Mobile phones have become ubiquitous. Either ‘worn’ as a wristwatch or in a pocket, held in hand or placed nearby, they have become part of the fabric of our lives. In the West, they are often taken for granted and deemed a ‘necessity.’ How often have you heard someone say: “I need my mobile”? We seem to need them like we need our shoes.
It appears increasingly difficult to be apart from our smartphones. Mobile phone addiction is, supposedly, a real and current problem. Numerous articles now advise how to overcome our dependency. But can we really be addicted? And how can we make sense of this?
Myths and fairytales can offer helpful metaphors to make sense of the ways in which our inner life affects how we behave and interact with the outer world. The Red Shoes, as told by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes in her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, tells the tale of addiction. Can this help us understand the addictive quality of our relationship to our mobiles?
The story is about a girl who is lead to excess, who loses a sense of perspective for what she really yearns for - her handmade shoes. The tale, Pinkola-Estes tells us, shows how ‘meaningful life can be threatened, robbed or seduced away.’
The Red Shoes
A poor motherless child fashions red shoes out of old pieces of cloth. Despite her rags and poverty, she feels rich. One day, a gilded coach draws up and a wealthy old woman invites her to stay. The girl steps into the coach and is taken to the old woman’s home where she is cleaned and given fine clothes to wear. Her rags and handmade shoes are burned.
Despite the riches, the girl longs for her handmade red shoes. When the old woman takes her to buy new shoes, she chooses shiny red shoes despite that they will be frowned upon.
When the girl meets an old soldier, he bends down and taps the soles, saying: “Remember to stay for the dance!” The soldier’s words make her twirl and dance. She becomes out of control. She cannot stop until they are forcibly removed from her feet. Yet the girl now longs for them.
The red shoes are placed on a high shelf, yet she desires them so powerfully she reaches them, convinced they can do no harm, and puts them on. Immediately she is overcome with the urge to dance. Soon she is dancing out of control. She cannot stop dancing through night and day. Exhausted, she dances on and on until she passes her home where she finds the old woman has died. Yet still she dances on and on.
Finally she comes to the executioner’s door. She begs him to cut off her shoes, but the only way is to cut off her feet. Crippled yet freed, she never again longs for the red shoes.
The girl is seduced by the promised freedom from a life of toil and poverty. Yet it is an illusion. As she steps into the gilded coach, she sacrifices her meaningful life ~ symbolised by her handmade shoes.
The substitute red shoes do not give her the freedom to dance or live toil-free. They bring destruction and deprivation. She can no longer savour her world. She can no longer relate. When the old lady dies, she cannot grieve. She can only dance on in exhaustion.
What is the significance of shoes? Shoes contain and protect the feet, and feet, Pinkola-Estes explains, symbolise mobility and freedom. Interestingly, these are the qualities associated with mobile phones. They are by definition mobile and they give us a sense of freedom from our frustrations and limits.
We no longer have to wait for the morning post, for photos to be developed, for our partner to return from work. We have email, digital albums and messaging apps. Having so many needs met within a mobile phone means that the natural limits set by our environment have, within a generation, been transcended.
But does the sense of freedom we attain through our capacity to be switched on, curtail the freedom we would otherwise gain through our capacity to be alone? Aaron Balick, in his book The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, explores the way in which technology enables us to evade the uncomfortable sense of our own separateness.
Remembering his travels across Europe as a young person, Balick says: ‘There was a certain freedom in being released into a foreign country with only one’s wits to rely on, and the occasional checking in at home by way of a calling card from a public telephone.’
Is the freedom we hope to gain, through being so easily connected via our smartphones, illusory? Are we trading a meaningful life for the perceived ‘wealth’ of a glittery online world?
The smartphone is a means of connecting and relating. It is, as such, a valuable tool for relating to the external world and to others. Yet, sometimes, it is a barrier. I may be banking, or emailing, or chatting, or flicking through my photo album, but now that I am able to do that anywhere, the lack of physical limits to my needs and desires, afforded by my mobile, can create a distance between myself and my environment, including the people within it.
Smartphones enable us to escape our frustrations and experience a sense of immediate gratification. If a person we wish to connect with is not there, we can seek out a substitute. If a feeling we wish to disconnect from is surfacing, we can seek out an escape.
When we reach for our mobile phones to ease our boredom, to satisfy quickly our thirst for knowledge, to sate our need for validation, are we stepping into the gilded coach? We are dazzled by its offerings: ‘likes’ and comments on Facebook, Whatsapp messages from friends, a 20% off voucher at our favourite shop (quick, runs out at midnight, act now!). Everything seems easier.
And we are moved to act. There is not much drawing us to be still. When everyday life feels difficult, when there are chores to be done, when our psyches are toiling to make sense of unpleasant emotions, we are easily tempted away from our here and now.
If we find ourselves anxiously clinging to our devices, are we being seduced by the promise of an easier, less-troublesome life in the short-term at the expense of our creative spirit and connection with our feeling self and the people who matter?
Over-reliance on our mobiles as a substitute for real connection, as an escape from life’s limitations, risks crippling our soul-self. When we use mobile phones to excess, are we being cajoled away by the wealthy old woman? Are we throwing our handmade shoes into the fire?
Yet, in saying this, I am mindful that this metaphor has its limits. The story is about addiction. And addiction is a real and harmful condition that may require treatment. Are we at risk of pathologising what is a relatively new and different way of being and relating?
Consider the contemporary image of passengers on a tube. The majority will be engrossed in their mobile devices. ‘A nation addicted to smartphones’! Yet replace their smartphones with a book or newspaper. ‘A nation addicted to reading’! The picture is less alarming.
Perhaps the addictive quality of smartphones is, more commonly, akin to a child’s comforter. An object imbued with meaning, comfort and security.
Balick notes: ‘The ubiquity of mobile, eternally connected-up technology has invited new anxieties when previously there were none.’ We might be wise to consider whether one of these new anxieties is the possibility that we are all 'addicts.' Mobile use can become problematic, to the detriment of relationships, work and self-care. But anxiety about the way these devices alter our behaviour may also reflect another fundamental human dilemma. Our palpable struggle accepting change.
- Balick, A. (2013) The Psychodynamics of Social Networking: Connected-up Instantaneous Culture and the Self. Routledge.
- Pinkola-Estes, C. (2008) Women Who Run With The Wolves: Contacting the Power of the Wild Woman. Rider.