The value of looking up

Photographer Eric Pickersgill photoshopped phones out of people’s hands in photos to show how addicted we have become (via https://www.boredpanda.com/portraits-holding-devices-removed-eric-pickersgill/)

On mornings when I feel like I’m slipping too much into “the big-city grind,” I like to take a completely new path to work. Even if it takes me longer to get there (which it almost always does), doing something a little bit differently reminds me to snap out of my routine a bit.

When you’re a little less sure of where you’re going, you can’t ignore the street signs or traffic, or rely entirely on your unconscious routine to walk your body around the same corners.

In short, you have to pay attention. And you start noticing things again. Things like:

“Huh. When did that restaurant open up here?”

“I didn’t know you could access the park from here.”

“Wow, there really ARE a lot of dogs on this block!”

These might not be revelatory thoughts. They don’t have to be. They are just little signposts, guiding you to look left where you may normally look right, to ask a question about something you’ve long taken for granted, to look up.

If I’m ever feeling down about myself, my progress, my job, or really anything about life in NYC, I’ve found that the most basic life hack can often be one of the easiest fixes. I look up. I see the sky. I remind myself that it’s there. I see the buildings around me and remember where I live and that buildings aren’t just concrete boxes, but access points for millions of other humans to live and work and thrive in the exact same way as me.

Looking up reminds me of possibility and potential, of the promise I made to myself when I first moved here nearly a decade ago. And taking a new way to work reminds me to do just that.

So yesterday, I decided to take a new subway pathway to the office, starting at a different origin station in my neighborhood. (Side note: If you really want to live on the wild side, try walking to the next subway station down on your way to work. It’s amazing how something so minor can unlock a crazy new sense of liberation and freedom on your mood.)

Part of my reworked commute included changing trains at a different station. Rather than do what I normally do, which is roll off the 1/2/3 platform at Times Square, follow the masses up the stairs, around the corner, down the stairs, and linger by the exact same pole while I wait for the R train, I exited at 34th Street and sought a new pathway to the NQRW platform.

This meant walking up and walking down a new set of stairs and experiencing a new escalator experience. I noticed the advertising a bit more than usual, as it no longer blended into the tedium of my normal routine.

When I arrived at the downtown platform, I entered on the opposite end of the train that I needed and wound up walking the length of the entire subway platform in the midst of the rush-hour traffic. And that’s when I noticed what I referred to on Twitter as “the graveyard.”

As I said, I must have passed at least 200 people on that slow walk from one end of the train platform to the other. And maybe it was because I had been priming myself all morning to “pay attention” or maybe it was because I was suddenly craving some minor social validation, but I suddenly became incredibly aware of the lack of recognition from everyone else around me. Nearly everyone else was completely absorbed in their phones, nestling themselves deeper and deeper into their personal, private, digital world. Playing games, watching videos, reading articles, reading books, texting friends or loved ones, scrolling an infinite news feed. It doesn’t really matter what they were doing, so much as it represented such a severe, collective sentiment of abstraction from the physical world.

And yes, to be sure, I’ve read one too many dystopian novels in my day, but I felt a surreal, sick detachment from human connection.

To be clear, it’s not that I expected everyone on the platform to greet me and wave like you might do in a friendly suburban neighborhood. Let’s be real: This is New York. But it was almost as if the perception and awareness sensors had been “turned off” from the better part of 200 people. And it occurred to me that a complete lack of awareness among so many people can be a pretty dangerous thing.

As I walked, I felt a bit like a walking antenna, broadcasting a frequency whose signal was only returned by one in every 4o or 50 people I passed. Among those who did engage, I wondered if they were noticing what I was seeing, too. Regardless of whether that was true or my own projection, I felt a strange and unspoken kinship with people who did very little to acknowledge my presence, even if all they did was notice me and shift their weight to let me pass ahead of them.

Consider this: If only 5 out of 200 people on a subway platform are paying attention to something outside of the computers in their pockets, what does that mean for our ability to catch deviations to the norm or how we acknowledge diversity in the world around us?

I’m not suggesting that this is atypical human behavior. Nor am I suggesting that I’m in some way immune from this “auto-pilot” mode. (As I said at the beginning of this post, the only reason why I noticed this at all was because I decided to change up my own routine.) But I do wonder if there’s a cost to all of this “not noticing” and “not engaging” with people and the world around us. And I wonder what might happen if we each try to interrupt our own patterns and look up just a bit more often.


Originally published at Dry Erase.