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DeFrates column: Seek solitude — without a smartphone

Picture the last time you were alone.

Hopefully, you were somewhere beautiful, or at least blessedly quiet. Was it this morning on your sacred run, or six weeks ago when your parents took the kids for a day? Was it in a remote wilderness area? Or on a county road when you decided to kill the engine and just soak in the scenery?

But were you truly alone, or was the rest of the world plugged into a charger on your console?



Because as long as your smartphone was innocuously flattening your back pocket, or lurking quietly in your pack, you were carrying with you a potential audience larger than any previous generation could have imagined. And having an audience changes everything.

Last month, I discussed my perspective on how social media exposure is damaging the land and often endangering users who travel far outside their ability level, drawn by marketing lists of “best kept secrets.”



Today, I want to suggest that when any or every second of our lives could be a performance, our personal loss of solitude may be just as devastating.

There is always a reason to have our phones. Maybe it is just for emergencies. Maybe for work. Maybe we really want to share this amazing place we live in. Maybe we just never considered leaving it behind.

Omnipresent smartphones are now considered completely normal. Within half my lifetime, constant connectivity has been assimilated beyond the point of question. Technology is a valuable tool, of course, an incredible one, but it is past time that we stepped back and made a conscious choice about when and where we use it — especially when we venture into those places people once sought out in which “to live deliberately.”

Along with that, here’s a little reflection from Edward Abbey, written in another generation as a response to the increasing presence of cars in national parks. Replace “automobiles” with “social media,” however, and the meaning is still quite relevant.

“We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly.”

Unfortunately, although we agreed not to drive cars into some of these places, though not national parks, we have not yet, as a society, agreed to keep our technology addictions out of them.

Wherever we are, that tiny object of infinite connections weighs heavily on our minds, and powerful, evolutionary forces are at work. Humans are social creatures and are programmed to act in a way that encourages our inclusion in a society. So having a smartphone capable of sharing photos, videos and thoughts from any time and place in our lives forces us to, consciously or unconsciously, evaluate whether what we are doing at any given moment is impressive enough to warrant display.

And a part of our consciousness is always on alert in case anyone we know wants to ask us something about upcoming dinner plans. Our brains hungrily wait for their next dose of serotonin in the form of texts and “likes” — reminders that we are still welcome in the herd.

Because of this, our awareness of place and experience is always slightly muted. With a phone around, every choice is weighted by potential social outcomes, and we can never experience true solitude.

A great deal of psychological research also supports the theory that humans need solitude in order to develop self-awareness. As a country, we have long recognized its value. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is anywhere a visitor “has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

But unless this generation is able to experience the land completely, quietly, without that performance aspect, they will never generate their own unique, intimate relationship with it. And without that personal relationship, the value assigned is rarely one intrinsic to the land itself, but rather based solely on social or potentially economic benefit.

Consider what could be gained by venturing outside again without a constant, judging audience. Freedom for as long as you can handle it. Total freedom. No interruptions, no screen, no worrying about whether what you are doing is cool enough. Trust me, you won’t miss what you don’t have after the first 45 minutes.

If you carry anxiety about backcountry travel without being able to call for help, look into any number of affordable rescue beacons that work from satellites.

So leave your phone behind. Plug that social shackle into its nice little charging nest and walk out the door. Don’t just turn it off, stow it away in your pack and pretend that’s good enough.

You’ll still know it’s there. Be bold. Leave it all the way back there, and breath in the deep, resounding joy of true solitude.

Lindsay DeFrates lives in Carbondale and loves her flip phone dearly.


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