanning news headlines, and maintaining three different G-chat conversations. I was able to retain enough of the lesson to do well on the exam, so what did it matter that I wasn’t 100% “present”? This attitude towards my education was very different from that of a few short years before. As a college student, I relished my intimate history classes where it was impossible not to listen and actively participate.  My attention only wavered when an idea for short story would not let me rest until it was written in the composition notebook secretly nestled between the pages of my textbook. In general, however, my classroom attendance meant more than being physically in my seat.

I am a late-comer to the “smart phone” phenomenon. Until I moved to Arlington, Virginia a year and a half ago, my cell phone could do little more than make a phone call. Still, I am aware of how reliant I have become on it in a short time. As an intellectually curious person, I love being able to secure an instant answer to any question. I’m also guilty of flooding social media with photos of my niece and nephew, my dog, or a dessert from a trendy new restaurant (complete with a vintage filter, of course). Life as a young attorney also requires me to tote around a second smart phone reserved for work e-mails. My weekend mornings are often spent in trepidation of hearing the melodic tone that could signal canceled plans.

All of the above explains why New Thing #26 – Spend a Weekend without Phone, Internet, or TV – made the 52 Things List. This past weekend seemed the perfect opportunity because the weather promised to be mild. And so, on Friday at 5:00 pm I went “off the grid” until early Monday morning. Although my initial goal was simply to be more productive and to enjoy some additional time outdoors, the lessons I learned were actually much more poignant.

First, my short respite from technology taught me to be more intellectually and emotionally engaged in my surroundings and when interacting with others. Without my own smart phone in hand, I was able to better observe the impact that they have on our lives. During a leisurely walk with my dog, I saw a couple glued to their iPhones as they left a Sunday service with their arms linked. In a darkened bar on Saturday night, many of the patrons’ faces were framed by the blue light emitted by their cell phones. When one person disengaged himself from the conversation to check the latest news in social media, his compatriots would frequently find comfort in their own phone. Although I’m not the type of person to shy away from a conversation, I was left wondering how often I effectively remove myself from the room in this manner. I certainly felt the loss of my phone throughout the weekend – a technological “phantom limb syndrome,” so-to-speak.

Second, I also discovered how my reliance on technology potentially impedes my physical well-being. On Saturday afternoon, I gathered a blanket and my dog and curled up with a book in a nearby park. With only a novel to read, my eyes began to droop. I enjoyed an hour-long, restorative nap. This may seem unremarkable to you; however, naps are not a feature of my everyday life. I now suspect that this is because my weekend afternoons at home are often spent playing on my phone, watching TV or skimming the internet. With so much mental stimulation, it is a small wonder that I never “feel” tired during the day. In fact, I often struggle to fall asleep at night; this experience has inspired me to limit myself to the dim glow of a book-light after 11:00pm.

Of course, being “off the grid” also had its disadvantages. On Saturday morning, when I left my first CrossFit class – sweaty and exhilarated – I was disappointed not to be able to call my dad to describe the experience. I also missed my daily phone calls with my big sister, catching up while my niece’s singsong voice and my nephew’s baby babble sound in the background.  I realized that I take for granted being able to pick up the phone and reach out to my loved ones hundreds of miles away.

On Monday morning, after my self-imposed ban on technology ended, I awoke to an ominous e-mail from my father. The note simply read, “The weekend is over. Call your sister.” I soon learned that my sister’s pastor  – Pastor David – had announced that he had a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Because I attend his service whenever I’m in Nashville, I personally know Pastor David to be funny, kind and humble man of profound faith. I listened as my distraught sister grieved for a person whom we both hold in high esteem. As I got ready for work this morning, I listened to Pastor David’s most recent sermon. His heartfelt words resonated deeply with me. Here was a man who two weeks ago believed himself to be healthy and to have many years ahead of him with his wife and three children. During the sermon, he pointed out that – although you may think you know where your life is headed – sometimes “the bottom falls out.”

Pulling from his own painful experience to bring guidance to others, Pastor David quoted from Psalm 90:12 – “Teach us to number our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” I think there is a powerful lesson to be learned from these words. Many of us unintentionally slip into periods in which we live our life on “auto-pilot.” We go through the motions – doing our job, going to church, walking the dog – without stopping to reflect and find the joy in all of these things. As I learned this weekend, we sometimes allow small, petty distractions to disengage us from the world.

The lesson that I have taken away from all of this is – to be present in my own life. Now is the time to close the laptop and play outside, to put away the phone and actively listen to the person across from me. Now is the time to preserve my strong relationships and repair my broken ones.  Life is fleeting. As Pastor David noted, we never know when the earth will shift under our feet. So, while I have a firm footing, I intend to savor the feeling of the sand between my toes.

** If you would like to watch Pastor David’s sermon, you can find it here. Those of us touched by his ministry would appreciate any thoughts/prayers for his health, and for the peace and well-being of his family.

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