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Please, Let Me Be Alone With My Thoughts

How I’m rediscovering my analog self in a digital world

Photo: Dmitriy Bilous/Getty Images

TThe inflatable pool rafts are a mixture of neon yellow, blue, and red. We considered using real mattresses, but dragging our beds outside could raise unwanted suspicion. So instead, my neighbors and I pile the pool rafts on top of one another underneath a large oak tree.

A chorus of voices begins to chide my growing hesitation. Below the tangle of branches, my brother — along with two of our neighbors — peers upward. Looking down, I hesitate again, grasping the large limb of a branch.

“Come onnnn… jump!” my brother whines. “It’s fun, I promise!” and he holds up two fingers in the “Scout’s Honor” salute. The prodding makes my face flush, and a few seconds later I leap into the void.

Down I fall, until I land with a jarring impact. The rafts bounce me forward, then shoot out in every direction, doing nothing to ease the impact. I hit the Earth on the return bounce with a thud, and every bit of air escapes my lungs. As I gasp for breath, a face peers over me and asks, “You okay?” I grimace, then nod, still trying to catch my breath. A hand extends and I’m pulled to my feet while my body groans in protest. Standing, I bend to brush dirt from my banana-yellow Converse high tops, then stand gulping air. I shade my eyes and watch another neighbor climb higher than I had. Everyone else stacks rafts. When my neighbor jumps, the impact is so violent, it bounces him onto the sidewalk where he crumples like a rag doll. We think about alerting our parents, but they told us to stay outside and “use our imagination.” Unfortunately, this particular use of our imagination has led to unwanted consequences in the form of an unconsciousness playmate. The tension builds as we shake him. Eventually, he rouses to life while we recount his landing with wild gesticulation. The afternoon remains ours, free from trouble — or parents.

TThroughout childhood, our parents often banished us to the great outdoors where we’d ride bikes, tromp around the woods, or — on one occasion — find some cardboard and try breakdancing to Run-DMC. TV and Nintendo privileges were for when the streetlights came on, and if my brother and I wanted to see Karate Kid II at the theater, we’d have to look up showtimes in the newspaper. Sometimes I’d head to the skating rink, hoping that when the couples skate played Boyz II Men, I’d work up the courage to ask my crush to skate. If I was really brave (I never was), we’d hold hands.

By high school, my friends and I would spend Friday evenings “cruising Memorial.” Memorial was a street where rival high schools would drive, windows down — sometimes drinking Boone’s Farm in Sonic cups — while blasting tunes ranging from The Offspring to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. We’d pull over in parking lots along the street and yell at the other cars, sometimes comparing the modifications we’d made to our trucks (or my friend’s 1988 Mustang GT). We threw taunts, whistled when girls smiled from cars, and drove aimlessly — with nothing more than music, friends, and our thoughts to fuel the evening.

I sigh and breathe in fresh air from the cabin porch, knowing my phone won’t ring because it can’t, but also wondering how I got so lost and anxious along the way.

Twenty years later, I stare at a looming mountain range while these memories haunt my analog past. To escape a world of cellphones, computers, streaming, video conferences, and all things digital, I retreat so far off the grid not even my smartphone can tell me where I am. I sigh and breathe in fresh air from the cabin porch, knowing my phone won’t ring because it can’t, but also wondering how I got so lost and anxious along the way.

SStaring at the mountains once more, I hear my wife approach from behind. I glance over my shoulder to acknowledge her, then turn back to stare at the white peaks behind the coffee cup I’ve drawn to my lips.

“Doing any better today?” I ask.

She frowns. “No. I just worry about us being so far from anyone. If we get hurt or attacked by bears, there’s no one nearby to help us. They’d probably get lost the same way we did.”

My wife’s anxiety began the night before. With no cell reception, Google couldn’t tell us how to get un-lost or reach the nearest hospital. This proved problematic when we lost our way to the cabin and wandered around in the dark for a good hour.

When I was a kid, long road trips required maps, pit stops for directions, and prayers. When we got lost, I’d chime in, asking my parents the obvious, “Are we lost?” My mom, ever the bastion of optimism, would reply, “No! We’re on an adventure!”

I considered telling my wife the same, but she’s five months pregnant and I didn’t want to die.

