I slid my hands along my thigh, doing my usual self pat-down as I left a club late one evening in Berlin. The sun was just stretching its rosy fingers over the square buildings and I was feeling good. Until, I wasn’t feeling something. Something that should have been there. Namely, a little rectangular prism, designed by Apple in California. I had somehow managed to lose my iPhone. At first, the usual panic sets in, I try to explain to a bartender who could not care less about my existential plight. It’s like a death in the family really. First I tried denial, then bargaining, and by the train ride home later in the morning, I still wasn’t at acceptance. I was still at anger. Anger at myself, my pants, the oddly shaped chairs in the outdoor part of the club that forced you to recline just a little, which I’m sure caused that little has-been status symbol to slither out of my pocket.
I did the rounds within the next week, calling the club, trying to see if the phone company could find it. Of course I hadn’t registered find my phone, or synced my contacts in ages. I’d never lost a phone, so I reasoned I didn’t need to. By the next Friday, after turning up zero leads, I resigned myself to the fact that my phone was probably serving a new master, or had been cannibalized for parts to repair other phones. I was mostly concerned about money at this point. Back in the U.S. I have a backup phone circa 2006, but living in Germany, I’d have to invest in an entirely new phone at retail, as well as a new simcard that would be useless to me in two months. So out of no more noble motivation than cheapness, I decided to live without a phone for the rest of my time here.
The withdrawal symptoms were almost debilitating at first. I don’t consider myself one of the worst smartphone addicts out there, but I did have an almost physical reaction to being without it. I was a little twitchy, and those little moments of nothingness throughout the day, were once again, voids. For example, boiling water, or waiting for a train. I would invariably reach for my phone, send a text, check Facebook, or even check my WordPress comments. Now, I would pace around waiting, fidgeting. It really was a pathetic sight for a few days. I began to realize just how much the phone entered into my life. I don’t mean in a meaningful, or deep way, that it changed my life, the way an Apple commercial would have us believe. I’m referring here, to the sheer amount of times it chimed at me, demanded attention, or a reply. My mind was no longer buzzing with notifications, or tweets, but it buzzed with the fear that I was missing those same notifications or tweets, or likes.
But by the second week, I was noticing more than the void. My mind started to become quiet, tranquil even, but most importantly, less frenetic. It was no longer time that demanded to be filled, but time that became a possibility. Those small spaces of waiting became pure potentiality. I started to carry a book with me almost everywhere, to soak up that time. Reading has always been one of my hobbies, but I’ve engaged in my reading more often, and on a deeper level, than I have for years. I’ve also been able to talk to people. Without my little white earplugs, zipping up my snug electronic cocoon, I’ve had to give people directions, answer questions, and help them buy train tickets. I know, what a hassle! But you know what? I’ve liked it. Because that’s real. Real life is out there, not inside the little brick I carried around like my firstborn. This is a trite observation to some, but it took losing my phone for me to realize how it was crippling me. It was crippling me socially. I was locked inside it’s warm embrace of music, positive feedback and “likes” I’d get on funny videos I’d post. These were crutches. I could disappear inside my phone, check out of real life at any time I wanted or felt uncomfortable. It was crippling me intellectually. My attention span was noticeably shrinking. I had become so used to reading five minute snippets of text, that reading something long and involved was becoming increasingly difficult. Of course all these distractions exist on my laptop as well, but the accessibility of the phone made it compulsive.
Most of all, the phone was an iron shield against a fearsome wraith that haunts our minds continually; awkwardness. We all fear it. We all tremble at the thought of being the awkward friend. This applies to social situations as well. We all turn to our phones when there are uncomfortable pauses, even in one on one interaction. This is crippling us too, for pauses say as much as words oftentimes. But perhaps worst of all, it’s a sign of weakness. Of stagnation. Bruce Lee famously said that stagnation is death. Discomfort is a sign, really the only sign, that we’re growing. If you work out, you know that one of the telltale signs that you’ve had a good workout, is muscle soreness the next day. This is because working out breaks down muscle. It causes tiny tears. But the body reacts. It rebuilds, and more importantly, it rebuilds you stronger than before. One of my favorite authors, Nassim Taleb often speaks about this idea of the Anti-fragile, or things that gain from disorder, and discomfort. Unsurprisingly, humans, indeed all biological systems, are of the anti-fragile variety. Within reason, discomfort forces us to grow. On a larger scale, life itself is like this. A shock, like a mass die off of certain species, for example, harms a part, but makes the whole system more fit as a result. I think socially, discomfort is the only way we grow. We have to have those moments where we just don’t know what to say, so the next time, maybe we will know. My phone was helping me cheat, providing a socially acceptable escapism, that stunted my social growth.
Losing my phone was more than just a step in regaining something I’d lost. It also solidified ideas that had been percolating in my mind about attachment. Buddhism holds as one of its core tenets, the second of the Four Noble Truths, that suffering is caused by craving, or attachment. To achieve happiness, or spiritual perfection, Nirvana, these cravings must cease.
