Recently, I wrote about the realization that I was probably addicted to my cell phone. The piece elicited a lot of feedback from people telling me that they can relate. Everyone is a bit ashamed to admit it; we all know how absurd it is to think that a hand-held device could have has such a powerful grip on our brains.
In my case, I decided to do something about it by giving up the phone entirely on Shabbat. I can’t claim this is a religious thing. I didn’t give up anything else on Shabbat, and I’m not looking for pious pats on the back. Just trying out a strategy to combat my phone addiction, and Shabbat seemed like an ideal day to shut down. If that gets me a few additional religious reward points, I’ll gladly take it. My shomer shabbos friends reading this are welcome to chuckle at my great sacrifice. Go right ahead, I don’t blame you. But as a proud Reform Jew, I can text to my heart’s content on Shabbat, which, as I see it, makes my sacrifice pretty great.
So to my fellow phone addicts, in case you’re contemplating cutting down on your own cell phone use, I have identified five takeaways I’ve already gleaned from the brief time since I implemented my Shabbat no phone zone:
It’s ridiculously hard to put the phone away. If you’re a real phone addict, then going cold turkey and disconnecting for 24 hours is shockingly hard at first. Something in your brain goes haywire, and you feel a constant, unfulfilled urge to be connected. The first time, I experienced a combination of emotions, none of them good – frustration, emptiness, anxiety. It became painfully obvious how intertwined my phones was to my existence – checking emails, texts, news, social media, notes, podcasts, research, music, weather, directions – even talking on the phone.
There’s always something to do with your phone. It’s become a reflex, a constant companion that keeps us endlessly occupied, whether we’re on our couch, taking a walk, waiting in line at the drive-thru, or whatever. Once you try giving that up – even for 24 hours – you become starkly aware that these devices have morphed into something much larger than we ever could have imagined, and you realize there’s something deeply troubling about that.
Everyone Around You Has Their Heads in Their Phones.
When you’re not one of the cell phone people, you can’t help but see things with fresh eyes. It’s actually amusing. Most places you go are filled with people looking down at the palm of their hands. Last week I was the only one at Starbucks sitting outside without a cell phone. Every single person was digitally connected and I was the lone unconnected guy, watching everyone, and feeling like an outsider at the party. I didn’t feel special or judgmental (ok, maybe just a little), but it sure made me wonder what’s become of us.
Everyone was so consumed in a world of their own. They were talking on their phones, perhaps working, visiting their favorite websites, tweeting away, playing a game, checking their steps, listening to a podcast. They weren’t necessarily unhappy – they were just someplace else. And I was just sitting there, doing nothing but drinking my coffee, and feeling like the guy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers who suddenly noticed that everyone around him had become one of the pod people. And worse yet, I have to admit that watching them actually made me jealous. I wanted to be one of the pod people! They had their mobile companions with them, and thus the whole world at their fingertips. I craved to be reunited with the light, the warmth of my own palm pal, who was back at the house, cold and alone in a dark desk drawer.
The Joy of Reading.
I recently read (or heard) that fewer Americans are reading these days, and that COVID is a contributing factor to that. That might be, but I’m also quite sure that our obsession with our cell phones plays a role. When you shut down for 24 hours, you realize how few distractions you actually have and therefore much more quiet time. There are plenty of “what now?” moments throughout the course of a day, and reading fills that void. It’s so easy – and enjoyable – to pick up a book or a magazine, whether it’s morning, mid-day or at bedtime.
My bookshelf is packed with great titles shouting at me to be read or re-read. And there are magazines lying around the house that I’d typically ignore until it felt like enough time had passed to toss them out. But when there’s idle time on your hands, it’s easy to take a look. The other day on Shabbat I actually picked up an Audubon magazine and read a lengthy article about Red Tailed Hawks. Did you know that both males and females assist in nest construction and then stay in the nest up to 48 days with their young? Neither did I!
I Didn’t Miss a Thing.
There’s something about the cell phone that makes you think that you’re doing something important when you’re engaged with it. But that notion becomes obviously laughable when you finally re-connect to your phone after a 24 hour absence. I have yet to see that I missed something earthshaking. Not one missed call informing me that I had won a Pulitzer or alerting me that I had one hour to claim a mega-lottery prize. Instead, for the most part, the stuff I missed is quite trivial – funny banter from friends, critiques of college football games, political grist, mindless Instagram posts, jokes and memes. Good stuff, mind you. Often the spice of my day, but hardly urgent. Taking a break from it all is quite manageable. Trust me.
I Kind of Like it.
Right before I decided to shut down the first time, I informed my orthodox rabbi friend of my plan. He laughed and said, “You’re going to love it.” I’m clearly not as observant as him so I knew this would not be so easy for me. But I definitely see what he means. There is something empowering about shutting down your phone, if only from one sundown to the next. It’s a chance to get off the train for a little while, take a deep breath, look around, and decide where you wish to trek, however far afield from the tracks. The air is fresh there. You feel like you took back your life just a bit – acting, not reacting. You’re reminded that being connected all the time robs us of our idleness, and how wonderful it is to get that back.
As any addict can attest, you can fall off the wagon at any time. I’m by no means certain that this experiment I’m conducting will take hold.
But to those who also feel the powerful grip of their phones and wish to take some of that power back, you can add a simple four-word blessing to your Friday night prayers: