One of the great gifts I have received from taking on Jewish observance is the gift of shutting off things in my life that distract me from what I want to experience on a particular religious holiday.
For example, Shabbat comes every Friday night through Saturday night, and it is a time to spend with family and friends. Not checking email or social media is a way to force myself to not be distracted by the things that tend to distract me on a daily basis. The Sabbath is a real gift in my life and I’m not the only one; many non-observant Jews and people who aren’t Jewish at all have even begun to sing the praises of a “powered down” day of the week, especially in this day and age of constant information in the palm of your hand in the form of a smartphone.
When religious holidays come around, I observe the same limiting of distractions that I do on the Sabbath. So on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the first 2 days of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot, and also on Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah which fall at the end of Sukkot, I also power down. I put a vacation responder on my email accounts, I go to synagogue if my work schedule allows, and I don’t use my laptop or the phone at work. (And we don’t post here at GrokNation.)
I also don’t monitor or post on social media which has been a very significant shift in my state of mind for the days I am not tuned in. I realize more and more how much of my life and day is taken up with wondering how many “likes” I’ve gotten, what kinds of comments I’m receiving, and what I could and should be doing differently in my role as a contributor to the conversations happening in the social media space. It can feel exhausting, and I have become more and more appreciative of the time I spend away from social media during the holidays.
Over the last few years, I’ve gotten my news from websites, reading them on my phone: I was a subscriber to The New York Times for many years, but once I had children, my mornings of reading the newspaper dwindled and eventually died. Now news is available at the swipe of a finger.
What I realized was happening over the last six months in particular is that I started using my phone as an emotional crutch. When I felt lonely or scared about something going on in my life, or when I was bored and couldn’t talk to someone I wanted to talk to, I’d go to a news site and browse. Compared to, say, smoking or maxxing out a credit card, checking the news seems like a pretty safe vice. But it turns out, it wasn’t all that safe for me.
The news site I was going to – which I would argue is not that different from a lot of other sites– had many “significant” stories about what’s going on in the world, but it was a site that pulled headlines from all over the web. So in addition to news stories, it also had a fair amount of celebrity gossip and a tremendous number of tragic and upsetting stories from all over the country. These stories affect different people in different ways, and I have always prided myself on being unafraid to look difficult things in the eye: I follow the riots resulting from the shootings of unarmed black men all over this country very carefully, I always read up on the bombings in Syria, the refugee crises all over the world, and the terror threats global citizens are living with.
But I was constantly feeling overwhelmed. My sleep became disrupted; if I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, my brain felt instantly “awake” and I would be up for at least an hour until it would calm down again.
As we drove to work, my poor assistant Todd would sometimes listen to me reading headlines of the most horrible things: women drowning their children, families being gunned down in church, rape victims being victimized by the justice system…
These things all happen. They happen every day all over the world. I care deeply about these things and they affect me emotionally. However, there are times in my life – and this is one of them – where I cannot handle all of this information on a daily basis. It is not good for my brain. And I cannot use my phone to help me as an emotional crutch when what I am replacing my loneliness or anxiety with is information that is so upsetting.
In the weeks since Rosh Hashanah, I have stopped checking that news website. Instead, I check a much simpler news page my phone has as part of its interface which lets me know if anything major is happening in the world. I don’t check it throughout the day like I used to. I don’t put myself to sleep scrolling through my phone like I used to. I am taking note of times when I feel lonely and need something to do. I’m trying to sit with my feelings instead of making them go away in ways that aren’t healthy.
And lo and behold, I am actually sleeping better; I am not awake for an hour or more at a time at night since Rosh Hashanah. My brain doesn’t feel as full anymore, and I don’t feel as full up with sad tragedies. I know they are going on, and I am hopeful that someday, I can find a balance that is healthy for me.
Until then, I am not only enjoying my sleep, I am enjoying the awareness of how I distract myself when feelings become overwhelming, and I am enjoying the ability to change the things I can.