November 19, 2015

Connections forged

In the wake of the Paris attacks, technology can provide comfort, but living in the present has never been more important

I walk down a wet road, making detours around puddles by way of cached mud stepping-stones. It has been three days since the attacks in Paris, three days since I arrived here in England for a week of vacation. In this small village outside of York, I allow the heavy blanket of clouds to descend upon my mind. The rain muddies my thoughts, and I feel numb to the epidemic of nervous uncertainty spreading via news articles and social media. I know, however, that I will be returning to Paris on Friday, and I worry that this Paris will be a vastly different place.

During the first week of my study abroad, I lost my phone on the tram. It was a silly mistake to have put the phone in my pocket—that morning I was swept away in a current of commuters and dumped onto the banks of the Avenue de France, phoneless and presumably pickpocketed. I walked to the University center and told the program coordinator about my misfortune. After listening to her words of encouragement, I felt compelled to turn what had struck me as a personal catastrophe into something more positive—I decided that I would not replace the phone in an effort to become more present-minded.

For weeks I have boasted the benefits of losing my iPhone, but the attacks in Paris marked a sharp reversal in my feelings. I suddenly craved the artificial proximity to faraway friends and family made possible by my online presence. The flood of messages from loved ones inquiring about my safety was dammed up by my lack of phone and Internet access. I wrung my hands, helpless and nervous. My friend was kind enough to let me respond to messages on her phone. Each time she offered it to me, I jumped at the opportunity, hurling empty apologies for draining her battery and thinking of the hundreds of condolences that distraught families would hear that night and the following day. Between telling my friends and family that I was safe and that I loved them, I searched for updates about the violence unfolding in the city. At least 80 dead at the Bataclan. Fourteen at Le Petit Cambodge. The numbers continued to rise. My hunger for coverage was insatiable, and over the course of two hours, my world had once again become the size of a phone screen.

It is difficult to leave the warm, soft glow of an electronic screen when its presence seems integral to self-preservation. The screen warded off loneliness, and receiving live updates about the attacks made me feel safer. I resigned myself to intense paranoia each time I was forced to look away from the screen. My mind was squeezed by questions about what might happen when the notifications stopped and the screen went dark. This paranoia is part of my terror; part of feeling terrorized by extremists who must know that sensational reporting and mass coverage of events such as the attacks in Paris is on their side. By devouring live updates, I unknowingly made myself a subject to their strategy.

I will return to Paris, where heightened security will be a constant reminder of the grief shared by a world that is unsure how to redress a problem such as the one we face now. This problem is not only that men armed with Kalashnikovs stormed the streets of Paris on November 13 to kill in the name of religion. This problem extends to the frightened people who would now turn away refugees and even to good people who are occasionally misled by prejudice. To help be part of the solution, I must continue to pursue the present-mindedness I sought before the attacks. Now more than ever is the time to look up from our phones.

At a time like this, I want to be home. I want the cached mud stepping-stones I’m using to jump over puddles to be in the stream near my house. I want the gray skies stretched over an English countryside to be those I see rolling over Lake Michigan when I walk down Lakeshore Drive. Instead, I still have a few more weeks in Paris, and much more to learn.

Molly Robinson is a third-year in the College double majoring in anthropology and comparative race and ethnic studies.

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