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Smartphone: Slave or Master? [On Freedom]

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The morning meditation of the ancient Roman Stoic and Emperor Marcus Aurelius prepared him for his day.

His words are important, but I doubt he expected anyone to treat them as a dogmatic ritual to be recited every morning. (Although, he probably wouldn’t have minded it either.)

No, it’s not the exact words that matter, but the specific time of day: morning.

What does this have to do with someone living in the 21st century?

When my parents would wake up, and their parents, and grandparents, and so on, they would wash, get dressed, talk with each other and their children over breakfast, maybe catch some brief headlines in a newspaper or from the radio or television. Then, one of them, usually the father (back when things were more patriarchal and one income was enough to support a family) would go to work. And start working there.

At his place of employment.

But something insidious has quietly permeated modern industrialized nations over the past two decades: we’ve lost that chance to wake up, not as in literally just opening our eyes in the morning, but in the figurative waking up to life each and every day, on our own terms, as our minds want.

And the nucleus of this dis-ease?

Our smartphones.

I love technology. It is an amazing thing to have speed of light communications at my fingertips.

But I fell victim to a phenomena pointed out in a news article I once read: It is a fact that the average modern human, upon first opening their eyes in the morning, reaches first not for a toothbrush or book.

The first thing many reach for is the smartphone they keep on their nightstand.

It would be one thing if they were reaching for the glowing screen in order to peruse the works of the elevated minds from throughout history, but probability dictates that’s not the case.

It’s most likely one of three things (if not all) with which most start their day:

  • News – guaranteed to be mostly negative and sensationalist, since that is the nature of the 24 hour industry
  • Social Media – what, for the most part, is a vast wasteland of bad ideas, click-bait, and the lowest common denominators of humanity being given a voice
  • Work – emails, calendars, documents. There is no more going to work in the morning, for your work is now always with you. (Makes one wonder why laws in the early 20th century were passed to guarantee a 40 hour work week.)

The common thread of all three of these categories is that they want your attention and mental space, which then sets the tone of your mind for the day; with days eventually becoming years; then a life.

I’m not seeing much freedom happening there.

Are online news, social media, and work-related tasks inherently unhealthy for your mind?

Certainly not.

But, is it optimal for them to be the first thing the mind encounters in the morning every day?

Marcus Aurelius and the other Stoics would most likely answer that question with a resounding “No!”

When Marcus wrote his morning meditation, it wasn’t so much to say, “Use these exact words.” It was to indicate the benefit of starting the day off properly, with reason and unconditional love for your fellow humans (regardless of how ignorant, petty, or annoying they may seem.)

Acta Non Verba: Move the smartphone from the nightstand to some other room and fill its usual place with Stoic texts, your own notes on wisdom, or anything else that will be a reminder of the character traits you hold dear.

Before even getting out of bed, infuse your mind with the ideals you would expect not only of yourself, but others as well.

Taking just 15-20 minutes to do so will have a remarkable impact on your life…your good life…quicker than you might expect.

Ab Aeterno

Don’t surrender your mind. – Epictetus

…do you feel no shame in giving your precious mind over to any person who might wish to influence you? – Epictetus

Everyone dreams of the perfect vacation—yet how foolish—when at any time you are capable of finding that perfect vacation in yourself – Marcus Aurelius

Your mind is colored by the thoughts it feeds upon, for the mind is dyed by ideas and imaginings. – Marcus Aurelius

Stephen Sumner is a writer with over three decades experience studying what it means to have a good life. He has a BS in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University. His favorite pastimes include reading, fountain pens, and growing insanely hot peppers. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Original, non-meme image from Rawpixel via

Categories: Freedom

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Stephen Sumner

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