After a month of vacationing and celebrating our second wedding anniversary, my husband and I are back at home, putting things in order, and letting the familiar fall air of schedules and plans back into our lives.
That includes getting new phones. And not just any phones – but the latest, snazziest robots around: a cute little pair of Androids. Driven by my husband’s discerning geek-taste, I happily re-shackled myself to our cell phone company and thought innocently that a phone that does everything from check email to manage my grocery lists and recipes might be kind of fun.
The phones’ first night at home reminded me of when my sister and I brought our new kittens home: playing into the wee hours of the night, we forsook all else as the kittens entertained us, and scampered about.
The phones captivated us equally until I looked up and realised with horror that it was two in the morning, with a full day of work ahead, laundry unfolded and dinner dishes languishing in the sink.
But at least I had all those things programmed onto my task list in the phone. At 2am, with a tap of my finger, I knew my exact geographical location (home, in my pajamas), what bus to take to go somewhere else, what time to wake up, what news to read, what messages to respond to, what to make for dinner, how to dress for the weather in the morning, and every other thing that I still needed to get done before heading to bed. Ironically, with my phone, I could take a picture of my distressed face and my messy apartment, upload it to my facebook account, and make a note on my Google calendar timed to remind me via my phone about how not to waste this much time ever again.
Thousands of applications, games, widgets and snazzy wallpapers later, I awoke on a sunny, lazy morning and instead of reaching for my husband, I reached for my phone. Which was fine, I suppose, because he was already tapping away on his, reading a comic while listening to a podcast.
I remember a few years ago, rosy with the possibility of a perfect marriage before me, reading an article (similiar to this one) about marriages suffering a terrible lack of intimacy because both partners were bringing their laptops to bed. I laughed at the time, thinking that my future husband and I would never be so insensitive or out-of-love to even consider such an invasion by technology.
(When trying to find said article, I came across this ironic juxtaposition: an article on bringing intimacy back into your marriage, bordered and surrounded and peppered with ads for the fastest, lightest, longest battery-life laptops on the market. Enough said.)
So. Last week, we made a decision that our twin smarter-than-us smart phones were to be banished from our bedside table and relegated to the front hallway. They can charge their little digital lives away there, while we turn out the lights and talk to one another instead of checking our email/facebook/shopping list/agendas/movie times/bank accounts before falling asleep.
Despite our noble intentions, we’re still cheating. On my way to the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning, I sometimes sneak a peek at the dazzling dance of icons and bits of information on my phone before returning to bed, and my husband has likewise been caught playing a quick game or checking one of his many tech-geek notice boards while I brush my teeth before slipping his phone back to its lawfully-decreed place in the foyer.
Instead of going down a Luddite-fuelled road of raging against the machine, I want to talk about something more human. The gift of attention, really, is at the heart of this latest invasion of our married life by a machine offering to make our lives easier and more organized. The false promise is that these little organizational machines tell us we’ll have more time for family and spouses because of all the details we can trust them with orchestrating, and the reality is, that they’re vying equally for the lion’s share of our attention.
It doesn’t really matter if it’s a smartphone, a laptop, a video game, a television, or even a good, old fashioned book made of paper.
The fundamental issue is where and when and how we choose to give our attention to those we love, or more crucially, to withhold it.
I suppose I’ve always hated that glazed over look that one sees in people who are glued to the television or a video game, but I have to confess, it’s a look I’ve seen in my own eyes when I catch my reflection in the bluish screen when I engage with it. If Emily Post were alive today, she’d definitely have something to say about the way we all check our text messages and sneak peaks at our email accounts while we should be listening, or crossing the street, or paying attention to others. Multi-tasking, while a good quality for your phone to have, is a dehumanizing behaviour in the social realm.
And I am under no illusions about my own propensity to become completely unaware of the humanity around me – just the other day, I was deeply involved in fiddling with my phone, and had to fight my way off the bus at the last minute, stepping on feet and dignity alike, only to realise I’d gotten off at the wrong stop entirely. That wait in the rain for the next bus didn’t teach me a lesson either – I was too busy looking up bus times and alternate routes, as well as texting my husband that I’d be home late, on that damn phone.
So I take this to heart: the biggest thing I can do to improve the nature and depth of my relationships is to pay attention. To honor my friends and family with a level of awareness that matches, and hopefully supercedes, my awareness of the slightest vibration or beep of my phone.
I already know how much of a difference this makes in my work life – when I address each customer with my full attention, there are fewer fights, fewer complaints, fewer mistakes of items and money. People walk away happy that they were properly heard, and served.
I also know what it feels like to be ignored, as do most of us. I’ve spent some painful parts of my life striving in vain for attention that would somehow make me feel better. We all crave attention in some form. It’s part of being human – the need to be noticed, to feel special, to feel cared for.
The more time I spend giving the gift of attention to someone who can appreciate it, and even reciprocate it, the less time I’ll need to devote to my various calendars and notes and reminders on my phone to appear thoughtful and caring.
Instead, my attention and presence will simply be thoughtful and caring, because I’m listening instead of texting, snuggling instead of surfing the web, conversing instead of computing.