You see, for the past eight months, I had been becoming progressively more and more detached from much of what once constituted the fabric of my life. I had moved to a new country. This separated me from my family, my friends, my dog. My lifestyle changed overnight, from university undergrad, to a responsible adult. All my little favorite places to eat, and hang out, were gone. Everything I owned was packed into two suitcases. My life had been stripped down. It’s true, you don’t realize just how much crap you’ve accumulated, until you move to a new house. It seems to multiply up there, in the attic, or in the corner of the cellar.
And it’s no accident that this happens of course. The consumptive impulse is ingrained in us from an early age. Our economy runs on consumer spending. I was young, but I still remember President Bush exhorting the public to go out and shop after 9/11, or else the terrorists would win! I understand trying to carry on with business as usual, but it says something about our society, when one of the Holy Grails, worthy of presidential protection after a tragedy, is consumer spending. I don’t think it’s entirely a moral failing on the part of the American people of today. If you do any traveling, indeed, especially in the developing world, you know that the will to consume is alive, and perhaps, even stronger in these ostensibly less decadent societies. The marketing machine is so powerful, that I think very few of us stand a chance to really break out of our consumer shackles. And they are shackles. We accumulate more stuff, so we need a bigger house, which requires a better job, or more hours. Then to make the hours of labor a little more palatable, were tempted to consume even more than before. A little retail therapy, a little strip mall Soma, to make it all better.
Many of us have more than we need. More than anyone needs. And it all just serves as a distraction, clutter, attachments that do nothing for us. Loves that do not, and cannot love us back. Here is a personal favorite movie scene from the film American Beauty that illustrates the point perfectly:
Lester, has a chance here to rekindle his dying relationship with his wife. And it’s thwarted by a couch. A couch! While ridiculous, what makes it funny is that it is not that far fetched. We’ve all seen meltdowns over meaningless material objects. It’s childish, but few of us totally outgrow our anger at those who break our toys, whether they be tangible, or otherwise.
Of course, our material attachments are merely the first layer of our problematic attachments. I was attached to my iPhone, sure. I was attached to it’s value, it’s physical being, and I was attached to the idea of getting a new one after this one. But I was also attached to what it brought me, the feelings it gave me, the information it provided me access to. We’re caught up in a world of pseudo-events, distraction, and delusion. Political theatre is pawned off on us as debate, celebrity gossip is substituted for news, and complex ideas are crucified on numbered lists on Buzzfeed. There’s an argument to be made that sites like that make difficult issues accessible, but are we really that illiterate? That we can only understand topics in spoon-fed morsels? That’s not enlightenment; that’s not knowledge. It’s noise.
Memes and meme-ification are the Newspeak Orwell warned us about. I get it, I laugh every so often at a cat picture. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But memification is just a symptom of a society that has forgotten how to create. It’s a society that can only-repost, re-tweet, tweak slightly, or leave a comment calling the original poster a racial or sexual epithet. The internet specializes in retreading something over and over until it loses all of its impact. The first time I saw a 90s nostalgia list, I was nostalgic. Now I feel nothing. And in a way, that’s kind of sad, that the repetition rendered that experience null. It’s like when you say a word over and over so many times it becomes meaningless. The end result is a bunch of noise, of nonsense. Gibberish about “doing you” superimposed over a picture, passed off as “inspiration.” That kind of thing. Losing my phone forced me to give up my attachment to the internet. That loss of attachment gave me perspective, on how much time I was wasting, on how little was really of value amidst the sea of vacuous background radiation. I’m not saying there’s nothing worthwhile on the internet. But becoming unattached, allowed me to sift through it better.
My experiment in detachment has not led me to adopt an ascetic lifestyle. As is obvious, I still have a computer. I still have a large book collection. But cutting down, trimming the fat from my life, enabled me to prioritize. I am not ready to forsake all my earthly attachments and join a monastery. I did learn which attachments are still important to me. I’m attached to the people in my life, my friends and family. These attachments become all the stronger when you cut the others loose. I picked up on my passions that I’d let sit idle for too long, like music, and writing, and even picked up a few new hobbies. I’ve started to realize the wisdom, the deep and abiding truth, of an unattached life. But it is a process. Not an all or nothing event, at least not for me. I don’t read much scripture, but I think now on something Jesus once said:
“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
It’s strikingly similar to the Buddhist truth, and indeed, many other religious and philosophical aphorisms, particularly the Stoics. This seems a very difficult morality. Who could do this? It’s a goal, an ultimate along a continuum. The completely unattached person may achieve spiritual perfection, but it is a goal, not easily attainable. I always pictured Christ saying this with a smirk, almost a challenge of “if you really want to be perfect.” And so I may have only shed a small attachment, that fateful night, but it was one that had meaning for me. At least for now though, I think I’ll stay attached to my laptop. I like writing this blog too much.