Be brave and choose that mysterious side-road
Marilia was a participant on one of Punkt.’s educational collaboration projects, run in conjunction with Relational Design.
My digital detox was not planned, it was imposed. (Thanks, Punkt.!) I did not know I had a digital addiction problem until my smartphone was forcefully taken away from me. I know this sounds very dramatic. But it was.
I am a Brazilian postgraduate student and freelance designer; I have been living in Sicily, Italy, since October 2017. Sounds cool, I know. And it is. My Instagram account was filled with cool hipsterish photos: selfies and food. My Facebook page was filled with short commentaries and witty observations about my picturesque life in Sicily, the cultural differences, the arancini (a local delicacy) and the sea. I spent a lot of time online sharing my experience abroad with my friends and family in Brazil. I thought that was my only way to stay connected with them.
Offline, however, life was not so glamorous. I was struggling. Of course I was happy and grateful to be able to change my life completely, benefiting from the help and support of my family. I just underestimated how hard fitting in would be.
Starting over is not easy. It is hard to leave a fairly structured life behind, to go on an unplanned and unexpected journey. I found it filled with self-doubts and second thoughts. Was I doing the right thing? Would I be better staying in my old job? Was I being too ambitious? I found myself hitting up against all sorts of challenges – the language, the different way of being that one finds here, the experience of being regarded as an outsider, plus the general fear of the unknown, of not knowing where my life would take me. By December I was considering returning to Brazil, going back to my old life, my old job.
I was facing what I call the Scooby-Doo dilemma: take the clear, well-lit road, the path you are familiar with and whose destination you know – safe, predictable and ‘okay’, or be brave and choose that mysterious side-road that leads off to who-knows-where? It will be more challenging, you can bet on that. You have no idea where it will take you to. It may lead you to great adventures, perhaps even with Scooby Snacks, or there may be hardship and disappointment – unlike in the TV series, there’s no guarantee of a happy ending.
* * *
By February I had decided to stay, but didn’t really know how to improve my situation in Italy. I knew I had to do something about it, develop some kind of strategy. When I arrived in Punkt.’s Social Branding workshop in Catania, this is what I was struggling with.
The course was led by Marcia Caines, from Punkt. The first thing she asked us was what our New Year’s resolution was. I knew exactly what my answer was: for 2018 I wanted to be fully integrated here in Italy and to feel a real sense of belonging – to make the most of this experience abroad. She then asked us to think of key words, some strategies, that could help us achieve our aims. My answers: empathy, to understand and respect the cultural differences; courage, to put myself out there and try my luck in unexpected situations, self-love, to be kinder to myself whenever I felt I hadn’t tried hard enough or wasn’t good enough and connection, as in finding a way to connect with the people in Italy.
Then, in order to make us understand the product a little better (this was a design course after all), Marcia told us we would have to leave our smartphones off for three days and use just the MP01 instead.
I silently panicked.
Hey, I needed to talk to my friends and family. I can’t just walk to my mother’s house to grab lunch with her and catch up on the news, right? I can’t send text messages to Brazil or casually call my best friend while I wait for the pasta water to boil, you know? And I was sure my grandmother would freak out. She only knows how to call me on Facebook and, Marcia, do you really want to put my 80-year-old grandma through this? And how I would share my adventures abroad with my friends? What would they do, not knowing what I had eaten for lunch?
The first day was hell, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I would hear non-existent notification sounds and reach for a phone that wasn’t even switched on. As the days passed, I started noticing the moments in which I would instantly reached for my phone: when I was bored, when I was alone (so, most of the time), when there was an awkward silence, when I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed and when I wanted to avoid social interaction. I felt really really vulnerable walking around without the smartphone and no, it wasn’t easy at all. Marcia had robbed me my safety zone entirely.
During that time I realized that I had been using the smartphone and social media as a crutch, a way to feel less uncomfortable in those situations where I felt like an outsider: whenever I felt "extracommunitarian". It was a escape route for me. I could always grab my phone and run away to the online world where my friends and family were. Which really didn't solve the problem of feeling like a foreigner.
Not having a smartphone to protect me from a reality that at times felt oppressive forced me to do something I really hated (or thought I hated): have awkward and uncomfortable conversations with strangers. So, yes, I had to talk to people and deal with situations that made me want to run away. Every time I had to order a caffè macchiato and the guy on the counter started interrogating me about where I was from, what I was doing there, etc, I had to answer. When the stereotypes appeared, I had to deal with them. But there were also cute moments, like when old Sicilian ladies at the market wanted to talk about the food prices. And so on.
I was back at the Scooby-Doo dilemma: take a risk and put myself out there when in those possibly uncomfortable situations, or raise my protective screen and do the same thing I always did, hide behind the phone?
* * *
A few days later and – surprise! – I decided to extend the experience for another week. That week soon turned into two, three, until I realized that a whole month had passed! By then, I’d stopped thinking about the smartphone when leaving my flat, and no longer missed it once I was out and about. I learned to adapt. My courage had grown.
I realized that I had been spending more time avoiding those challenging situations and protecting myself from them than actually living them. And that the barriers we use to protect us from feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable are the same ones that end up keeping us from enjoying life.
I've found that feeling vulnerable might not in itself be very nice, but it's the key to opening up to the unexpected and the magical. When we give up on those barriers and put yourself in a situation in which you are not on control, cool things can happen.
Yeah, you could end up feeling bad and crying in the shower, but you could also meet someone nice, have a pleasant chat and discover a part of the city you did not know. And, you know? The first option hardly ever happens. And, when it does, it feels so small and meaningless when put side‑by‑side with all the enjoyable things that do happen.
If we never face the fear of taking the unknown road, everything is always predictable. And I have found that that predictability, besides being very tedious, is the Number One enemy of adventures.
Not having a smartphone with me all the time is helping me open myself to the unexpected and I feel I am in the right direction in making my New Year’s resolution for 2018 come true. I don’t actually feel that much like a foreigner anymore and my Italian has improved a lot. I am talking to people, making friends in unusual places and, no, my grandma didn’t freak out. When I get home, I call her on Skype and tell her all about the new places I found and the nice people I met.
So if I had to update that list of personal keywords I wrote for Punkt., I would add vulnerability. The act of willingly abandoning your social crutches, the habits and things you use to protect yourself from possibly, maybe feeling kind of embarrassed.
In my case, that was the smartphone.
Of course the MP01 did not work any miracles, there is a lot of hard work involved in changing the way we see the world. It didn’t happen in a day – it actually took me more than a month, and it is an on-going process. It is not always pretty and definitely not easy, but I can say I needed the little push provided by Marcia and the MP01 challenge.
For me, it was a life-changing experience. It might not be the same for everyone, but there is no way to know without trying.
I had never thought vulnerability would be this much fun.