On disconnecting and reconnecting again

BY HANNAH McCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/7/21

Two weeks ago, I was backpacking with my church youth group in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains when it hit me: anything could happen in the outside world, and I wouldn’t know it.

That Tuesday, …

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On disconnecting and reconnecting again

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Two weeks ago, I was backpacking with my church youth group in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains when it hit me: anything could happen in the outside world, and I wouldn’t know it.

That Tuesday, I’d already been without cellular service for three days, and wouldn’t get it back for nearly another four days. I’d known weeks before the trip that would be the case, so it wasn’t a surprise. Since arriving at our first campsite prior to beginning backpacking, I turned my phone on airplane mode — and when even the time displayed on my screen started to feel like too much information, I turned it off.

My time without my phone was lovely. More often than not, I didn’t know what time it was, I focused on the people around me and when there was nothing to do or to say, I stared at the mountain ranges in front of me instead of scrolling through Twitter.

So when it came time to turn my phone on, switching off airplane mode and waiting to drive into an area with service on the way to the airport, I felt a strange sense of anticipation and dread. What if once I reached service, my phone — which hadn’t received any notifications for six days — didn’t light up with any notifications at all? What if while I was off the grid, no one noticed at all?

My fear was for naught. Over the next few hours, I cleared away the notifications for scores of news alerts, more than 200 texts and — to my chagrin — hundreds of emails.

I couldn’t immediately bring myself to scroll through them, but at a quick glance, I was happy to see funny updates from my coworkers, well wishes from friends and positive updates from the people who knew I would want to know about the big and little things that happened in their lives while I was gone.

As the trek to the airport wore on, though, I was overwhelmed with all of the bad news I read. A Miami condo collapsed, with at least 100 people thought to be missing (the death toll was at 46 this morning, with 94 still missing). Nikole Hannah-Jones said she wouldn’t teach at UNC-Chapel Hill unless she was granted tenure; by Tuesday morning, she’d announced that despite earning tenure, she’d instead teach (with tenure) at Howard University. Closer to home, I learned my grandpa — my dad’s 86-year-old dad — had a stroke, and lost much of his physical mobility and some of his speech.

It was overwhelming. It was hard to believe that so many horrible and unfair things could happen as I was blissfully unaware, spending time with God and friends in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. There’d been a few times that week in which I remembered the event of a loved one — giving a lecture or navigating a difficult conversation — and prayed in that moment, longing to say the words that could somehow bridge the week-long gap between me and them and what they were going through.

As I reconnected to the world beyond the wilderness I’d hiked the week prior, it struck me how much bad news happens every week, and how this inundation of bad news must affect us. After just one week away, I felt every negative update viscerally, as if the time away gave my body the permission to feel the weight of all that is wrong in the world.

I am an emotional and sensitive person. I cry watching most movies, listening to a beautiful song and sometimes, when I tell my parents I love them. All that to say, I’m no stranger to feeling things deeply. But after the last two years of heightened injustice, chaos and grief, my feelings are too often stopped up.

In the 10 days since I returned from my trip, I’ve returned to Twitter and Instagram and kept up with my news alerts. And while I still find myself feeling the grief of bad news more intensely than before I left, I also find myself laughing and smiling more generously, taking joy in simple things like a walk after work or a card from a friend.

I don’t expect it will last. Out of necessity and repetitive exposure, we are creatures who become used to things, good and bad. As I continue to work toward a sweet spot between being informed and having enough tenderness to keep caring, I will keep close some of the lessons I learned in the wilderness.

First, the world will go on with or without you, and it’s OK, as Wendell Berry so beautifully pens it, to “Be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” It’s OK, and good even, to turn your face toward the sunset, knowing that when you look away, problems and joys alike abound. Second, it is good to take time to disconnect sometimes, if that is what you need to truly connect to others and the world around you.

Or to put it simply, it’s OK to turn off your phone.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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