Catching the text, missing the life

By Ken Bradbury

I could have cried.

Illinois College had asked a well-known actress to spend a few days on campus. She gave a couple of speeches, met with classes, and on this particular night we met in Kirby Lecture Hall to hear her read some of her original poetry. The gal was pretty good. Kirby was packed when IC’s theater department head took the stage to introduce our guest, then she politely but firmly asked the students to turn off their cell phones. For some forty minutes the actress escorted us into a world of Hollywood that we’d not be able to experience living in Jacksonville, and I sat in the back row, thankful for such opportunities as IC was affording us on this chilly evening. Then I looked to each side of me … four students, all with heads bowed, prayerfully sending and answering text messages, paying no attention to the speaker. They were keeping up on their gossip but totally missing out on life.

The Duncan Mansion organization held their annual fundraiser some months ago and the highlight of the evening occurred when our town’s most esteemed celebrity, Dr. Chet Bone, took the stage with his daughter to recite some verse then sing a couple of songs. I sat there thinking … wow, I’m in the presence of greatness. Few people in the world are blessed to sit and listen to a man of such character hold an audience spellbound, sitting in the company of a century of learning and culture. I gazed over at the table next to mine and saw six, twenty-something young ladies, all dressed to the nines, all thumbing their phones, all completely oblivious to the marvelous performance taking place right in front of them. I cannot imagine a single YouTube video or Instant Message that could compare to the sight and sound of Doc Bone singing harmony with his daughter. The ladies were high tech and keeping up on things while totally missing out on life.

I think this group of lovely gals all worked for a local financial institution. Is it sound economic theory to pay $45 a plate to check your text messages? …or several thousand dollars in tuition? The latest Star Wars movie only cost me seven bucks, but the value was lowered considerably when I had to endure the distraction of a green glowing screen in the row ahead of me. I’m sure the young lady had told her parents that she was going to the movies that night, but in her attempt to not miss out on anything “important,” she’d missed the boat on life.

I’ve used this space to rant on the damage that cell phone addiction has done to my enjoyment of various entertainments, but I fear that the epidemic has far greater consequences for the users of the phones themselves. There’s a thing called “life” taking place out there. I know. I’ve been there and it’s pretty darned cool … if you’re not staring at your cell phone.

I hope I’m simply imagining this, but I fear it’s real. When my Lincoln Land students come to class they know to shut their cell phones off. They’ve learned from my past warnings that with gentleness, grace, and the love of God I will personally throw them to the floor and strangle them with their own shoestrings if anyone glances at a phone during one of my classes. But here’s the rub … and I hope I’m reading too much into this … but deprived of their cell phones for an hour, there’s a certain nervousness, an anxiety bordering on fear that creeps into their eyes. Like being left naked in the parking lot, they’re not quite whole without their battery-powered appendage. I do not exaggerate. Forced to actually stare real life in the face, they’re a bit lost … like there’s a party going on next door and they’re not invited.

The scene was one of my favorite haunts, Norma’s Café, just off the Jacksonville Square. The place was well filled when my friend and I took our seats, and I noticed two booths across the restaurant from where we were sitting. At one table sat an older fellow eating alone. I imagined him to be a widower taking the opportunity to sample Norma’s fried chicken. At the next booth was a middle-aged man and wife, both texting while waiting for their food. I couldn’t help but wonder if some day when the woman’s husband was gone and she were left to eat chicken alone at Norma’s, would she have given anything to have simply sat phone-less and talked one more time to her mate? Were they so tied to the digital world that they’d forgotten how to live?

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