In the last few days it has really struck me the amount of people I’ve observed who are either using a smart phone or have it in their hands. People in cars, walking down the street, sitting at tables, and even using the urinal have their smart phones in their hands and while predominately I see kids and younger adults doing this I’m starting to see senior citizens do this more and more.
While I was a step-father for a while and even a step-grandfather for a while I don’t have kids and I will never have kids. However I feel no amount of shame or unqualification to state that I feel that giving a child a smart phone is akin to child abuse.
One of the greatest truths ever to be spoken was by Blaise Pascal who said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The depth, the profundity, and the implication of that one true observation should be plastered everywhere, spoken of often, and become a guiding point for the way man lives their life. Alas, it isn’t sexy and there is no money to be made by sitting quietly so these god-like words receive little attention and live in the obscurity in the minds and books of great thinkers and if they’re lucky these words make it into the conversation, or onto the t-shirt, of a hipster while he sits in a coffee house and wonders if his skinny jeans are more expensive than everyone else’s skinny jeans.
One of my best memories of childhood was sitting in the back seat of the car during long car rides and just staring out the window watching the world fly by before my eyes. I would go back and forth between sitting there and thinking about things and just being present and watching the houses and trees fly past as if I was sitting still and everything I saw were merely actors running across a great stage for my enjoyment. The backseat of the car was a great place and I looked forwards to siting there and to me being able to sit there and stare out that window was like a gift. I was granted a period of time with nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be achieved, nothing to be won by effort, and nothing to be expected of me.
For me this was a break from the normal effort of the day where I could think about things that I might not think about otherwise and, even better, to think about things more deeply then I would normally have. I could also just be present in the moment and with no objective and no effort to give to anything, looking out the window was a meditation, a glorious series of moments filled with peace where the universe would do a flawless and effortless dance in front of my eyes as it opened and unfolded like a blooming flower during the springtime.
An aunt and uncle of mine would throw a pool party once a year back then and I don’t really remember the pool parties themselves but I do remember the car rides. They lived probably about 2 hours away so there was a lot of time to just sit and enjoy the silence. One of my favorite car rides was when I quite young and either my parents couldn’t go that year or maybe so many of us were going we had to take separate cars and I rode with my grandparents. I remember being in the backseat of their black sedan and nearly the whole ride down was silent. They didn’t listen to the radio and after so many years together they didn’t feel the need to constantly fill the air with mindless talk so they just sat there, and other than the occasional question about my life it was nearly silent the entire way down and the entire way back.
That car ride was beautiful in its stillness and that is where my love of silence and stillness was realized. On most days I would go out into the woods behind my house and just sit on a large rock, breathe deeply, and enjoy the peace that I felt. At the time I didn’t know that was meditation but I did learn that the peace that is found during meditation isn’t because of meditation itself really, that is, meditation doesn’t create the peace we find rather the peace is always there we’re just not aware of it. It is because during meditation we allow our mind to settle and the hundreds of things that we’re typically aware off start to fall out of our awareness and we become aware of what was always right there the entire time, peace. Peace is always right there but it is just being covered up by our constant stream of thoughts, opinions, and emotions but if we can just shift our focus and look underneath them we can always find it. Today I enjoy sitting in meditation but I don’t do it every day, however I do consciously shift my attention so I am aware of the peace that is always there underneath the constant stream of thoughts, worry, and effort and in that I am granted a brief reprieve from the chaos of life and a refreshing of my sanity.
How awful it would have been if I would have had a cellphone when I was growing up. If I was to grow up in the days of smart phones, YouTube, and Facebook I probably would have been watching a movie on my phone or sending tweets instead of learning the rich rewards and kingly treasures of silence. What fool would knowingly trade the tactile rush and vivid feeling of real awareness and experience for the false and empty world of momentary amusement and distraction that at best titillates for a brief second and then leaves you numb?
I see children now and I want to run up and slap the smart phones from their hands and shout at their parents, ask them what are they doing to themselves let alone their children? These smart phones are indeed a great advancement and I’m not saying people shouldn’t have them, but why give them to a small and impressionable child and steal from them the precious moments to just stare out the window and do nothing but think and fall under the influence of whimsy and wonder?
Granted people say that they need to give their children phones in case of emergencies and perhaps that is true. However, I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and the only one running around with a cell phone back then was Zack Morris and he wasn’t real. It is true that kids are more mobile today and do more things then even I did but we didn’t have cell phones and none of us were dying left and right. If we were out and about and needed to communicate with our parents we’d just ask to use someone’s phone… you know, develop social skills.
Not that long ago you’d see a 16 year old with a phone and you’d wonder what was wrong with the parent for giving a child a phone. That was a big debate not that long ago where people would sit around and discuss why a child would need something so expensive and who in the world would a 16 year old need to call so urgently that they’d need their own phone. Today it is not uncommon for 8 year olds to have iPhones and society seems of the opinion that everyone needs these things to include small children.
