Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reflections from a Wednesday: The Disconnect

Always connected: students in a lecture hall
(very similar to the sea of open laptops in our lecture halls in the med school)

"So y'all didn't even have email addresses?" asked one of the medical students one day in our small group session. We were talking about things that are different now compared to when I was in medical school.

"Nope," I replied. "No email addresses and no cell phones either." Every student in the room gasped. I laughed out loud at their incredulous expressions.

"How did you guys. . . like. . .find each other?"

"Or like do anything?"

They all sat there shaking their heads, each of their faces lit up by the glow of their open laptop computers. I looked around the room at the students. Two were looking at iPhones, and another was plugging a jump drive into the side of his MacBook Pro. Wow. Things really have changed. When I think of my life now and compare it to my media-free life back in the early/mid 1990's, it does sound pretty funny. But somehow, it worked. Without cell phones, email addresses, text messages, facebook or wifi, it worked. It was life unplugged.

Although we were less "connected," the relationships we formed as medical students were anything but. I can still remember being an M2 sitting in Perkins Coffehouse with my med school classmate and bff-to-this-day, Lisa D. We'd order one "bottomless" cup of coffee, and then talk and study for hours. Depending on the proximity of the test and someone's heartbreak, many times it was more talking than studying. But no matter what we were doing, what it wasn't was interrupted.

What happened? When did everything get so urgent? Now, I'm embarrassed to admit, if I've walked out of the house without my cell phone, it takes me literally 3 minutes to realize the error of my ways. Why? Because now being "unplugged" feels. . .well, uncomfortable. You rationalize it and say things like, "Well what if there's an emergency? I'd need my phone." Then you turn around and go back home to retrieve it, shaking like an addict for the entire 4 minutes it takes you to get it off your kitchen counter.

The wakeup call.

As a residency program director, a few years ago I thought it would be a good idea to set up an anonymous, confidential email address for the house staff to provide feedback to me/program leadership without having to worry about repercussions or bad blood. So last week I get this email from the "mystery" email address that essentially says:

"At our case conference presentations, the program directors (program directors = me and another colleague) are seen regularly looking at their iPhones/smartphones. If you guys think these conferences and our presentations are so important then you should give us the courtesy of paying attention. It's so disrespectful."

Yikes. I immediately asked myself what my two favorite leaders (Harry and my daddy) would do in this situation--but the truth is, I didn't really need to. Here's the thing: I do look at my phone. A lot. I'm perpetually connected, and I've somehow gotten into thinking that I'd miss something important if I didn't double/triple/quadruple check my email every day. And yeah. . . . I do get a constant barrage of messages from residents, students, faculty, administration, GME, and family and have prided myself in my rapid responses to them all. However, deep down I know that very few if any of those emails are so urgent that they cannot wait an hour. In fact, most could wait several hours. There was only one acceptable response to this email:

"You are right. This is both disrespectful and unprofessional. We accept full responsibility for this and will do better." I typed the message to the entire listserve of residents (since I had no idea who wrote the original one.) I stared at it for 30 seconds, and then hit send.

Part of me felt embarrassed and exposed. I mean, here I am a "role model" being told to put down my phone like a teenage girl in the back of a classroom. Part of me felt proud that I had created an environment where the lowest man (or woman) on the totem pole was comfortable sending such an email to those sitting on high. Eventually a few days passed and the my feelings settled somewhere in between. All in all, I felt like I'd been thumped on the head. Hard. And sometimes a thump on the head is a good thing, and the only thing that gets your attention without harming you.

What happened?

I believed what I wanted to believe, that's what happened. Somehow I had convinced myself that it didn't look rude to be obviously preoccupied when someone was standing in front of the room sweating through their presentation. I allowed myself to believe that "surely they know how crazy busy and overscheduled I am and that although I'm looking at my phone, it doesn't mean I'm not paying attention." I assumed that they'd understand and not take it personally, which makes no sense because I would take it 100% personally were the tables turned. Like sometimes, I call my parents and read them something I've written. All 1,000 words of it. And I can tell, even over the phone, that they have stopped what they were doing, sat down, and listened to me from the first word to the last. And it always feels good and special when they do. Deep down inside, I knew that I'd been ignoring a little voice (okay, my mother's voice) that kept saying, "You know better than that. That's not okay and you know it."

Mobile Rehab?

Okay, so it would be lovely if I could end this post by telling you that I threw my iPhone into the Chattahoochee river and decided to just go commando with a land line only. Uhh, yeah, not quite. Instead, I am consciously listening and responding to the little voice. I am forcing myself to refrain from incessantly checking my email, and I'm also limiting my car-based phone conversations to hands-free calls in moderation. In fact, I'm already getting affirmation that it is the right thing to do, too. Isaiah told me the other day that he doesn't want me to talk on the phone to "anyone other than daddy or Ma-Ma or Pa-Pa" when we are in the car together. He meant that. "Even with your earjacks," he added. 3 year old Zachary chimed in. "Yeah, Mommy don't get on the phone, okay?" Dang.

So now my goal is to try to remember what it was like when my life was unplugged. To remind myself that I survived (and thrived) when there was no such thing as multimedia texting, hot-spots, or blue-tooth devices. To push myself to go over my girlfriends' houses more or sit with them in coffee shops over $1.79 bottomless coffee cups talking about everything and nothing instead of playing phone tag during our commute "windows." To hold my husband's hand and tell him face to face how wonderful he is instead of texting him with emoticons and smiley faces.

Today I am reflecting on a simple truth that somehow got lost in the apps and upgrades: The people in my life deserve my undivided attention. I deserve my undivided attention. Listening is an act of love--and respect. And I'm all about giving the people in my life both.

So to my anonymous resident whose frustration came across in that courageous email--Thank you. That thump on the head you provided was a good thing. Now I know for sure that the only way for me to stay connected in my life is to consciously disconnect from it more often.

Isaiah and his school mate: connecting the old-fashioned way :)

*Thinking about getting less connected?
Take Oprah's No Phone Zone Pledge.
I did. :)

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading an article in the 80's that said that by the year 2000, everyone would have their own personal "portable" (cell) phone, and I thought it was laughable (well, you would have to had seen how large and cumbersome they were then).
    Imagine what it's like when I try to explain to 4th/5th grade students what life was like before ipods, dvrs, computers, digital cameras, and other such contraptions. If you wanted to watch a TV show, you had to be home at a certain time to see it. If you wanted to watch two shows that came on at the same time, well, you just had to make a choice (although your choices were limited to CBS, NBC, and ABC only). Talk about being excited when vcrs came out! And 1 hour photo processing? Oh my gosh!! Needed to do a report? Get out the encyclopedias - no such thing as computers or Google. I've gone from vinyl records to 8 track tapes to cassette tapes to cds to ipods to itunes. Though, personally, I think GPS has got to be one of the greatest things to come along in my lifetime!
    I can't imagine what life will be like when my grandchildren are adults!


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