Why I stopped wearing headphones

A few months ago, I decided that I needed to walk more. Due to my mostly sedentary lifestyle, which was aided by the dooming accessibility and practicality of modern technology (being able to get any kind of food at your doorstep, or being able to summon a car to take you anywhere you want without spending any mana), I realized that I was putting on some weight. To combat that, I decided to change my food diet as much as I could, as well as walk around whenever I could in my free time, or when I had to go places. What I didn’t expect when I made that decision, was that I would make a realization that had been staring me in the face for a while, but I never really admitted to myself: I had become apathetic to my surroundings.

Apathy is the undetected onus of the modern human, and it has us trapped in the endless cycle of Sisyphus. For those not familiar with Sisyphus, he is some dude that the gods punished with the task of endless, fruitless labor. He would have to roll a stone up a hill, and then when it was at the very top, it would roll back down due to its own weight. The poor guy would have to repeat this task for eternity. In all honesty, I never thought that 7–8 years after graduating high school, I would still be writing about Sisyphus, or making any analogies to him. I can visualize my high school literature teacher, Ms. Ajda, giving me one of her sarcastic smiles and rolling her eyes at me, as if she wanted to say “Of course I was right, you’d always carry what I taught you with you.” Now, I’m not going to go all “grand scheme of things” on you, because if I did that, I’d be forced to write non-stop for decades, but instead I will focus on my personal realizations of the last few months.

One day, shortly after I made the decision to walk more, I was walking from near Eastern State Penitentiary, to my house, located on the other side of the Art Museum, a walk roughly a mile and a half all in all. I realized that I had forgotten my headphones home, which is usually the one item I make sure I have with me at all times, along with my phone, keys and wallet. I was annoyed by that, so I started walking while mumbling and fumbling, dreading the next half an hour of my life. Half an hour later, my life was slightly changed.

These days, everyone wears headphones/earphones all the time, whether it is to listen to music, shut down the world, have phone calls on the go, or just generally to avoid people. In theory, there is nothing wrong with that. And for as long as I can remember, probably as early as my 6th or 7th grade, whenever I would go out to go places, I would be listening to music on my headphones, or still have them on if I wanted to avoid some of the cacophony on the streets. What had flown over my head during those 10 plus years, is that this simple ritual had changed me in some ways, maybe even damaged me. We live in an age of extreme sensory over-stimulation. There are screens and speakers everywhere, always brighter, always bigger, always clearer, always louder, and our brain faces the monumental duty of processing dozens of stimulation sources that it was never programmed to do. What we do instead, is we provide it with one source of stimulation that it can concentrate on, camouflaging everything else as the sound equivalent of not seeing color.

During that first thirty minute walk, I realized how many things I had been ignoring or hadn’t observed before. For starters, my city, Philadelphia, is gorgeous. I had taken it for granted every time I had plugged a single dominant loud output into my brain. It has history, architecture, natural beauty, and on top of it all, vibrancy, energy, diversity, depth; all of which things that I had missed before or never noticed to their full extent, maybe even to no extent at all. Within the confinement of thirty minutes and 1.5 miles, just because I forgot my headphones and didn’t filter out everything except their feed, I remembered that Al Capone was for a few days in the Eastern State Penitentiary, I saw some of the 100+ flags on Ben Franklin Parkway and thought how cool that was, walked past the Art Museum and Barnes foundation, two of the best art collections in the whole country, heard the water gushing from the Fairmount Water Works, all of which were things I would never really care much about whenever I’d take that walk.

That sensory solitary confinement had made me much less observant, which in turn had turned everything into ones and zeros, ones being things I cared about, and zeros being everything else. However, life is not binary like that. Everything is intertwined, whether you care about it or not, and an unimaginable number of variables affect you in ways you can’t really predict with the most elaborate partial differential equations. By choosing to see things that way, I had become pretty apathetic to my surroundings, other people, things that mattered but I didn’t see as such. I had mentally numbed myself and wasn’t stimulating my brain enough in ways that mattered. To put it bluntly, I had been feeding my brain Big Macs, chicken nuggets, fries and milkshakes, which while delicious, had caused it to atrophy a little. I realized that it was time for broccoli, kale, chicken, almonds, yogurt, apples.

