I had a hospital appointment last week, my final session of post-operative physiotherapy and my first face-to-face meeting with the physiotherapist since the Covid crisis began.
I arrived a few minutes early, and as I sat in the waiting area I flicked through the messages and emails on my phone. Before I knew it I was preoccupied by what I was reading as a few issues emerged on the screen that needed dealing with as soon as my appointment was over.
The physiotherapist greeted me warmly; we had come to know one another ‘virtually’ and were glad to meet, although with both of us wearing face masks it couldn’t be described as a face-to-face encounter.
The session was very thorough and I was put through a menu of exercises designed to ensure my body recovers fully from the intrusive nature of the prostate surgery. However, I found I had to concentrate really hard as I was distracted and constantly returning, in my head, to the phone messages and the emails. Thankfully the physiotherapist was able to keep me focused and, after the session, forwarded me a list of what I need to do.
Here lies the challenge of the on-screen age: how do we remain in the moment, how do we stay present to what’s happening now? How do we avoid being suspended between virtual and real life?
After I left the hospital I examined the distracting messages and emails and found they were not that urgent. Yet I had allowed them to invade what was a very important space in time where I needed to attend to the healing of my body.
This on-screen age is an age without boundaries, where work, play, family, politics, romance, education, global issues and gossip crash in and out of one another. This world without boundaries is captured in the device held in the palms of billions of hands all over the globe.
We are enslaved to it. We go into an absolute panic if we leave home without it. I am reminded of an old Western film I saw decades ago, where a New York socialite fell in love with a cowboy while on a trip ‘out West’. She convinced him to come back with her to the Big Apple where she set about ‘civilising him’. She had a major job convincing him to do without his gun-belt — every time he took it off his legs went from under him.
Our attachment to our mobile phone is just like that. While we might go weak at the knees when it happens, the world doesn’t stop when we forget it or leave it behind. In fact there can be great liberation when we do, and indeed a mischievous sense of satisfaction knowing the thing is at home hopping mad on the kitchen table in glorious oblivion.
At the risk of wandering into TMI territory (too much information), one of the reasons I’m attending physiotherapy is, as Dominic Cummings might say, to take back control of my bodily functions, to establish who is in charge around here.
We need to do the same with our mobile phones. They are enslaving us while robbing us of the adventure of being human.
In the store of stories that make up the folklore of my wife’s family, there is a tale of transatlantic adventure that wouldn’t happen today.
One of her more celebrated relatives was the only male in a family of seven. After his six sisters emigrated to the United States he got married, inherited the farm and went on to have four daughters. Now in those patriarchal times, the lack of a son and heir was a matter of great concern, and the sisters in America were particularly worried that the home place would be lost to the family.
As luck and Mother Nature would have it, after much desiring and a long gap in the production line, a male child was born. The father was ecstatic and adjourned forthwith to a local hostelry where, in a fit of drunken delirium, he decided to go to America and bring the good news to his sisters, in person.
When the man came to his sober senses he was on a liner halfway across the broad Atlantic. It took him six months labouring to make the money to pay for his passage back to his farm, his family and his little male heir in Longford.
Now, if he had a mobile phone he’d have missed out on all that, and the family would have been deprived of one great story.