It was a few minutes past 9 p.m. Brooklyn temperature, around 18 degrees Fahrenheit.
My arctic hands were occupied with eight or nine plastic shopping bags from Shop-Rite, so opening my front door was a bit of a feat. Transferring my purchases skillfully to one hand (without a breaking a single egg or the jar of half-sours), I removed my gloves with my teeth and began pushing the buttons of my combination lock.
Right on cue, my cell phone rang. Penn and Teller would have had a hard time answering it. Not being Penn or Teller, I answered it.
"Yaakov?" the voice began.
"Yes," I managed.
"Yaakov Salomon…my, my... how is it going?"
"Great. What's happening with you?" I asked.
('Great' was a bit of an overstatement at that exact freezing second-- especially since I thought I heard one of the eggs crack on the threshold.)
"Terrific. Good to hear," replied the voice. "Hey! I'm not interrupting anything important am I?"
"No, no, not at all," I reassured automatically.
The exchange was just at the cusp of getting awkward -- mainly because I had not recognized the caller's voice, and we had already reached that critical moment when we were too deep in for me to ask who it was I was talking to.
"So," he continued, "tell me what you've been up to lately?"
I was getting annoyed. Not only was I speaking to an unidentified individual, but after 20 seconds of talking I still had no idea what he wanted from me! Was this a solicitation? An invitation? An investigation? A request for information? My thoughts hollered in silence, "WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?"
It took about another two full minutes of pointless banter for me to realize that this call was truly about nothing -- the Seinfeld call. Just like Seinfeld was a show "about nothing," this was a phone call "about nothing." Turns out it was an old friend who I hadn't seen in a while. He was calling just to "catch up." It was neither a declaration nor a justification. It was just a conversation.
But for me it was a fascination. I am old enough to remember when people made these Seinfeld calls all the time. Friends even visited each other in person FOR NO SPECIFIC PURPOSE! They just "chewed the fat, shot the breeze, and wiled away the time."
I realize that if you are under 37 years old and reading this, you have strong suspicions that Salomon is either lying or delusional. "Why would anyone in his right mind waste precious time by calling or visiting someone without a need or function or, perhaps, remuneration? Did people REALLY do that? WHY?"
Yes, people actually made phone calls and rang door bells just to shmooze. But it has been become, sadly, a lost art. With the advent of countless, incredible time-saving devices and the pressure of making EVERY SECOND COUNT, purposeless, pointless, non-meaningful encounters have gone the way of the passe cassette tape. It is no longer fashionable, no; it's not even acceptable to "waste" any time at all.
The truth is, of course, that the time was not really "wasted" at all. It was utilized to connect with each other in a natural and spontaneous way. I miss those days. Life was slower, less pressured, less harried, and maybe even more meaningful.
When was the last time you really had someone's full attention?
I say more meaningful because along with our obsession for being at maximum productivity level at all times, we have lost the precious subtleties of patience, listening, eye contact, interacting, and just thinking. It is quite a price to pay.
When was the last time you really had someone's full attention? Statistics tell us that if you are speaking to someone on the phone today, only 12% of the persons on the other end of the line are doing nothing else while speaking to you. Okay, I made up the number, but if someone had done a study I bet the number would be even smaller than that!
Admit it. Most of us while we are on the phone are either surfing the web, driving, cooking, checking our email, watching TV (with or without the sound), sending a text message (yes, it can be done while you are talking on the very same phone), making a "To Do" list, shaving, playing solitaire or Tetris, putting on mascara, sifting through the junk mail, micro-waving a broccoli quiche, balancing a checkbook, or napping (difficult, but not impossible -- try it). Indeed, it may be time to create a new self-help group -- M.A. -- Multi-taskers Anonymous.
Sure, it is wonderful to be more productive. No one wants to give up accomplishment. We all want to make the most of our time. The problem is that we have become addicted to it. We simply cannot tolerate those moments when multi-tasking is impossible, unavailable, or inconvenient. Just try going somewhere without your cell phone or your Blackberry. Or worse, try going somewhere alone, without your laptop or cell phone. Guaranteed to drive you insane.
A friend of mine recently attended a wedding where he hardly knew anyone. Thank God, he had one acquaintance who was sitting next to him. Suddenly, the man announced that he had to leave the wedding early. And, horror of horrors, my friend had forgotten his cell phone at home! The man left the wedding and my friend was left alone. As he described it to me the next day, "I was left alone…with just my thoughts. It was very, very uncomfortable."
We have replaced contemplation with implementation.
What has happened is that we have replaced contemplation with implementation. We don't really think, we just do…and do…and do some more. We get so hung up on how much we've done and how efficient we can be, that there is no time or place left for reflecting on why we do things or whether the things we do are really meaningful or important or serve our larger purpose on this world. We need to carve out some time without any other agenda except to think. How utterly frightening!
But what are we really afraid of? Why does the thought of just thinking really terrify us so much?
There are numerous possibilities. Many of us may fear that thinking will force us to find out how terrified we truly are of failure, of disappointment, of pain, of change, of losing loved ones, of sickness, of losing our minds, of our own mortality, of apocalypse. It is the fear of confronting our fears. And the only way to keep really safe is by keeping our minds insanely busy.
Another reason thinking is dangerous is because we may find ourselves confronting the meaning of life and troubling questions like:
Am I fulfilling my purpose here? Do my decisions really reflect my values in life? What are my true values? Do I know my priorities? What do I really care about?
So many of us live in a bubble of denial. It's just safer…more comfortable. And all the multi-tasking we do insulates that bubble and keeps us from facing the really tough questions that life sends our way.
But change can only occur gradually. Every once in a while -- not necessarily every day, maybe every week or just once a month -- we need to sit alone, without distractions, and think about who we are and what we want to accomplish.
The entire session of solitude should probably last for no more than five minutes. That's it. Believe me, five minutes can be a very long time.
But five minutes a week without a cell phone, a sudoka book, a mouse, or even a pen, will change your life.
And that's part of the genius of Shabbat. It is a great opportunity for reflection, a time designated for contemplation -- no cell phones, computers, and TV. With the outside world relegated to persona non grata status, we can ponder and meditate free of the distractions that poison our capacity to reflect. And if the full 25 hours seem a bit daunting, perhaps Friday Night could be a great place to start.
Don't be afraid.
Just start thinking.