Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see usuntil, as people often say on social media, someone’s been “exposed.” Welcome to Exposed, amonthly columnwhere author and activist Chris Stedman invites you to get a little more vulnerable.
“Let’s just burn them,” Oliver called out to his husband Will with a laugh, punctuating a conversation about how stressed out their cell phones were making them.
Oliver was joking, but Willwho was sitting in the living room after dinner, looking at his phone while Oliver cleaned up in the kitchensat perfectly still, suddenly transfixed by the mental image of both of their phones ablaze. He imagined them emitting beautiful, toxic smoke, their screens cracking and their rounded black edges twisting and curling together toward the sky, and smiled.
That’s it, he thought. We really should. So he put his phone down, got up from the couch, walked into the kitchen to give Oliver a kiss on the cheek, and went to their computer to begin researching options for getting rid of their phones.
Three months later they installed a landline, called their cell phone provider, and canceled their plans.
In the months between these eventsas they started actively discussing the pros and cons, and whether or not this was something they could realistically do in 2018they talked to just about everyone they knew about the fact that they were entertaining the idea. And the response, almost without exception, was a variation of the same double-take: “Why?!”
Two main concerns inevitably emerged in each conversation: 1) their friends would have to actually talk to them on the phone, and 2) they wanted to know what Oliver and Will would do in the case of an emergency. People would often ask why they needed to get rid of their phones anyway, asking if the couple could just try a flip phone or an app to manage their social media use. They suggested reduction instead of removal.
I admit, as one of the people Will and Oliver discussed this idea with, my initial reaction was similar. I was a bit taken aback. I’m what you might call “very online,” and I use my phone constantly. I’m also constantly overwhelmed by it, so I could sympathize with their desire to cut back. But getting rid of it altogether? I struggled to imagine what that would even look like.
Oliver and Will could understand where I and others were coming from; when they first met, they could never have suspected they’d someday end up ditching their phones.
Eight years before going off the grid, Will and Oliver were coworkers at a coffee shop when they discovered a mutual attraction and fell in love. A few months into dating, Oliver moved an hour and a half away, and the majority of their first year together was spent just far enough apart that they only got to see each other a couple times a month. And Oliver, who had graduated from a conservative Christian college, was only selectively out to a small group of close friends. His cell phone gave him the privacy and discretion he needed as he and Will began dating.
Thus, for the beginning of their relationship, much of their getting to know one another happened via text messaging, playing Words With Friends together, or the occasional evening phone call.
Even outside of their relationship, phones and social media had long been significant parts of their lives. Oliver had gotten his cell phone during his sophomore year of college. Terrified of being outed by a classmate he might have confided in, the phone and internet became the only ways he could explore that piece of his identity with some sense of privacy and without fear of moral judgment. Even after graduating, he still used the internet to navigate being gayin fact, Oliver and I first met when he reached out to me over Twitter and confided that he was gay and hadn’t told many of his friends or family members.
But with Will’s support, Oliver came out to his parents a year into their relationship. After doing so, they decided to come out about their relationship on Facebook by changing their statuses. They talked about it at length beforehand: about their excitement to share their relationship with more people in their lives, but also about Oliver’s fears of what people he wasn’t yet out toespecially people from his conservative religious communitywould think. But when they eventually did it, the response from their loved ones was almost universally celebratory.
In 2013, the celebration continued when they got married in a simple and intimate ceremony, and soon after they moved to Chicago, where Oliver had gotten a job as a chaplain. They settled into their new community, using their phones and social media as they always hadto communicate and make plans with new friends and with one another.
But last fall, Will told his therapist how much anxiety he was feeling about being constantly exposed to current events at every turn. The incessant barrage of bad news that he felt helpless to avoid made the anxiety he had worked for years to manage worse. As a result of discussions with his therapist, he decided to cut himself off from politics unless he was proactively seeking it out himself. He deleted his Facebook account, and saw an immediate improval in his mental health.
Oliver, too, was assessing his social media and phone use. After he and Will discussed how much of it seemed to be driven by fearfear of missing out, fear of the news, and fear of the unknown (like when you check your email just to see what’s there, knowing you won’t actually respond to it)he decided to cut back as well.
