The connection addiction is endemic in our society. It’s one thing to catch up with friends, share a piece of your life, make plans, and discuss things you find important - that’s all well and good. But the ability to do those things at any hour of the day, and the expectation that everyone you know should be available to do so as well, it's just unhealthy.
Social media is the drug and smartphones are the enabler. Together they give us a false sense of community, making us believe everyone is waiting with bated breath for our next update or text, when in fact everyone is just going about their own lives. And on the other side of the screen, our devices sit on our laps and in our pockets distracting us with deliciously tempting notifications, making us believe we should be waiting with bated breath for all your updates.
One of the main reasons I took off into the woods for three weeks was to put all my mindfulness overtures about turning off notifications and reducing distractions into practice. But it's 2015, so I expected I would have some basic level of phone service available to me for most of the trip. I knew I could stop at Starbucks or McDonald's to use WiFi. If nothing else, I hoped I'd at least have a smidgen of phone coverage for texts and calls in an emergency.
Out on the road I quickly realized that I'd seriously overestimated the strength of my network. Dead zones were vast and numerous. I drove for hours on small highways with no coverage whatsoever. Many campgrounds would show a few bars, but when push-came-to-upload, nothing would work. A few campgrounds had no service at all, forcing me to make a call in a real live phone booth so at least someone knew I was alive.
When you spend most of your time in cities, it's not something you're used to. If you believe the Verizon commercials, it's not something you'd expect.
At first it was frightening. My phone is an extension of me. It’s how I communicate with my friends and family. How I map my route and stream my music. It's how I write and update this blog. I’m so used to it always being there for me, whether I’m bored or in an emergency.
In a way, spending hours or sometimes days without phone service felt like I'd lost an arm. Despite all my pronouncements to the contrary, connectivity had become that important to me. To some degree, connectivity is important to all of us. It’s unavoidable in our modern society.
But as time rolled on I accepted my new reality. As Cheryl Strayed said in Wild, “This is what I came for, this is what I got.”
So I got used to it. A constant connection became the exception rather than the rule. When it was available, it became a treat.
By the end of the journey, I loved it. I actually preferred it. At my last destination I had three straight days of no phone service. I felt free, clear, calm, unrestricted, undisturbed, undistracted. I felt present.
I don't believe I’m a selfish person, but gleefully reveling in the fact that you all couldn't get in touch with me almost felt egotistical. I knew I was missing out on all your updates and the important news of the day. It’s not as though I lost all interest in sharing things with you either.
But I realized that being disconnected for a few days or weeks wasn't the end of the world. I would eventually be back on Facebook to catch up on life. Or better yet, I would eventually see you all in-person so you could fill me in on everything.
Rather than being the end of the world, disconnection was the beginning of a new world. One where FOMO was replaced by YOLO, distraction was replaced by presence, and anxiety still existed but it was related to the threat of bears rather than the stresses of multitasking.
There were times in the waning days of my trip when my phone did start working...notification bubbles popped up, my pocket buzzed, and a wave of texts crashed in.
But at that point I had broken the addiction. The temptation was gone and rather than check those notifications I switched my phone into airplane mode. It was my time to disconnect. It was my time to enjoy the break. It was my time.
I’m back in LA now where phones always work, pretty much everywhere. I've caught up with friends and even caught up a little with Facebook (though after being away from it for so long I’m finding it mildly tedious).
But truth be told, I miss the freedom of disconnection I found in my journey. I miss the mindfulness it practically forces upon you. I miss what it feels like to realize that you and you alone are in charge or your own entertainment, there is no depending on others or apps.
This may change as the days and weeks pass here in the real world. I’ll fall back into old habits, because that’s what people do.
But I’m going to do my best to hold on to as much of this lesson as possible.
Phones always work here, except when you hike a little further out in the mountains. Phones always work, except when you switch it to airplane mode as a choice, just to take a break. Phones always work except when you choose to be present and ignore the temptation to post every detail of your life on Facebook.
We are only as connected as we choose to be. When you have the opportunity, choose real life over digital life.