While I realize that the increased mobility of today’s children could make the argument for a child needing a cell phone I would give a child the cheapest flip phone I could find, after all if it is only in case they need to contact me during an emergency they don’t need to be able to watch YouTube videos on it. Granted, phones are so advanced now days that even a very cheap phone can often surf the internet; after numerous years of carrying a pay as you go flip phone I finally decided to get a smart phone and I bought a refurbished LG smart phone for $10 online. Even though my phone is “cheap” I am amazed at what it can do; the fact that I have a mini computer, a digital camera, and a camcorder in my pocket still blows my mind. I was in my car yesterday and I wondered what the name of the actor was that played “Mr. Belvedere” was and it then dawned at me that I didn’t have to sit impotently by and wonder… I had a computer in my pocket and this computer could talk with a bunch of satellites that would talk with a bunch of servers and they would all get together and could tell me his name if only I would ask! His name was Christopher Hewett and he died in August of 2001. What a time to be alive!
Here is the thing though, knowing that piece of trivia didn’t make my life better, it simply entertained me for a few moments. All I did was indulge the neediness and ramblings of an active mind that by its very nature is never content and will only come up with something else to wonder about a few minutes later. Not every desire needs to be acted upon and not every thought needs to be answered. I would have almost wished that I didn’t have the phone in my pocket so that I could have wondered for a few moments and then let that thought go and moved on with my life. My life wasn’t enriched by knowing the actors name was Christopher Hewett or that his dad was an army officer or that he also appeared in “Sid and Nancy.” All that is fluff… it is expensive wrapping paper on an empty box; the wrapping paper might look wonderful and exiting but once it is removed all you’re left with is the box that was empty the entire time.
Now all this might seem trivial but there is actually a big problem here and that problem is escapism. People have real problems in their lives and if they are forced to sit in a room by themselves then they have to confront their problems and deal with them and that isn’t fun, so they seek to escape. It is easy to turn to alcohol, other drugs, sex, excessive socializing, and mindless entertainment as a means of escaping our lives and our problems.
The rub is that when we sober up, the pills wear off, the sex is finished and we roll over, or the YouTube video ends we’re left with silence again and right there we’re alone again with all of our problems and all of our uncomfortable feelings and once more we have a choice to deal with it or run away. Guess what? We run away again into the arms of another drink, another pill, another partner, another game of “Candycrush” or Facebook post because that is easier then staring our problems in the face and dealing with them. Unfortunately life doesn’t work like that and only by dealing with our problems will our life get better and we grow as human beings.
That is why man can’t sit in a room quietly and alone because then we are alone with nothing to distract us from ourselves, our shortcomings, and our problems and that scares the hell out of us. Running away is easier and if adults will do it in a heartbeat if we can get away with it then what about the children? If we’re lucky when we’re younger are problems and our demons are smaller and if we learn to look them in the eye and deal with them then we’ll know how to do that when we’re adults and our life will improve because of it. If, however, we never learn to do anything but escape how will we ever know that we need to grow nevertheless that such a thing is possible.
Our inability to deal with ourselves is so profound that when the University of Virginia did a study where they asked people to sit alone in a room for 15 to 20 minutes and to just sit there, not fall asleep, and be alone with their thoughts. Almost no one could do it; half of them admitted to cheating in some manner such as sneaking in a cell phone and texting during the test and the researches suspected that more had cheated but wouldn’t admit it. It gets even worse because before the test everyone was asked to press a button that gave them an electric shock and everyone agreed that the shock was unpleasant and most said they’d pay money to not receive that same shock again. However, when left alone in the room they all had the option to press the button and give themselves another unpleasant shock and 70% of the males and 25% of the females did just that! They were so uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts they decided to give themselves a painful electric shock just to escape it for a few seconds.
It is often said that people don’t really change and this is often true. People don’t change because change is hard and escapism is easy. People don’t change because looking your problems in the eye scares the living hell out of us and it is so easy to just hit “play” or bring the bottle to our lips. People don’t change… that is until they do. People wonder why bad things happen to good people and that is because if noting bad ever happened to you then you’d live a life of numb contentment and have no insentient to wake the hell up. When things get bad enough and we find that we can’t escape from our problems it is generally only at that point that we find the courage to look our demons in the eye and stand our ground.
The hilarious part is that when you finally do it and you look your problems in the eye and you stare them down to the point where you can almost see right through them you see that the big scary demons that terrorized you your entire life are actually afraid of you! They are afraid of your attention and your conscious awareness and that is why they’ll do anything to keep you distracted. Once truly confronted they disappear before your eyes like the morning sun burning the fog off a lake.
Today there is little difference between a smart phone and a cane (figuratively, literally there is a world of difference); as a cane is held in the hand to help someone walk while a smartphone is typically held in the hand to help someone distract themselves for a few minutes and in that distraction find solace from their problems. In the end the solace is false and their problems remain because escapism is nothing more than avoiding your problems and how can a life spent avoiding one’s problems be a life that is fully lived?