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Handheld electronic devices are the thieves of our meaningful moments

| PHYSICIAN

A few weeks ago, my employer sent me to a three-day out of town conference. I had mixed emotions. It would put a burden on me to work more than usual both before and after it, but I couldn’t help but look forward to the blissful, uninterrupted sleep I would get in a cozy, quiet hotel room. There was guilt when I realized that my wife would shoulder the full load back home, when she typically only handles 75 percent of it (thanks, honey).

Nonetheless, I arrived with an open mind and a plan to exercise each day while there. I can’t say that I knew exactly what to expect, but after talking with a few people who had previously been, I understood it was going to be different. It was. It would be best described as a self-discovery retreat disguised as a leadership seminar. A gentle, but commanding man named Nicholas Beamon led the group, and despite the fact that the twenty-five or so of us spent 9 hours a day together with him, there were no lectures.

 On the second day, he invited us to turn off our handheld devices and put them into a basket at the front of the room. Most of us were able to do it, although quite a few participants needed to peek at their lifelines during breaks to ensure that the world was still spinning. Each of our respective loved ones knew exactly where we were, and would have had no trouble contacting us, yet the thought of “de-vicing” initially brought an incredible amount of angst. As the final two days of the conference developed, it became more and more liberating for me to be free from the chains of my digital master.

While the conference wound down, we were each asked to list a few specific changes we’d make to enrich our lives and break behavior patterns which we believed were holding us back. I obviously couldn’t help but consider how many meaningful moments my constant accessibility and connectedness were stealing from me. I had become a slave to email, text messaging, instant Internet and YouTube access, and Facebook.

Anytime I experienced a 30-second lull at home or work, the compulsion struck, and my BlackBerry (don’t hate, I must have the buttons) came out of my pocket. I would check for notifications, respond to them, or read linked articles. I believe that, if given the chance to view ourselves from a distance, many of us would come to the clear and appalling realization that our devices are controlling us instead of the other way around.

 When I got home from my trip, I decided to disable the email app from my phone and deactivate my Facebook account. This was quite a step for me — especially the Facebook part. I live for lively debates. Some people get angry or defensive while debating, but I become energized. Suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time on Facebook. But I was determined to change my pattern, so I followed through with my plan.

I’m so glad that I did. Not only did I miss what I imagine were the most venomous few weeks of political posts and articles, I began to experience what it feels like to be present at work and at home. It is incredible what actually listening to coworkers, friends, and family will do. The compulsion to check the device lessens by the day. I only quickly respond to direct text messages, and my circle is much smaller. I give myself a few minutes to check work emails each day, and most days I typically spend 15 to 20 minutes at home with personal emails. The rest is work, family, and self-care. It feels good that such a simple step gave me so much more control.

A few nights ago, I was washing the dishes after our family’s supper. My sweet 10-year-old Lab was hovering by my side, drooling and hoping she would get another bite of the spice-rubbed, grilled and glazed pork chops I had cooked. I looked at the table and realized I still had half an ice-cold Shiner Bock left to enjoy when I finished the dishes. My daughters were laughing and chasing each other through the house, and it made me remember the family of three young children I had done school physicals for that day. I briefly recalled joking and playing around with them all, lifting each in turn off the exam table and pretending to struggle because they were heavy. (The oldest actually was kind of heavy.)

 My wife was plodding her way through Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring on the piano, a family heirloom which had recently landed in our dining room. A diligent worker driven by a sense of duty, in the sixteen years I’d known my wife, she had never allowed herself the luxury of a hobby except for exercise — until now. A couple of tears welled up in my eyes as I wondered what I did to have it so good. I fought them back so that I wouldn’t have to blame my allergies if my wife caught me crying while washing pot and pans. My device has never given me any moments like that. Has yours?

Keith Pochick is an emergency physician.