Today, I took my daughter to swimming lessons. With five other parents, I observed the class. I should say: I observed. At one point during the class, I looked around and saw every parent—all five—mesmerized by their phones. No parent watched their child. All watched their phones.
I am not uniquely virtuous. Last week, I was mesmerized by my phone. I missed my daughter when she dunked her head under water. She told me, don’t look at your phone! I mostly obeyed. I looked at my phone, but not for long. The compulsion to look took over, and I fell into a mania of technology. But I held on to my sanity. I stopped, and here is what I saw.
I saw a young boy tell my daughter, You are doing great! I watched my daughter swim in the deep end with a life jacket. I walked near her and told her she did great. She looked at me with glee, a smile broken across her face, saying something like, That is my daddy!
Whatever moment we had, we had because I was not memorized by the screen but by her. She knows I saw. I know I saw. We know that we love each other.
Admission time. I brought a book because I did not want to watch the other kids on their turns and because I like books. I suspect my compromise worked. And while I can resist the pull of the omni-present screen, “I cannot live without books,” as Thomas Jefferson once quipped.
I choose to look at a book. I choose to read, even if it is a struggle to read something foreign and strange to my way of thinking (I was reading a Korean-German philosopher). But that is sort of the point. The phone mesmerizes because it feeds us nothing but soma, what we already know we want. It does not challenge us.
Phones and their social media apps algorithmically draws our time to exploit us. They do not just sell our privacy. They also shape our desires. By their use, we show a love for the digital, the use of the finger to swipe and tap. An ephemeral practice that leads nowhere and leaves nothing behind.
It is the end of thinking and of lasting things.
But love lasts since it gives of itself to others. It sacrifices attention to your six-year old daughter, because you have given yourself over to someone else. It destroys our ego. It smashes our narcissism. It means we avoid the mesmerization of the phone so that we don’t miss the ones whom we love.
I was mesmerized by the phone. I missed my daughter. No more. Love gives of itself, it divests of itself excessive self-reference. Even my attention is not mine to keep; it is mine to give.