I only became truly aware of my dependence on my iPhone when I left it at home by accident the other day, in a mad rush to meet my brother for lunch.
I'm standing at a bus stop in Hoboken, waiting for a bus that never comes. I need to text my brother and tell him I'm running late. Not possible. I should look at the bus schedule to see if I just missed one. Nope. I need to double-check the address of the place we're meeting. No can do.
The bus arrives at long last. I finally have a minute to catch up on emails. Foiled again. I start to settle into my phone-less state and decide to read the new issue of The New Yorker. It feels like nice, old-fashioned fun. Then I come to a word I don't know. I'll just look it up on dictionary.com. Oh. Never mind.
It amazed me to discover how often I reached for my phone; it was almost a tic. My mind would come unglued from whatever I was doing; my hand would move toward my bag. I had to check myself at least five or six times before my brain started to register the reality of the situation. I'm sure this wouldn't have been the case even a year ago, and it scared me a little.
I made it in one piece to the restaurant and was only about five minutes late. No major disasters -- or even minor ones. I was able to find it easily from memory and intuition. When my brother went to the bathroom during lunch, I had sufficiently retrained myself that I didn't reach for my phone. Instead I sat silently sipping my seltzer and mulling over... I don't know what... nothing important. I was spacing out. A beautiful thing.
It dawned on me that day that our phones function just like security blankets for children -- or "transitional objects," as they're called in psychiatric circles. The object (blanket, toy, or stuffed animal) provides a sense of comfort to the child: a constant in times of flux, a focus in upsetting moments, and a quick cure for loneliness. What are our phones but adult transitional objects, allowing us to take refuge in a feeling of safety, familiarity, and being cared for by others?
Releasing my grip on my phone that day (or its grip on me) was like suddenly growing out of a childlike state into a more mature one. I relied on my own knowledge to find the restaurant. I let go of the sense of drama around being late. I submitted to the caprices of the bus schedule, over which I would have no more control if I looked it up on Google Maps than not. When I was alone in the restaurant, I sat with my own thoughts, like a grownup. I was no less safe or on time or entertained that day; rather, the illusion of control was gone and I was forced to trust myself, and other people.
I was also reminded of a recent op-ed in The New York Times about the evolution of the house cat, which made the interesting point that the less the cat had to rely on its wiles and the more dependent it became on human intervention, the smaller its brain got. "Once they were living among us," the article explained, "cats didn't need to think so much to stay alive." I can just hear my iPhone saying the same thing to its buddies in another couple of years.
I was just starting to think that we should declare a national holiday, where we all leave our phones at home on purpose and show these infantilizing mini-tyrants who's in charge. Then I discovered that I was late to the party: It turns out that March 7, 2015 is National Day of Unplugging. (It's not exactly the same as National Leave Your Phone at Home Day, but it works.) I encourage you heartily to participate -- or at the very least to "forget" your phone on Saturday. I know in our techno-centric world, this sounds like a risky proposition, but the sense of liberation you will get from taking back your brain is well worth those initial pangs of discomfort.