It’s hard to imagine what people did on trains and buses before the advent of smartphones. I’m sure my parents or some old-timey Chicagoans could tell me, but knowing what the past looked like on public transportation probably won’t change anything about how most people ride today. Heads are bowed down, thumbs or forefingers flicking wildly at tiny glowing screens, eyes transfixed on an endless stream of social media or Candy Crush. I try not to fall into that way of isolationism, but when there are Instagram photos to double-tap, I’m just like everyone else.
It was a Wednesday at 7:05 AM, and as usual, I was riding the 157 bus to work. It’s usually a quiet ride. I sit in the back and try not to do much more than ponder. Coffee in hand, the waking city wakes me. On this particular day, however, the bus was inexplicably packed. ‘Twas not a seat to be sat in.
I stood next to a young man wearing gym clothes. We were jammed together, both gripping tightly to the flexible plastic handles above us as the bus bumped along. Ear-budded, and he held his phone out, transfixed to it like a moth to flame. His phone had the biggest screen I’d ever seen – nearly impossible not to look at. On the screen, a seemingly endless stream of short videos showed men punching each other in the face.
Like a Wall Street stock ticker, the videos moved quickly and without pause. I saw violent knockouts in professional rings but also darker, more dangerous images – men in alleys and basements swinging wildly, bloodthirsty crowds pressing in. Fight clubs, gang initiations, house parties gone wrong – he consumed these videos without emotion and without acknowledgement that I was so close. Something told me this was his practice for much of the day – to watch faces get smashed over and over and over. I wondered when he got comfortable with that kind of violence.
The automated voice chimed out, “LaSalle – transfer to blue line subway at LaSalle,” and he just slightly looked up, a hibernating bear waking from deep slumber. He disembarked and shuffled off into the city, head down again, phone tightly clutched.
For a variety of reasons, I didn’t consume alcohol until I was 21. Mostly, I think I was scared. But once I hit that brilliant age, all fear left me and I made up for lost time.
My fraternity brothers taught me how to drink – fast and reckless, chugging, bonging, shotgunning and shooting until that magical blackout bliss took over and we laughed at breakfast the following day, trying to remember what happened.
The first time I got good and drunk, I spun through an intoxicated haze, marveling at the newness and novelty of it all. Eventually, the feeling became commonplace. The routine became a part of my life. Get drunk, get home, order a Gargantuan from Jimmy John’s, drink three or four massive glasses of water, take two ibuprofen, and flop into bed. Several nights a week for a few years, I would repeat.
Eventually, the routine caused problems. On occasion, I would show up to work with glassy eyes and a slight headache. I sometimes spent more money than I had as a low-paid graduate student-turned-educator. I didn’t have time to do things I loved which required a clearer mind – writing, reading, talking on the phone with friends after a long day.
Years later, I prioritize things differently, and I realize the missed opportunities from my past – unblurred memories of snowy nights stuck in my apartment with a few friends, deepened intimacy developed through conversations not shrouded in a blissful haze. Now, there’s a subtle invitation to quit drinking altogether. While it’s hard to think that I’d never give myself to a nice beer or nip of whisky from time to time, I want my consumption to change; there are clarion moments when the fog lifts and I know deep within the need to dramatically reimagine my life.
I do become blind to lovely things. There was a time when I wanted to take a photo of every Lake Michigan sunrise I saw, but now, I hardly notice them. I spend my late evenings lying in bed, phone screen lit until I finally nod off halfway and put it down. I don’t see people sleeping on the streets in the same way I used to, and I don’t chat with folks on the bus much.
But, those images of violence on the guy’s phone alarmed me, and I wanted to remind him: they’re hurting each other. I’m somehow now called away from the numbness once caused by my own consumption. I want to feel fully again, even if the feeling isn’t agreeable to me. Even though it’s slipping from the front of my mind, I don’t want to forget the pain and fear of the recent election, or the fact that Chicago is still rife with violence, or that Berlin will never be the same, or that Aleppo exists.
Around this time each year, many make resolutions. I won’t promise myself more gym time or letter-writing, less caffeine or salt & vinegar potato chips. I simply want to consume more carefully, to look up, and when I feel numbed by my own consumption, respond to the invitation and answer the call back to life.
This article by Eric Immel, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.