In the morning I wake up and turn on my phone. Thirty-eight text messages, mostly jokes and memes about how to keep sane while staying inside, and links to clothes and necklaces my out-of-work friends will buy once we’re back from quarantine and re-employed. But the rest are utter doomsday. They’re chainmail-like copy-and-pasted messages from a friend’s brother’s girlfriend’s cousin who is a nurse, warning me against taking Advil or other NSAIDs. They’re texts that say a friend of a friend of a friend who is “high up in government” knows that New York City will shut down all bridges and tunnels by tomorrow. They’re links to articles from dubious websites on the various Covid-19 related calamities that can’t be stopped, and which are sending us toward apocalypse. Great way to start the morning.
In the afternoon, while my toddler sleeps, I open Instagram; its messaging function has been a nice way to keep up with friends I don’t constantly text with. That inbox is always waiting with a funny video from a friend, or a tender response to one I’d posted the day before. It can also be a comfort to scroll through people’s stories, looking in, briefly, on the silly little things one does to cope with an unbearable situation. But then, again, there are the inevitable anxiety-inducing posts about how we’re at the brink of total disaster or already mired in it. My heart begins to pound, hard. Must close Instagram.
At night I seek the refuge of friends’ faces. I open a new app, House Party, and start a chat. We laugh, morosely, about springtime inside, our bodies breaking and decrepit, sun-lorn. But looming behind the app are notifications from the New York Times about the rising death toll and economic collapse, and I can’t look away.
The teen-heartbreak adage goes, “The only person who can make you stop crying is exactly the person who is making you cry.” And that’s how it is for many of us, except swap “person” with “phone.” I’m not ignoring the news, far from it. But when I want to turn off for a moment, to look away from the fact that I’ve had symptoms of Covid-19 for a few days, or that my elderly parents and even more elderly grandmother are living a few miles north of me, also in the epicenter of this disaster—I can’t.
My friend Nona feels similarly. “I think we are really seeing the consequences of phones becoming our appendages,” she wrote to me in a message (of course). “Our entire world is crammed into one tiny device, so for me it’s been hard to compartmentalize, which is a very useful skill during this time.” For Nona, the opting-out of phone time is an ethical issue. “Nowadays it feels almost immoral to turn off the news and turn off your texts. Your loved ones need you. Information will save us. But also it doesn’t always feel great!”
Is there even a way to fully “log off”? My primary-care doctor service, One Medical, also can’t seem to parse the conundrum of how to look away. In a listicle sent out to patients about prioritizing mental health during quarantine, the number 2 suggestion was to go on a digital detox: “While it’s important to stay up to date on the latest public health announcements, too much news consumption can increase feelings of stress and anxiety,” it reads. “If endless scrolling leaves you feeling overwhelmed, try setting aside regular time in the morning or afternoon to check your newsfeed and give yourself a time limit.” But then number 4 advised me to communicate with others as much as possible. “While physical contact may be limited right now, there are several ways to stay in touch with friends and family. Try to still connect with your friends and family through video chat or phone calls. Host a virtual ‘happy hour’ or ‘coffee break’ with one of your co-workers.” It’s good advice, but not really practical for those of us who can’t seem to ignore the news. If One Medical has any tips for how to open up your phone for video chat without sneaking a glance at end-times updates, it’d be much appreciated.
However difficult it may be, stepping back, even for a brief moment, is necessary.
I was inside of my New York City Quaker high school not far from the World Trade Center when the buildings were struck by planes. I remember that evening, when I stayed at a friend’s house close to school (I lived too far to walk home that day), taking breaks between watching CNN’s constant coverage and turning off the television to do something normal: eat pasta, talk about a crush. I remember feeling guilty, that I should try to think only of the dead, of the firefighters risking their lives, of the dozens of my friends who wouldn’t be returning home for months because of how close they lived to Ground Zero. In the wake of the tragedy, a teacher told us during Quaker meeting to think of the moment we were in like sunset—to look at it, but turn away every so often so as not to burn our eyes.
That was comforting to hear. It needs reminding now, for those of us who are able to follow the advice.
There was plenty of time, back then, to periodically look away from the sunset, from the wreckage; there was time for pondering the epic pain and loss on our own schedule. In the last two decades, though, technology has made this feel impossible. News comes at us differently: not from a television that can be turned off while we talk by phone, but through a single device—an input-output box for both anxiety and solace, terror and connection. The phone is now a sunset in itself. It can be hard to close your eyes even as they burn, but we must try.
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