What I Saw When I Didn’t Have a Phone in My Hand

This post is brought to you by my friend and fellow writer, Lisa Bartelt. We’ve been sharing some ideas about what it means to live off line – I think today’s post will give you a few things to think about.

I woke up in Kenya to a stunning view of lush plant life and a dormant volcano. I showered and dressed and went downstairs to breakfast where Kenyan coffee and homemade English muffins greeted me. I chose a mug bearing the image of a cape buffalo and poured the coffee. I slathered peanut butter on the muffin and sat at the dining room table. I had the same view of the plants and the volcano as was in my room, and I was so giddy about my usual breakfast in such unusual circumstances that I reached for my phone to Instagram the moment.

Except my phone was upstairs in the room, on airplane mode, unavailable.

Before we left on this trip, our team of 15 agreed to keep our phone and technology use to a minimum. I fought the policy at first because my kids were still in the States with their grandparents, but for the good of the team, and possibly my soul, I agreed to limit myself.

If Day 1 was any indication, though, it wasn’t going to be easy.

As I ate that first breakfast, I looked at the window and asked myself why I wanted to Instagram this moment. Did I want to humble-brag, hashtag “blessed”? Or keep a record of every single second of the trip? Would sharing a picture on social media have increased my enjoyment of the moment?

We’ve been back from Kenya for more than a month, and I can still remember what I felt that morning. I can taste the English muffin. I never took a picture of it, yet the memory lives in my mind.

Later that day, we were to tour the boarding school campus where we were staying. Phil (my husband) and I decided we wouldn’t even take a camera with us so we could really listen and enjoy.

I didn’t take a single picture in Africa until we’d been there three or four days, not even when we saw seven monkeys in a tree outside our dorm, and I don’t regret it. Seeing a new place with the two eyes God gave me is a rare thing these days. Anytime we’re out exploring as a family, I’m snapping pictures with my phone, preserving memories, or looking up information. (Google, what kind of tree is this?)

Being present is a gift, and I’ve traded it in for a cheap substitute.

Without a phone or camera in my hands that first day, I had to use all of my senses. I looked around, but I also heard. Kenya in the morning is a noisy place. Birds and monkeys and other creatures I couldn’t identify. I felt the equatorial sun on my pale skin, and closed my eyes as the breeze swept across the mountain and circled me.

I noticed people. I looked them in the eye and said the Swahili equivalent of “hello” as we shook hands or waved. I breathed deep of the thin air.

This first day would set the tone for much of our time in Kenya, even when I did take pictures or sent a quick e-mail home.

When we returned to the States, the land of 4G and plentiful WiFi, I struggled to find a new normal. I scanned Facebook notifications and realized I hadn’t missed a whole lot while we were gone. When I might have used my phone as a distraction or because I was bored, I read a book. When I wanted to write a Facebook status about how I was feeling, I journaled instead.

Journaling is how the writer in me survived 10 days in Africa. I wrote and wrote and wrote about what I was feeling and experiencing and some days, I couldn’t get it all down on paper before I had to sleep at the end of the day.

Sharing sounds nice. I try to teach my kids to share with others. But I wonder if what I’m doing on social media is really sharing at all.

When I delayed my urge to post something online, I found that my thoughts turned out richer than if I had instantly shared them. In the same way that instant coffee is a poor stand-in for small-batch roasted pour-over coffee, I’m trying to trade in my instant thoughts for ones that take more time to develop.

I’m not giving up social media altogether, but the more time that passes since my time in Kenya, the harder it is to remember what it was like to limit my technology use. I have easily slipped back into the old habits. So maybe it’s time to enforce a self-imposed technology policy.

I know it doesn’t have to be drastic to make a difference. It can be as simple as putting down my phone. I was recently encouraged by these words from Shauna Niequist in her devotional, Savor:

“But as time went on, I realized that the really major things were happening all around me. I had been missing them because my phone had become an extension of my hand, and what it said to people is that just being with them isn’t enough. … Our phones and blogs and social media connect us in so many ways. Have you noticed any times in your life when they cut you off from what’s going on around you? Today, make a point to put down your phone to see what you’ve been missing.”

I can’t imagine missing our Africa experience because my phone was glued to my hand. The same needs to be true of my life here. What have I been missing? I can’t wait to find out.

Now, head on over to Lisa’s blog and check out some of her other great words.

5 Replies to “What I Saw When I Didn’t Have a Phone in My Hand”

  1. Thank you for sharing the richness of your sensory experience, Lisa. You brought back such vivid memories of my times in Rwanda, where my cell phone was useless and I went through the same withdrawal/fear/reluctant appreciation. I’ve cut back significantly on my social media and screen time since June (inspired largely by Shawn), but this makes me want to go a little deeper. And it gives me fresh anticipation for my “November Slowdown.” Here’s to embracing the real deal rather than a cheap substitute!

  2. Love this. I haven’t cared much about social media for some time now, and kind of hate that I “have to” be more actively present in social media soon because that’s how the world works for writers. :/. I heard a seon recently about how social media is kind of an “all about me” kind of thing. “Look what I did today”, “Look what I ate”, “Look at my selfie”. And then we actually get a physical lift of endorphins or whatever when we go back to see how many likes and comments we have. It validates us as worthy human beings. Somebody noticed us. Somebody lied is.

    It’s a little sad, really. But can be good and even great when it’s used appropriately and doesn’t take over your life. Anyway, great post. ;)

  3. Jenna, that’s so true. I feel that pull toward validation and acceptance on social media. One of the antidotes, and I’m trying to get better at it, is to lift up other people. Share their posts instead of my own. Encourage them. Tell other people about some great writers and friends and products. Some people do this really well. I wish I was one of them! :)

    Thanks for reading!

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