(Smartphones and) self-worth.

It’s almost become some unwritten rule in Kansas City that stopping at intersections is when you check your phone. Remember when honking horns was some sort of provocative thing? Well, now many people seem thankful for the one person who looks up for a second to notice the light’s changed and taps the horn as a signal for people to stop looking down at their phones and hit the accelerator.

But this really isn’t about everyone else. You see, from 2012-2014, I commuted through Swope Park from Raytown to Waldo. My drive took me past The Lake of the Woods and down Blue River Road, two of my favorite places in Kansas City in the autumn. But when I would get to work, I noticed that I couldn’t recall much about my drive. (I imagine this sorta thing happens to most of us from time to time when we can’t remember if we stopped at a stop sign or if we paid for our food before leaving a restaurant.) Turns out, psychologists had a term for this phenomenon of blind spots in memory or self-perception.

While I was aware of that perceptual scotomas could occur, it still scared me to think that most of a 20-minute commute had practically vanished from my memory. I immediately started looking for a cause, and I noticed that I’d been texting friends on my drive. And, intoxicated with the newness of listening to music on my phone, I spent a lot of time shuffling between albums. Most of all, though, I realized that I was feeling compelled to respond immediately to every notification I received from any of my apps. My perceptual blind spot scared me. Sure, I was scared for the safety of others and myself as I drove to work. But I was also afraid that I was becoming a robot of sorts. I feel like detail and nuance are the enemy of laziness. And since I wasn’t noticing my surroundings, I started feeling a little less than human.

So I started occasionally interrupting my trip with a stop at the lake. Watching the sun rise over The Lake of the Woods quickly became one of my favorite ways to help me focus before particularly stressful days. Another way I sought to fight my problem was by putting down my phone while I drove. I would choose an album to listen to before I left the house and just let it play all the way to work. You know, like I used to before smartphones and seemingly infinite streaming possibilities.

Did these strategies work for me? Yes, immediately. Once again, I noticed the cars next to me at a stoplight, to the deer walking down a hill in Swope Park, and to that towering sycamore tree at the entrance of the driveway up to the Swope Park Memorial Golf Course.

But all change is a loss, right? While I regained awareness of my surroundings, my phone accumulated text messages and notifications during my short commute. (Sure, I remember the anxiety in college of racing home to see all the messages I’d missed on AOL Instant Messenger. But I think phones have obliterated our sense of context, and I feel a need to check it anytime and anywhere.) When I arrived at work or back at home, I immediately sifted through notifications and replied to text messages.

You see, this was never about using my phone; my problem was a little more disturbing. I had an insatiable desire for others to see me as responsive. And just like our belief that we can somehow keep up with all of our friends who moved away years ago, yet remain super close on Facebook, my responses to notifications on social media is frequently a charade. It’s not like I’m having a conversation with these people in a real location. Many times, my friends are just like me, commuting and not really in a safe place to engage in conversations. My immediate responses served to feed this vicious cycle of believing we’re in touch and that we’re having any semblance of a conversation.

So, back to my strategy of just putting down the phone. I guess you could say it worked out well. In fact, it wasn’t until I put my phone down that I learned about anything I’ve written. Much like many other seemingly-necessary things that we go without for Lent or for dietary reasons, I became aware of my reliance on my phone to give me some self worth. Worth and dignity that was already given to me when I was born.

And you know what, I also found that I listened to more albums in their entirety. A win-win for me.

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