The world’s on fire. We scroll and scroll and scroll past the bombings and the shootings and the yelling and the blaming and not to mention the climate, right, and even the economy, too. Everything’s bad and we’re all depressed. Wake up, scroll. Lay down, scroll. The nightmare rectangle glowing misery in our faces every day and every night.
A few months ago now I did a little search: “wall mounted phone holder.” As I’ve gotten older my sleep schedules have changed. I wake up naturally around 6 AM almost every day. I’d wake up, check my phone, and then lose hours in and endless downward spiral of social media, emails, sports recaps, and more. I started to take inventory of the hours I was losing. It was bad. I was worried I was wasting my life with bullshit I could not control and could do nothing about. I needed a change. I ordered a cheap, stick-on mount and attached it to the hallway wall outside my bedroom. I decided I would self-impose a “no phone in the bedroom” policy.
Keeping my phone in the hallway is nice for a few reasons. Being right outside my bedroom, I can still hear it if someone calls. I can still use it as an alarm clock. (Actually, I bought a nice, non-internet connected alarm clock for the bedroom, which strangely does not have a snooze feature, so my phone stands-in as the snooze alarm). This is a great feature: when the alarm goes off, I have to get out of bed to turn it off. And once out of bed, it’s much easier to convince myself to just get my day started. This all sounds frighteningly like an example of good mental health, I dunno…
In a life long ago, I had to leave my undergraduate program. I got really sick, sick enough that my disease was affecting my personality, my physical and mental health, and my intellectual capacity. My endocrinologist said that my case of Graves' disease was off the charts, worse than she’d ever seen in her career. I had a resting heart rate of 140 bpm. When I left school, I needed a job that would provide health insurance. I worked a few odd jobs here and there: substitute teacher at my old high school, manning the register at a driving range, and working part-time at my local Barnes & Noble. At the bookstore I quickly worked my way up to full time and got health insurance (a thing that was possible in retail almost 20 years ago). I loved big parts of that job. I was a ravenous reader, I always had one fiction and one non-fiction book going at a time, a pattern I maintain today. It was when I first started my Modern Library project. The employee discount (30% on books!) was great. And the best part was working the info desk, where I got to share my love of reading with customers and help them find the books they were looking for.
At B&N, I worked my way from part time to full time, to newsstand lead, and eventually to receiving manager. It was this last step in the chain that sucked the joy out of the job. We took in every book that came into inventory. Working through our daily box count, chasing KPIs, books became product. They were no longer infinite worlds and fonts of untapped wisdom, but simply ISBNs that need to go onto this shelf or that one, that need to be scanned and counted and managed. I stopped reading after I started that role. I was traumatized. I lost my love. And I never really got it back.
There were other factors, too. I was focusing on getting back to school. I got into World of Warcraft, perhaps a little too much (but god I was good at it). Reading took a back seat in my life and it stayed there for almost two decades. It pained me to think about this loss: reading brought me so much joy throughout my life. I used to live at our local library. Why couldn’t I get it back.
This year I found that answer. Put away the fucking phone.
My morning routine—and I promise I am not going to be one of those sociopathic grindset people with this—doesn’t simply involve not scrolling. It involves reclaiming that time to bring a sense of joy, curiosity, and comfort into my life. I get up and I read. I carry a book with me on the train heading into the office. I read before bed. I’m devouring books again. It feels good. I feel like I’ve found a lost part of my life. And I feel so much more intellectually stimulated. Books have nuance. They offer wisdom. Social media offers shouting and the flattening of complex issues in patronizing and filthy ways.
I found something else in this journey: the world isn’t nearly on fire as we think. I don’t mean to minimize the suffering happening in the world, with the horrific wars going on, with civil rights under threat, and with the climate crisis barrelling ever faster towards our present day. But I’ve found that there’s way more good people than bad. There’s way more people willing to help than willing to hurt. Some things are really scary but there’s way more people out there willing to guide us through the darkness than we think. The cynic in me wants to say that the “powers that be” want us to be endlessly doomscrolling and losing hope and snuffing out optimism. We shouldn’t give them what they want. There’s a lot of beauty in the world still within our grasp. We’re better when we’re poets, when we’re learners and listeners, when we’re builders and not breakers. When I read, I learn that there’s no new problems in the world we’re living in. When I take ownership over my own joy, I found that joy is always waiting for us if we choose to make it. And I’m glad I finally figure out how to make it.