Yet even as they decreased their technology use, they continued to wrestle with a feeling of dependence on their phonesand with the sense that people expected them to be reachable at any time. Their relationship with their devices felt increasingly defined by a sense of urgency and anxiety, as well as a feeling of constantly being beholden to the world. And so, earlier this year, they decided to ditch them altogether.
It wasn’t an easy decision; as they discussed the idea, a number of fears arose. They worried about missing out on news, about not being able to look something up at any given moment, and about being forgotten in a world where so much of our communication happens via social media.
But ultimately they decided they didn’t want fear to drive their decision.
Initially, many of the people around them didn’t understand Oliver and Will’s decision“I’ve fantasized about doing that, but I could never” was a common refrainand I was one of them. Though I grew up in a world without cell phones, I got my first smartphone in my early 20s, and since then, it has become almost attached to my right hand. Whenever I feel bored or anxious, I know I can turn to my phone for distraction or comfort.
Surely, a lot of good has come out of my social media use, but the idea of going without my phone feels terrifyingperhaps in large part because without it I would be forced to confront the uncomfortable thoughts that arise in the boredom I use my phone to avoid.
Since getting rid of their phones, Will and Oliver have noticed similarly uncomfortable thoughts arising, but overall the experience has been much more positive than negative. In fact, one of their favorite things about being cell phone-free so far has been how, instead of making it harder for them to connect with others, it’s actually helped deepen their connections.
When they were preparing to get rid of their cell phones, Oliver went through his contactsmore than 1500 of themone afternoon to figure out who he needed to notify that he was getting rid of it. Over the course of several hours he narrowed the list down to 500, and ultimately notified 250 people by email or text message (for the people whose email address he didn’t have). Will also alerted loved ones, and both of them heard back from many people, most of whom expressed curiosity and shared some of the same sentiments they expressed in their reasoning for the decision.
Since announcing to their friends and family that they had gotten a landline and were getting rid of their phones, Oliver and Will have gotten at least one call every day, including from people they hadn’t exchanged more than an Instagram “like” with in years.
But the benefits have been more than just interpersonal. They also feel more awake, more aware of the world around them, and of their own thoughts. While some of this is challengingthey can’t use their phones to distract themselves from worries or boredom anymoreit’s frequently been helpful. Will finds himself more attuned to the world around him, like noticing buildings he had never seen in five years of doing the same commute and becoming more appreciative of beauty. Meanwhile, Oliver has grown more aware of his interior world, noticing thoughts and feelings and having the energy to address them.
In general, they feel like there’s a big difference in the pacing of livesthings have slowed down considerably, and they no longer feel like they need to be doing something at every moment. It seems like there’s more room in their days now that they’re not being constantly compelled to focus on their phones.
More than anything, they’ve been surprised that the transition hasn’t been harder. The biggest challenges are concrete, daily things, like getting to places and making plans with friends or with one another. In the age of “let’s text about it later and figure it out,” there’s going to be a learning curve. But they’re adjusting, and their friends are, too.
They do worry a bit about missing out on impulsive plans, and they’ve already experienced this a couple timeslike when they recently came home late from a night out in Chicago to a voicemail from a friend proposing an impromptu get together that night. But they’re more concerned about the benefits of living intentionally, which they’ve found smartphones make more difficult for them. Their lives are full enough, and they want to spend less time focused on their phones and more on one another.
To them, this decision wasn’t ultimately about their phonesit was about rejecting the fear-driven feeling that hyper-connection is necessary.
A few weeks in, most of Oliver and Will’s friends are supportive of their decision. Some still ask them if this is just an experiment, and if they think they might go back. While they acknowledge that as a possibility, for now, they’re just enjoying a world with fewer interruptions and intrusions, a world with more time to cookand clean uptogether, without distraction.
Image via Getty
Want to get exposed? Email Chris at[email protected]with a short description of a time when you felt truly vulnerablein either a positive or a painful way (or both).
Want more? Check outthe previous installment of Exposed.
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