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Self-Knowledge • Know Yourself

When, and Why, Do We Pick up Our Phones?

There are the standard, conventional-sounding answers: we check our phones to see if any messages might have come in, if someone posted an interesting film, if something dreadful has happened overseas.

But this is in danger of sounding far too normal and too kind to us. The truth is a lot darker and rather more humbling. We don’t pick up our phones to find out what’s going on, we pick them up to ensure – with considerable ruthlessness – that we are in no danger of finding out anything more about ourselves.

If we forensically study the moments when we are drawn to pick up our devices, these are almost always when some kind of anxiety is pressing in on us – an anxiety on whose analysis and interpretation the correct navigation of our lives may depend. We are using our devices as an alternative to thinking about our futures, we employ our machines to block insight, to halt the business of processing, to alienate our minds from their most promising and complex substrata.

Patrick Wack, Out West, 2012

The thoughts attempting to break into consciousness might be about our mother and the strange, disturbing thing she said to us over lunch. Or about how we should try to make better use of our talents, given what we learnt in a meeting with an old university acquaintance. Or about an unkind and sharp word our partner had with us this morning, which threatens to throw our relationship into question once again.

How convenient – dreadfully convenient – that we should have invented a device to ensure that we will never have to meet ourselves again, and how darkly ironic that we should blithely refer to it as, of all things, an instrument of communication. 

We take pride in the time we’ve saved, the dictionaries we don’t have to consult, the atlases we can throw away, the many strange and funny things we have discovered. And yet we ignore the fruitful boredom we haven’t had, the reveries we haven’t entertained, the daydreams we’ve throttled, the ideas we’ve not hatched, the novels we haven’t written, the businesses we didn’t start, the feelings we’ve not identified, the self-awareness we’ve lost. 

However, this doesn’t need to be the end of the story. Precisely when we most want to pick our phones, we should learn to do something very unusual; pause and ask ourselves a bold question: if I wasn’t allowed to consult my phone right now, what might I need to think about?

The answer can provide us with nothing less than a royal road into our unexamined lives. Rather than using our phones to stop ourselves from thinking, we can study our craving for them as a guide to when and where we particularly need to introspect; we can study the times we most want to flee to them to understand what we need to stay put and explore.

When our itch for distraction is at its height, we should turn over the following questions: 

— What am I trying to do with the rest of my life?

— What should I concentrate on?

— What am I sad about?

— What am I angry about?

— What do I need to tell myself?

The answers are all inside us already, half imploring us – and half begging us not – to download yet more noise to drown them out. Our instruments of non-communication might turn out to be a gateway to insight after all.

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