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The Personal Essay: Learning to connect by disconnecting

Special to the Journal

AUGUST 24, 2017 – While I was out of town recently, my cell phone rebelled. First it played with me by pretending to remain charged at 100 percent far past the point when that was even possible. Then it died. I tried to resuscitate it, and gave it a fresh round of CPR (cell phone repair), but alas, it had breathed its last.

The problem was that I was in the Borscht Belt — also known as the Catskills. I am now an expert on cell phone repair options within most of those 100 miles: In a word, none.

I began going through the stages of grief. I called my therapist (on someone else’s phone, of course), and he was not sympathetic enough, so I fired him. I figured I would rough this tragedy all by myself. It would be Tuesday, a five-day delay, until I could get it fixed (without ruining my family trip by spending an entire day addressing the issue), and one of those days was Shabbat, when I don’t even use my phone. So, all in all, I figured I could do it: a four-day break from my phone.

It turns out I am an addict. All the things the experts say about our addiction to cell phones are true. I couldn’t function for the first day. There was this involuntary jerking motion of my right hand to my side where my phone holster lives, and it didn’t matter that I knew my phone wasn’t there.

I couldn’t drive, because how can you get anywhere without GPS? Follow directions and street signs? So 1990s.

I couldn’t find my wife and kids, because that would require me to actually get up and look for them, versus the completely normal thing: texting “where r u?”

It got progressively worse. I had a few spare minutes when I wasn’t doing something that filled my brain, and that right arm did its thing again, with the aim of scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. With no phone I was stuck there, in the mountains, with only my thoughts. Oy!

I started getting sweats and other ailments, as more and more of my life unraveled with my inability to function like a normal human being without my phone.

I mean, even my jog, which is one of my joys on vacation, was ruined, since I actually had to look and breathe and be mindful of what was around me. Looking at gorgeous scenery, tall trees, fields of green grass as far as the eye could see, rivers and dams and other natural beauty, was all I could do. If only my phone was working, I could drown these sights out with music, or better, important news about what new crisis was happening in Washington.

Well, day three arrived and a weird thing happened. I guess I was detoxing, but I stopped missing my phone. And that’s when the really crazy stuff happened.

Turns out I have seven kids, four of whom were with us at the time. Turns out they speak and are really great company.

Apparently, if you sit on a hammock with a couple of your children and no phone, they talk and say some of the funniest and wisest things. Shocking, I know, but true.

Turns out, if you don’t have your cell nearby, you might find a child of yours and teach that child how to ride a bike. In fact, if your face is not turned toward a phone, that child might even learn to ride that bike in under two days.

I found out more things.

Surprisingly, my wife likes it when I look at her when she speaks, and when I smile when she makes a funny comment. My ears suddenly started working, and I heard her when she asked me to take out the garbage.

Alas, all things must come to an end, and my phone, now sporting a fresh new battery, has rejoined my life. However, this near-death experience has taught me that it might just be time to slow down and smell the roses, and perhaps leave the phone at home by mistake/on purpose more often and allow my phone-sickness to heal a bit.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches us that God guides the steps of humanity, meaning that wherever we are and whatever we experience are paths to learning and growth.

Needless to say, the obvious lesson from my trauma (since I have my phone back, I find myself returning to my sinful ways) is to work on our collective phone addictions.
However, on a deeper level, as we near the holy month of Elul, a month dedicated to introspection, perhaps we need to orchestrate phone down times — not just on Shabbat, but in our day-to-day lives — so that we can live in the mundane world without the mundane distractions.

Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur … the holiness of these days teaches us to live on a higher level. The real goal of these days, however, is to bring that higher level down into the everyday world.

Elul, the month that is an acronym for the verse in Song of Songs, Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine,” is a time to really take a look at our Beloved, our Father in Heaven. To truly see Him, we need to put down the distractions. We need to put down our phones, because only then can we pick up the messages!

Quick, let me text that to someone…

Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman is the director of Chabad of Peabody.

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