Why You Should Listen to a Little Old Lady. (2nd Installment)

Tell me again why you can't put your phone down?

When we were in Paris to celebrate my 70th birthday, we rode the Metro (subway) everywhere.  It is such a civilized way to travel.  At every stop people boarded the cars, sat down and opened books!  Hardly a person, young or old, pulled out a phone to check for ever-emergent texts.  They leaned back, relaxed into their seats and began to read.

One man pulled out a Philip Roth novel (he had died the week before--Roth, not the passenger) and began to read the French translation.  How chic.  And how disarming.  You can’t even get four people together for dinner here in the US, face to face, without someone checking his phone or abruptly leaving the table with, Sorry I have to get this.

From an old lady’s point of view, this is not a good way to live.  Yes, I know our lickety-split culture does not allow us enough time to sleep, let alone time away from our connections.   But what does this say about us?  And about the French?

It says the French have time to think, to read and mull over a great novel.  We used to be like that.  I remember when (here it comes, you’re thinking) people used to sit in a park at lunchtime with a sandwich and a book, or just a sandwich, watching the world go by.  No phones in sight.  What did we gain by that?  Time alone with our thoughts.  Time to think a problem through.  Moments of downtime to give our brains a rest. 

Maybe one reason Americans don’t get along with each other as well as we used to is that we don’t have time to contemplate any one else’s point of view.  We don’t have time to let things sit awhile in our heads while we figure them out.  We text first, ask questions later.  Most of the time we don’t even ask questions.

What’s worse is the mom or dad, pushing a stroller, phone in hand, wasting what could be valuable time with their child, talking to or texting someone who isn’t  present.  When you’re texting, you’re not with the person who is physically with you, and you’re not with the person on the other end of the text.  You’re in some weird ether, neither here nor there.  And your sweet daughter or son in the stroller wants to know why.

When my generation was growing up our parents chatted away about everything we passed by, whether we were in a stroller, with them in the car, or just taking a walk around the block, holding onto their hand.  They would point out the library, an airplane, birds, clouds.  They would tell us about these things, and that’s how we learned what they were.  Mostly, we were just happy to be with our parents.  Your children love being with you, too.

If our phones weren’t such an unfortunate tether, weighing us down with obligation and compulsion, we wouldn’t have phone addiction gurus we could hire to wean us off these devices.  Our lives are intertwined with our emails, messages, phone calls and apps.  Many of us genuinely believe our phones help ease the handling of work and family issues, not complicate problem-solving.  But here’s a thought:  If we weren’t so reachable, maybe some of the problems would solve themselves. 

When is the last time you got on an elevator and acknowledged the people around you?  And rode down to the lobby or up to your office with simply your own thoughts?  When did you last sit in a doctor’s waiting room and read a book you brought with you?  If you want to engage with the real world, with people, literature or nature in a way that satisfies and reassures you, you may want to put your phone away.

Try it for 15 minutes a day.  Or for half an hour.  I lived for years without a smartphone, without the ability to text anyone, without even a telephone answering machine because they hadn’t been invented yet.  I barely remember what that was like.  

When I went to Paris last May, I decided not to take my phone.  My husband had his, but I didn’t use it.  Instead, I was open to every “Bonjour!”, every opportunity to linger over espresso and tiny cookies at an outdoor café.  And I was able to feel kinship with a Metro rider, thousands of miles from my home, who appreciated the passing of a great writer.