Thumbnail graphic by Olivia Abeyta / North by Northwestern.

As I walk down Sheridan, I hardly see any “free listeners": people who don’t wear earbuds or headphones. Whether they’re listening to music, podcasts or are on the phone, they aren’t fully immersed in the world. People walk past in blurs, birdsong is a faint chirp and gusts of wind are only felt, not heard. When I didn't know better, I’d shout out a friend’s name until they heard me. Now, sometimes, I simply watch as they walk by.

In the bathrooms, when I'm getting ready for bed, I see people “brushing” their teeth while texting someone. Let’s be honest, your hand is not even moving. And when you use the bathroom, why do you bring your phone into the stall? Are you going to wipe shit and then smear it all over your phone?

What do we lose by being constantly locked into another world? I’m not saying that listening to music and podcasts are bad things. The problem is how much time we spend doing so. I have ebbs and flows between listening to music while I shower to simply listening to the pitter patter of the water. When I listen to music or a podcast, I never feel truly aware. I don't fully perceive the passage of time. As someone who is terrified by how quickly time goes by, fully taking in my lived experience is important to me. This is how I define being a free listener.

When I’m a free listener, I can be present. I can make eye contact with a friend and share a smile or strike up a conversation. As long as my head is looking down at my phone, I’m making a conscious decision to cut people out of my life.

When I’m present, I hear the rush of cars driving by and the signs of Spring. There’s nothing to grab my attention other than friendly faces that walk by, chirping of the birds, leaves rustling in the wind.

Generally, most people attempt to be present when they’re spending time with their friends. I’m occasionally reminded by my friends to put my phone away and respect our “family time” when eating with them.

The problem seems to be when we’re alone. We don’t know how to enjoy ourselves. We don’t know how to enjoy solitude. We feel the need to distract ourselves until someone we know pulls us into their world. But as soon as the small talk is over, we pull our headphones back over our ears.

During a faculty dinner, Professor Finkel in the Department of Psychology was telling the students that when he attended Northwestern many years ago, no one had earplugs in. People were much more available to converse when walking about campus. He said that he could, and had, picked people up whilst walking on Sheridan.

Although I’m not expecting to find my future partner on a walk to class, I think it would be nice to share my world – this world – with more “free listeners."