News updates, email notifications, and social media alerts once dominated my life. They were the first things I saw when I woke, and they occupied my days and nights — that is, until a thousand-year-old poem persuaded me to kick my addiction to the constant demands of my smartphone.
For a literature course, I had to read and write a paper about “The Wanderer,” an Old English poem of 115 lines that has survived from a codex that dates to the 10th century. Its main character is a Beowulf-like warrior who revolts against the noise and merriment of the mead hall. It presents a far-sighted vision of life.
An old poem that inspired me to reevaluate my relationship with technology may seem like an unlikely source of guidance in today’s fast-paced world. Yet its wisdom has stood the test of time for a reason.
“The Wanderer” presents a vision of life that extends beyond the present moment. As I reflected on its message, I realized social media is a fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying source of happiness. Setting boundaries around my phone usage was the only thing that would create space for me to prioritize activities that improved my mind, body, and soul.
But first I had to read the poem. As I plunged into the text, I checked my email and learned about a canceled meeting. That gave me a few extra minutes for Instagram. Half an hour later, I closed the app and tried to get back to work.
The protagonist in “The Wanderer” loses everything he holds dear — his lord, his battle companions, and his place at the table. He laments his plight: “How that time has passed away dark under the cover of night as if it never had been.”
As I typed, making my earnest points about temporal life and the permanent things, a new ding distracted me with a YouTube video about the war in Ukraine. I promised myself I would get back to work in 15 minutes. I justified it as a “mental break.”
After nearly an hour, I returned to my paper.
The wanderer was suffering in a state of fear and loneliness. His only solution was to direct his attention away from the transience of earthly things. His search for meaning and order brought him peace and put him closer to the presence of God.
I suddenly realized I was just as lost as the wanderer. Countless hours on my phone had left me feeling scattered, fatigued, and isolated. I was sick of it.
Something had to change, or at least I was starting to think so when my family group chat blew up with pictures of my sister and her new boyfriend.
Just as I was about to FaceTime my sister, I stopped myself. No. I had to concentrate on my deadline and go back to the poem with its themes of stoic acceptance and spiritual fulfillment.
As I sat there, I couldn’t help feeling conflicted. I was learning about the good life and human flourishing in my college classes, yet here I was, living a life of obvious addiction. It was a strange dichotomy that left me feeling uneasy.
That’s when I was reminded of my high school teacher, a husband and father of five boys, who owned a flip phone so he could be present with his family outside the classroom. Meanwhile, my college professor, who was freed from the bonds of social media, spent his spare time studying different translations of the Bible and reading classic literature like “Pearl” and “Piers Plowman.”
The people whose company I enjoyed and whom I looked up to the most did not have social media. There was an obvious trend, and this time I could not ignore it. My only options were to learn by mimesis or remain enslaved to the incessant demands of social media.
I knew what I needed to do. I removed every social media app from my phone. That was a year and a half ago.
“The Wanderer” taught me my phone is a fleeting and unsatisfying source of happiness. Setting boundaries on my usage of social media allowed me to slow down and focus on the things that matter most: my work as a student, my friends and family, and my faith. Although I’ll still send messages by text and watch an occasional pet video, I remain off social media today.
As the poem concludes, “All is troublesome in this earthly kingdom. … Good is he who keeps his faith. … It is better for the one that seeks mercy, consolation from the Father in the heavens, where, for us, all permanence rests.”
Finally, I felt truly connected.