I turn to stare at the mountains. I know how she feels, but in reverse. My life has become so tech-dependent that I, too, feel anxious. I hate that anyone can reach me at every moment of every day, that people get pissed when I need alone time (because their phone has convinced them I hate/are ignoring them), and that everything is an emergency.

Birthdays are an emergency. Work is an emergency. Parties are an emergency, as are reservations, vacations, notifications. It all demands our attention.

View from the porch. Photo: Ben Sledge

Technology, I remind myself, is irrelevant compared to the mountains before me. They have remained steadfast, analog, and serene for centuries. There’s a certain peace in knowing tech can’t reach me amid this landscape.

Deep down, we each know the human soul needs to connect with nature. When we don’t, our light begins to flicker. In part, I guess that’s why I feel my need to return to an analog existence so strongly now. I crave alone time, deep in thought. The Renaissance icon Benvenuto Cellini believed a well-rounded man is an artist, a warrior, and a philosopher. Today, with so little time to think — and more distraction at every waking second — I wonder how anyone could become a philosopher. Hell, these days a man alone on a park bench staring at the trees can raise eyebrows. “Is he preying on children?” we wonder.

Wrestling with our internal demons has become so terrifying that we avoid it at all costs. In the past, however, I was alone with my mind all the time. I’d wait in the doctor’s office sorting ideas in my head. After a string of failed relationships, I drove my 1993 Nissan Pickup with no destination in mind.

An hour after staring at mountains, I hike them alone and tempt the fates.

MMen’s minds have a special compartment, which Pastor Mark Gungor calls the “Nothing Box.” It’s where men go to put their minds in screensaver mode. In the Nothing Box, there are no thoughts, just emptiness. Quiet. When women ask, “What are you thinking about?” and we respond “Nothing,” it’s not a joke. We’re in our Nothing Boxes. My problem is I can’t remember the last time I spent any time in mine.

The kid who hiked through the woods and traversed sewers looking for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles spent time in his Nothing Box. Later in his life, as a soldier, he'd sit on a cot reading classic literature, philosophers, theologians, fantasy, and sci-fi. Sometimes he would reflect for hours, alone with thoughts that forced him to wrestle with life and humanity. This kid is now a man approaching 40, hiking a mountain high enough to reach snow.

I’m tempted to share this serene moment with someone else, but isn’t that what we do all day? We no longer call these private moments our own, taking snapshots to store solely in our memories.

There’s a shrill wind and a smell of pine needles. Rocks clatter, and a bird chirps. Then all the noises become still and I hear it: silence. In Biblical literature, there’s a story in which the Prophet Elijah retreats to a cave during a journey in the wilderness. While he mopes around, he endures three events: a strong wind, an earthquake, and a firestorm. The Bible says God was in none of these events, but then Elijah hears an almost silent whisper.

The silence I hear speaks louder than any sound technology, work, or society can make. In the silence, I find a little more of my analog past: deeper thoughts, clearer direction, but not — as we often fear — loneliness. I’m tempted to share this serene moment with someone else, but isn’t that what we do all day? We no longer call these private moments our own, taking snapshots to store solely in our memories.

Slowly, I begin to realize I’m always anxious. I’m testy — never at ease — and I don’t like who I’ve become. Instead of stuffing these thoughts away, I resolve to once again become an analog thinker, despite living in a society that demands every part of me, all the time.

AA week after my epiphany, I return home to all the familiar distractions of a smartphone, the internet, and Netflix. I find it hard to let my thoughts wander, so one Sunday afternoon I head to my favorite pub. I remind myself of my mountaintop resolution. I order a drink, then sip in silence as my thoughts wander. I probably look like a freak sitting alone, and my mind begins a wrestling match as my hand itches to find the phone tucked away in my bag. I stare at a point on the wall, forcing myself to do absolutely nothing. After a few minutes, I find myself lost in thought, wondering about life, my writing, my career, faith, marriage, and my mortality.

The bartender interrupts my trance and asks if I’d like another drink. I smile, and nod to my empty glass, indicating that I’ll take one more. Then I return to the questions at hand.

Storyteller | Combat wounded veteran | Metalhead | Designer | Bleeding on a page just makes it more authentic:

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