For two and a half months this winter, my husband and I escaped the rain and cold of Seattle and lived on a tiny island across the bay from Panama City.
While on Isla Taboga, I continued to work, thanks to the Internet, email and Skype. I volunteered at an artists’ cooperative, where I met people from all over the world — visitors to our island. I swam, walked and sweated out toxins. I ate sun-ripened fruit, fresh fish and lots of vegetables. It was gradual process that led to a healthier me — healthier than I had felt in a long time.
There was something else at work, though — something I didn’t realize until I got home.
Despite a return trip fraught with long delays and security hassles, I was happy. I knew at the other end of this trip was home, family, friends and my favorite Queen Anne and Ballard hangouts.
During the hours we spent in the Houston airport, I was surprised by my lack of annoyance or anxiety. I realized with wonder that I was utterly content with the present moment.
Nearly three months in Panama did this for me. And I didn’t work that hard on it; it just happened. Here’s my theory.
As I turned on my phone after our plane landed, I heard the beeps and saw a considerable number of texts and voice mails that had accumulated over the time we were gone. OK, that makes sense. We’d been gone a while.
But three weeks later, my awareness of our obsessive connection to our electronic devices began to disturb me. (For the record, I don’t have a Smartphone. But my phone still rings and beeps at me all day long.)
Walking to a meeting on the University of Washington campus, I passed through a crowd of students waiting for a bus. All but three of about 15 students at the bus stop were bent over their phones, necks curved, fingers swiping, ears plugged. Not one person met my eyes as I passed through the crowd. It felt weird, really weird — disconnected.
Even in-person visits with friends began to feel disjointed. I now anticipate the inevitable moment when a friend will pull out their phone to show me a photo or read a text to me, then spend five minutes trying to locate the thing they want to show me and then, “Oh! I have to check this email!” And pretty soon we are looking at a screen and not at each other.
The real thing — even when it is right in front of us — has becoming an elusive entity.
A couple of weeks ago, toward the end of an afternoon birthday party for a family member, I went into one of the bedrooms to fetch my coat. Three teenagers were sitting on the bed, all three looking at their phones. I said, “Hey girls.” No answer. Then I asked, “Could you put your phone downs if you had to?” Without looking up, they said, in unison, “No.”
Ha ha. LOL. JK. OMG.
Suffice it to say, reentry has been challenging. Just as good food and exercise revitalized my physical self, I believe the lack of constant communication this winter rewired and restored my brain to a more natural, comfortable pace and mindset.
But as the weeks pass, I feel that fading. I’m going to fight and try to figure out how to live in this world without giving up my soul.
We are not designed for stress. Stress is not the goal; yet, we accept it. At times, we glorify it. “I’m so busy and stressed-out,” elicits sympathy and the impression that what you are doing is important.
The addiction factor is compounding this issue. A quick search for “tech addiction” produces an unending number of websites and articles. One WebMD article cites the “dopamine squirt” we get from accessing our messages. This same article, written by Jennifer Soong, cited a University of Glasgow study that found participants checking email between once and 40 times per hour.
In her book, “Peeing in Peace: Tales and Tips for Type A Moms,” author Beth Feldman talks about being unable to resist checking her messages during her kids’ musical performances or Little League games, or, as the title implies, while in the bathroom.
Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of “CrazyBusy: Overbooked, Overstretched and About to Snap,” compared tech addiction to being overweight or smoking — it’s that bad for you.
“Multitasking can cause the brain to overheat, like a car engine,” he said, adding that people who addictively respond to every text and email “get toxic stress and burn up energy rapidly and wastefully.”
Insomnia, headaches and heart disease are all cited as potential results of our technology addiction.
Even on Isla Taboga, I saw kids walking down the dirt path in front of our home staring at their phones. It’s everywhere!
Connecting with oneself
I am not anti-tech. I find the Internet to be a tool, which I appreciate and use often, as I did to write this. Without it, I could not work remotely as I did this winter. But unless we raise our eyes up and away from the screen once in a while, unless we remember how to communicate in meaningful, in-person ways, we are in serious trouble.
I have begun turning my phone off for parts of each day. I will try to resist checking emails after 6 p.m. on workdays — because some part of each day should be spent breathing, looking, meditating and talking — or just being silent.
Disconnect to connect — with each other and, more importantly, with yourself.
IRENE PANKE HOPKINS is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.