Seven years ago, I walked into Verizon, canceled my cell service, and gave my phone to my adult son. Today, I am still without a cell phone, happily free of the hyper-connectivity it provided. As an occasional mountain climber, I’ve relied on strong ropes, as I now rely on landlines, tethered to others the old-fashioned way. I am living wired, you might say, in a wireless world.
I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning, so you fully appreciate the reason for my change. Giving up my cell phone was not an easy decision. I’ve had a wireless phone since 1988, back when Michael Jackson still did the moonwalk. The anxiety thinking about giving up my phone was overwhelming. I can be honest. It petrified me.
The search for peace in life is often a lifelong quest. There are many books about inner peace, acceptance of the self, finding a place where happiness is found in the balance of life. We can never be all happy or all sad, life does not work that way. Peace is found in the balance of the two.
One common teaching is focusing on finding peace in the now: right here and right now. Being gratefully present in the moment and taking in the full measure of life as it emerges every single day. Whatever the moment is, being in it and appreciating what is around us can have a very positive impact on being at peace.
Loa Tzu, a Chinese philosopher and poet who is mostly known for the book called Tao Te Ching, the foundation of Taoism, is credited with saying, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present”.
This was no more personally apparent to me than on a beautiful summer afternoon in Wisconsin. I am visiting my Nana who has Alzheimer’s and is nearing the end of her life. We are sitting on a sunny porch at my Aunt Carol’s house, I am reading a magazine and drinking a pint of beer, my Nana is looking up at the side of the house. I put down my magazine and gently tell my Nana I would give all the pennies I have to know what she is thinking.
“I’m watching the leaves on that ivy dance in the wind. Isn’t it beautiful?”, she says.
My Nana was not thinking about anything other than what was in front of her. The peace was written all over the lines in her face, and deeply in the tone of her voice. There was no worry about what needed to be done tomorrow or regrets about what happened yesterday. All that mattered was right there in front of her. That day with Nana remains a powerful memory for me.
Kids, too, are good at being present, or at least they used to be. Driving down the highway, I would often ask my three kids what they were thinking about. The answer from the car seat behind me would always be the same, “nothing” they would say. I would sometimes challenge them because surely, they were thinking of something – right? It could never be, “nothing”.
The thought occurred to me maybe, just maybe, kids ARE in the moment. A testament to the idea of being in the present, taking in everything around them without judgement and without expectation. It is a skill an adult can spend their whole life seeking. We can’t be “daydreamers” and still be successful. We must plan, organize, strategize, and push ourselves to forever grow and win.
I challenge everyone to try and be in the present, just try. I did and oh man, it is hard. To completely blank out the mind and only take in what is around me. It only takes 5 or 10 seconds before something in the past creeps into my mind or something in the future. Holding my attention to the now is nearly impossible, the drifting of my mind so easy and natural.
As I thought more and more about it, it occurred to me we modern human beings seem to be anywhere except in the present. Riding the bus with my kids, everyone was on their cell phone. Very few were looking out the window, talking to each other, or simply staring off into space in a beautiful daydream. The glow of the many screens around the bus was a sign of just how disconnected we are to the present by the presence of our phones.
In “Stopping: How to be Still When You Have to Keep Going,” David Kundtz beautifully articulates the value of taking a moment to self-reflect. Once, these moments were naturally imbedded in our daily lives – silent moments of inner thought, self-care and most important, to me, being in the present. For me, the cell phone and the internet were a means to escape the now and the ultimate destruction of self-reflection, personal growth, and connectivity to others.
Kundtz’s book, my Nana’s words, my own discomfort; it was all beginning to add up. And so, I made my decision. No more cell phone. I would take baby steps. I would turn off my phone and place it in my end table to see how long I could go without it. Once I took that step, days passed and turned into weeks. I really did not think about it, and it was not nearly as hard as I presumed it would be.
I still drift and think too much about the past or future. It is hard not to. But I am more fully in the present and when people want to reach me, they can call my office or home, my wired connection to the outside world, and leave me a message if they need to.
The adjustment returning to living wired is interesting. Call it a reversion or something similar. You need to relearn what was common 30 years ago. For example, when I go to the grocery store, I might leave a note on the door, “went to the store, back in 30 minutes. Left at 4:15”. Challenges of course abound, especially when traveling. But I figure out ways to get around those.
People often tell me how much they admire my decision, how they long to make the same decision and wish they had the courage. They tell me they just do not understand how I can get by without wireless electronic connection. We have become so dependent on our cell phone, living without it is inconceivable to many people.
We just do not realize how much cell phones have changed our lives and, in some cases, just how much they have taken away from us in exchange for what they provide. There is nothing wrong with being bored, I would argue it is critical to development for kids to be bored. But we have taken it away from them and now, coping with boredom is a skill some kids are in jeopardy of losing.
It annoys other people more than me, my cell-phoneless life. Living wired in a wireless world is not that bad; I quite enjoy it. When I’m not wired, I’m not as easy to reach. My space is mine and no one, or more aptly put, no phone, can take it away from me. Cell phones can be interruptions to an otherwise peaceful day.
I am, in fact, finishing this essay on an airplane. Through the gap in the seats, I can see the woman in front of me is hunched over, hand on her forehead, endlessly swiping through social media posts looking at products, one liners and snippets about the world around her. But when I sat down, the woman next to me greeted me kindly and engaged me in a short conversation about our destinations. She is sitting upright, listening to music and coloring what appears to be a hand drawn cat under a tree. I think Loa Tzu and my nana would approve.
Inner peace? I’m still looking for that one. But to some measure, I feel like I have taken back my time and taken one step closer to a more peaceful place in life. The only time I truly feel anxiety these days is when I turn on the computer or television and hear the media and advertising streaming across the screen. But that is a story for another day.
In the meantime, I am going to keep enjoying living wired, even though the world is wireless. It is a lifestyle choice, and the price people think I pay for my decision to be wired, instead of wireless, is far outweighed by the benefits bestowed.
From the desk of Erik Lawrence CFP®
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