When I got home that day, I realized that paying a little bit of attention to my surroundings while walking, made a big difference. Instead of walking with my head straight, singing along in my head with my favorite Audioslave songs playing in my ears, I realized I had a grand time when my neck turned in all directions, my eyes focused on much more than the road ahead of me, and my thoughts weren’t anesthetized to a limited input-output relationship. All the joy that observing, analyzing, making connections, listening, smelling, having my mind wander, came back to me.

From that day on, for the past two months or so, I have never worn headphones while out. I have been walking on average 3 miles a day, while intentionally stopping to observe and let certain views or sounds steep in. It might sound banal, but simple things like the rustle of trees from a breeze, birds singing, the smell of a food stand, a cute dog fervently shaking its tail, a little kid crying, people talking, cars honking, a busker performing, glancing up to look at the skyline, were all things that I had completely disregarded before, but now I see a certain glimmer of meaning in. It’s not about whether or not they are important things that will deeply affect you, it’s about all of them carrying some kind of meaning that you had detached from them. It’s like what I had been seeing and what meaning those things carry, had been living on different plans of existence, and now they were much more connected.

As a consequence of that decision, I have found a lot of spots in the city that I had walked by a million times before, but never knew existed because of sensory existential tunnel vision. This renaissance of sorts has reminded me that there is so much to see, so much to do, so much to feel, good and bad may they be, that I can’t just ignore if I really want to live. I’ve started writing more frequently, finding more satisfaction in even the simplest things, tried to nourish my mind with the mental superfoods of art, exercise, creativity, love. In short, I found the meaning I had lost in most things. I am constantly trying to stimulate my senses, brain and body in the right ways instead of confining it to something that ends up causing me to avoid everything except that one thing.

Getting back to the dude with the rock, the reason I drew up that analogy, is because to me now it seems like most of us, on an alarmingly regular basis, do the same thing. We choose one way to filter everything else out, make use of it till we get somewhere, whether that is a physical destination, a goal, and then, without even realizing it, completely forget about the journey, and then start the same thing ad nauseum. And in all honesty, I can’t blame anyone for trying to filter out most things. Life can be extremely exhausting, people can be too much to deal with, walking around the city can be annoying, and often we just wish we could skip forward to the destination, or to tomorrow, without having to walk the walk or talk the talk. However, in doing that, we are falling prey of a vicious cycle that leads straight to the grave with anterograde amnesia: we forget everything in between gaining consciousness and dying, as if we formed no new memories between those two points.

I am not trying to advocate against the use of headphones while walking, nor am I trying to say that I found out some grand secret of life. I am simply trying to point out that involuntarily, we as a society have become extremely apathetic, and that has transposed to the individual level as well. All that does is trap us in our individual vicious circles, which are personal use hells in my opinion. We need to wander more, stimulate our brain more in the right ways, and feel more, even if it hurts us. What that means, is that we are alive and we can fight, we can improve our situation, we can strive for more.

The story of Sisyphus says that when the rock is almost at the top of the hill, even though Sisyphus knows it’ll roll back down, you can see a smile on his face for a faint second, because for that moment, all his effort had meaning, it wasn’t fruitless. Life is best lived with targets and goals, but we should never forget to enjoy the journey there just as much. If we become slaves of the destination, we’re no different than trains going back and forth on the same route. Nothing is going to change, we will repeat the same cycle, the same mistakes, lose meaning of everything. Everyone deserves to know themselves well, to feel, to find happiness in things, and to feel alive every single second. To do that, you need to break the wheel, whether it’s been turning for a month, a year, or a second. Do not lose yourself to apathy. May I suggest you start the process with a headphone-less walk?

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