What I Learned by Ditching My Earbuds

I’m learning to walk without wires — but it’s strange.

The truth is I still stumble from time to time. I’ll go out, my two dogs in tow, intending to go wireless only to grab my earbuds and plug into Spotify on my iPhone. Habits are hard to break. This is especially true when it comes to technology and the addictive power of digital media.

Those missteps are becoming less common, though. More and more, I opt to unplug, my ears fully exposed and my mind fully engaged to the world around me.

And that has been good — refreshingly good.

It’s also been an awakening, a learning experience I’m beginning to think might be an outright epiphany.

In the past and for many years, I’ve elected to immerse myself in music on my walks, listening to a Steely Dan playlist or enjoying the jazz of Miles Davis, or, if I want a more contemporary artist, switching to Christian McBride or Vijay Iyer.

I would not plug in when my wife joined me on the walk or when, even solo, I took the dogs at times and to places I would be more likely to encounter many people. To do otherwise, I believed, would be rude, an unspoken rejection of those around me.

But the early morning was different. In the early morning, I often could walk my entire route, a mile or more, without running into a fellow dog walker or jogger or any other human being, and I liked this. Essentially, my goal was to avoid people. So, I’d walk with wires, tuned in to my separate world, engrossed in the rhythms and melodies inside my head, and this to me seemed wonderful and entirely acceptable.

Sometimes, though, my plan would go slightly awry. I would leave the house a bit later than I intended- later than the early morning — or the forecast would call for an especially hot day. In either case, the effect was I’d be far more likely to see other people during my walk, and this would leave me to debate whether to take the earbuds.

Most times the music won.

I’d choose to go wired. For years I did so. Occasionally, when struck by a spasm of guilt, I’d pull out my earbuds and greet the passersby with a quick wave and smile. But I’m sure the message I sent, the body language I projected, made clear I wanted to go back to my tunes because that was the truth. My hope, my wish, was that I could stay in my music world, my personal comfort zone, my meditative place.

I was able to justify this practice. I told myself that people would understand, would realize I needed this wired withdrawal, this respite from reality. I also reasoned that I was being considerate of others. In contrast to the obnoxious boom box carrying oafs of yesteryear, I didn’t intrude on the sound space of other people, blaring my music in complete disregard to anybody and everyone. I kept it to myself. I had no ill intent.

And yet, the guilt would not go away. Too often, I’d walk past people who seemed friendly and ready to chat. Once they saw the wires, though, I saw their expressions change, shift from an inviting warmth to a crinkled “whatever” — a sort of tired resignation to the nature of community in the digital age.

And, so, I made the decision. I began to go wireless on a regular basis.

On one recent early morning, I took Molly, my terrier, for a two-mile trek, digitally disconnected for a record six-straight time. I heard the whoosh of passing cars, the whine of an old air conditioner, the croaks of river frogs, and the chirps of copious birds.

I also watched a sparrow about to lift off with a worm — at least six inches in length — only to drop its meal when startled by our approach. I stopped to see if the bird would return and wondered whether it bemoaned its loss. After three or four minutes of waiting, Molly and I resumed our walk, the first question apparently answered, the second left to be pondered, probably for time eternal.

When I reached home, I felt connected despite the lack of wires, connected to the outside world to a more intimate degree than I had experienced in years. I’m convinced I would have been blind to the sparrow’s meal miscue had my earbuds been in place — too absorbed in music to notice the bird or the worm. Essentially, I began to realize what I had been missing, began to understand the consequences of going into a separate world.

Even more impactful, though, is that going wireless rebooted my humanity, my sociability, my friendliness. Instead of trying to avoid people, I’ve begun to welcome the opportunity to meet them if only to smile and wave a hand.

A couple of days ago, when walking with Molly, I came upon an older man, a cane in his right hand, on the paved river-side path I often walk. He turned and immediately chuckled in assessing Molly, a dog who bursts with boundless energy and endless enthusiasm. The man assured us he would not be offended in the least when, as he correctly predicted, we blew by him in blur-like fashion with Molly, of course, leading the way. I hope to meet him again. Maybe we’ll strike up a more involved conversation next time. I’m thinking that might be nice.

In my other wireless treks, I’ve encountered many other people, some whom I’ve talked to, others whom I’ve simply greeted pleasantly. But in all cases, the interactions have been rewarding, providing a sense of fellowship, a sense of rebirth. To a certain degree, I feel I’ve escaped, emerged from my self-made cocoon to rejoin society.

I’ll always be a music fan. I have no plans to get rid of Spotify or dispose of my earbuds and headphones and, as I previously confessed,” I’ll walk with the music on again. But those regressions, those “slips,” will be exceptions, not the start of a relapse. I can walk without wires. I truly can. And I truly see the value.

Writing is what I do. I started as a journalist, working at a daily newspaper in Maine for 20 years, and now I’m an English teacher, specializing in writing.

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