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Separation Anxiety

Not so long ago, my wife Maggie and I were at one of the larger shopping malls looking for a birthday present for our grandson. She was determined to buy him some books and clothes while I was pretty much focused on toys, especially anything Thomas The Train. The fact that he is only two didn’t deter me. I believe that great toys are like clothes that are a little to big, your grandson will grow into them and while we’re waiting for that to happen, your can play with his toys. I already have my own Play Doh and am getting quite good at making things with it.

Walking through the Food  Court, I noticed four young teenage girls sitting at a table and my first thought was how nice it was to see some younger folk out and about together. It reminded me of my daughter and her friends when she was that age. But then I noticed that while they were all busy communicating, it wasn’t with with each other. They were alternately texting other people, checking messages or just talking on their cell phones. Here they were out with friends but so intense is the fear that they might be missing something somewhere else, they were constantly checking to make sure they weren’t. It isn’t a phenomenon that is peculiar to young people.

You see it everywhere. People are constantly texting, tweeting, checking email and talking on their cell phones. I appreciate that a few of those people hold significant and important jobs and need to be in touch 24/7 but really. How many of us need to be in constant touch? My wife is a senior executive with the federal government and has an Ipad, a cell phone and a laptop. The expectation by her employer is that she will constantly check her email, even on Sunday evening in the off-chance something important has been sent. Screw that! Work/life balance is an essential part of a healthy life. Productivity, let alone health, deteriorate when your work becomes more important than your broader life, especially your family.

This is even more true with social networking sites which many can’t wait until after work to check. They constantly log in during the day to see if someone…anyone…has left them a message. The truth is that social networking has become an addiction in the same way that gambling, drinking and drugs are addictions. Don’t believe me? Turn off your cell phone and try to get through the day without feeling a growing sense of anxiety because you haven’t checked your email or your Twitter account or your voice mail or your text messages. Don’t log into Facebook or Linkedin or MySpace or one of the countless dating sites that you belong to. Let it go. The answer to what it all means to you lies not in whether or not you can get through the weekend or just a day without logging in but how not checking makes you feel.

If you hardly think about it, congratulations. You aren’t addicted…yet, but if you feel anxious for not knowing if you have mail or messages; if you find yourself distracted by thoughts of what you might be missing or just have an overwhelming itch to eat a lot of chocolate chip cookies. Uh oh! You’re an addict baby and it’s time for some serious reconsideration of how you’re living.

It starts with understanding that the operators of all this technology didn’t provide these services out of any sense of altruism or because they like you and they definitely don’t promote the use of their products and sites to enhance your life. They did it to make money. I have no issue with that and I don’t have an issue with the existence of the technology. What I take issue with is how we are over-dosing on it. Online is not the real world. Texting someone is not the same as being with them and talking face-to-face and interrupting what you are doing with someone to take calls or reply to messages on your cell betrays a significant level of separation anxiety and is just plainn rude. When you are constantly interrupting your real life, who you are with and what you’re doing, it is an indication of how the unknown has overwhelmed what you are actually doing at that moment.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I have been with someone who interrupted our meeting to answer their cell phone only to tell the caller that they couldn’t talk right now and would call them back. Let the damn thing ring and go to voice mail. Better yet, turn it off when you’re involved in something with someone. (I doubt you would jump out of bed if you were having sex, so why answer it when you are doing something else with someone?) That’s what voice mail is for, it allows people to leave a message to which you can respond when you have time. We used to understand that ten years ago. We’d go to work, come home and find a couple of messages on the home phone. We’d note them and respond to them when it was convenient. Now, we’re checking constantly and that is nothing more than anxiety at being separated from whatever may be happening.

Too many people find validation in being “connected” even though it is often unnecessary communication. They hide from whatever is lacking in their lives and bolster their sense of self-importance by constantly texting and emailing and going online. It is an artificial life. There is a place for electronic communication but when it takes control of your life rather than simply being a tool to be used as needed, then you have become its servant. Few of us are so important that we need to be in constant touch but too many of us feel insecure and insignificant when we aren’t.

It may sound like my life is pretty small and I don’t understand how important staying connected really is but I was a senior executive before I retired and I did need to be available.  I had a mobile phone, a pager and a laptop that went everywhere I went. My email traffic was ridiculously high (more than 70% of which was simply copies of emails sent to someone else by someone else). I was in constant touch, going so far to conduct conference calls on my cell phone while driving between cities.

But then I had an epiphany. Much of the communication and checking I was doing was unnecessary and was wasting myself. I weaned myself off social networking sites, closed my Twitter account and threw away my pager. I traded my Blackberry for a simple mobile phone which I use mostly to call upstairs to Maggie’s office to let her know I have arrived downstairs to pick her up. It was liberating and the amount of time I savd was unbelievable. I became more, not less, productive. I accomplished more but also had more time for me.

I’ve continued this approach to technology into semi-retirement.  I’m no less informed than I was before but now I don’t have to wade through mountains of extraneous nonsense to get to what I’m interested in or need to know. I don’t feel anxious any more and no longer feel like I’m missing something. The truth is that I don’t care what I might be missing. I’ve missed lots in my life and except for the odd dressing down from my sister for missing her birthday, it hasn’t made much of difference.

I refuse to be part of the Web 2.0 generation. I don’t need it. I talk to my daughters regularly, get to hold my wife every night when we go to bed and when I need or want to see or talk to someone, well…I just do it. Usually in person, sometimes by phone and occasionally by email. For me, email is simply letter writing sent by something a tad more efficient than Canada Post.

As for feeling separation anxiety, that’s pretty much gone. I have come to understand that old adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is true. If I missed something important today, it will come around again tomorrow or the next day and when it gets here, I’ll deal with it. What I don’t do anymore is constantly check to see if it has arrived. Jasper and I are too busy dealing with more important issues like trying to teach him how to fetch.

I throw the ball and he watches it bounce across the yard, looks up at me and says with his eyes, “You threw it, you go get it.” He never seems to feel anxious about being separated from the ball. There are more than just a few who could take that lesson from Jasper.




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