Why we need to unplug

Friends call to chastise each other for being slow to return text messages or e-mail — as though the ability to communicate in half a dozen new-fangled ways makes constant attention to every one of them morally imperative.” — Martha Beck

IMG_2355I didnt realize the damned thing was missing until my husband caught me off guard.

“Wheres your cell phone?” he asked. “Does it need to be recharged?”

“Gosh, I dont know,” I said, faking genuine concern. I couldnt even recall the last time Id used it — other than to take photos of the cats to post on Facebook. Trying to appear responsible, I dug through drawers and underneath the car seats. No cell phone.

Thats when my husband remembered wed just dropped off a carload of discards, including old clothing and purses, for a church rummage sale.

And that’s how we ended up back at church the night before the sale, rummaging through my discarded handbags and coats. Just as I suspected, my phone wasnt there — and it hasn’t turned up since.

Cell phones are essential if youre a traveling executive, a detective, or a pregnant woman close to labor. And theyre a godsend when your teenager is out past curfew or your car breaks down after midnight on a deserted rural highway.

But I refuse to treat any gadget as if its part of my anatomy. In my ongoing quest to achieve serenity — at least on a part-time basis — I find it helps to unplug as often as possible. And that’s why I’m often caught without a cell phone. On purpose.

Despite the fact that I’m solely responsible for the care management of a parent with advanced dementia, there are times when I need to be unavailable. And despite the fact that I’m an outgoing, social person, there are times when I simply don’t feel like gabbing. And I don’t want to carry another electronic reminder of “missed calls” and new messages in my purse or my pocket. When I return home, I know I’ll find enough of those in my email and in the voicemail on the house phone.

Lately I’ve noticed that most people seem more stressed, desperate, and frantic than ever — as if life were a series of dire emergencies to be handled right this minute. Some psychologists suggest the problem is linked to our cultural addiction to cell phones and social media. Or, as author Loretta LaRoche observes, these days we cant even run an errand to the supermarket without a cell phone, a pager, and other electronic devices.

“We now look more like a member of a SWAT team than someone shopping for groceries,” LaRoche writes in Life Is Not a Stress Rehearsal: Bringing Yesterdays Sane Wisdom into Todays Insane World. (Broadway Books). “God forbid we should be out of touch for ten minutes,” LaRoche quips. “And since we have the contraptions there with us, what the hell, we can call home and tell everyone we got bread.”

I don’t want to carry another electronic reminder of ‘missed calls’ and new messages in my purse or my pocket.

At a writers conference I attended a while back, somebodys bleeping cell phone disrupted — three times — a wonderful lecture given by a best-selling author.  Days later, the same thing happened at a funeral service. At the drug store last week, I had to listen to another customers cell conversation while waiting in line for my prescription. Oblivious to everyone within earshot, the woman chattered on her phone, punctuating every sentence with the “F” bomb.

On the road, every other car is driven by an idiot with one hand glued to a cell phone and the other barely guiding the steering wheel. Ive watched these drivers swerve in and out of lanes, fail to use turn signals, even run red lights.

“We all know that technological advances have made connection easier than ever before. They’ve also led some people to think that breaking away is a violation of the social order,” writes Martha Beck in “You Have the Right to Remain Silent,” an essay on why being disconnected, periodically, can be good for one’s mental health. “Friends call to chastise each other for being slow to return text messages or e-mail, as though the ability to communicate in half a dozen new-fangled ways makes constant attention to every one of them morally imperative.”

As it happened, I did end up replacing my missing cell phone with another one. Right now, the thing is dutifully recharging on my desk, where it’s likely to remain until I need to take a quick photo of the cat.

Why manners matter

I place a high moral value on the way people behave. I think it’s repellent to behave with anything other than courtesy in the old sense of the word – politeness of the heart, a gentleness of the spirit.” –Fran Lebowitz

Drivers run us off the road and shout obscenities. Children throw tantrums in nice restaurants while their parents chat on cell phones. Salespeople act as if they’re doing us a favor when they ring up our merchandise. Meanwhile, since few people bother to write thank-you notes anymore, we’re never quite sure if our recipients received the lovely gifts we sent.

Not that things are any better in cyberspace. Just for starters, clueless colleagues fail to acknowledge our emails — but manage to bombard us with mind-numbing Facebook status updates every 10 minutes.

Have good manners have gone the way of the manual typewriter? Well, Donald McCullough, author of Say Please, Say Thank You: The Respect We Owe One Another (Perigee Books) insists we can do better.

Extolling the virtues of not-so-common courtesy, McCullough pleads a strong case for reviving civility. Hes not talking about the “Emily Post etiquette” we drag out for the holidays and quickly stash away with the crystal stemware. Instead, McCullough hopes to salvage the basic human courtesies that help smooth out the rough edges of our daily encounters — and safeguard our relationships.

“Our lives are built one small brick at a time, ordinary day by ordinary day,” McCullough writes. “With each little expression of thoughtfulness we create something of immense significance – character, both our own and that of others.”

A former Presbyterian pastor and theology professor, the author is hardly a stuffed shirt; his guide to practical manners is as fresh today as it was when I first reviewed it for my local paper a few years go. Irreverent humor sparkles throughout 36 essays covering such topics as the importance of paying what you owe, arriving on time, returning favors, and not passing gas in public.

If you mourn the demise of handwritten letters, or you’re simply exhausted from daily encounters with rude people, this is the book you’ll wish everyone would read and share with others.

After all, even the smallest offense ultimately chips away at our humanity, McCullough says, suggesting that Americas boorish lack of manners is partly due to our inflated sense of individual entitlement.

“If something wonderful happens, we hardly pause to give thanks,” he writes. “We had it coming to us, after all.” On the other hand, we feel cheated when things dont go our way. We rant, rave, or point a finger in blame – quite often, the middle finger.

McCullough asks us to imagine how different life would be if everyone started practicing deliberate acts of civility — apologizing for mistakes, expressing sincere gratitude, and refraining from interrupting others who are trying to get a word in edgewise. Glory be!

My own faith was partly restored when I received a note from a teenager whose high school graduation party Id attended recently. He expressed sincere appreciation for the check Id written, adding, “But more than getting a check, I was glad to see you at my party.” Handwritten on monogrammed stationery, the note was short and sweet — but I couldnt have been more pleasantly surprised. I almost sent that kid a thank-you note for making my day.

How about you? Have you noticed an increase in rude behavior in recent years? Does it matter? — Cindy La Ferle