The massive highway sign hammered home the issue for me: TEXT STOP AHEAD.
That’s right: barrelling along the U.S. interstate en route to visit friends in Kentucky last fall, every 30 or 40 miles an overhead sign assured drivers they could pull off the highway to designated areas and safely catch up on their texts or send one.
I first heard the term “screen addiction” from a favourite author, Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer, author and critic of modern society. Those highway signs underscored the grim reality of this modern addiction: some people are willing to risk their lives—and the lives of others— as they drive because they can’t miss what that buzz, beep or ding on their phone might mean.
Can’t miss—or refuse to miss?
How the world has changed! The culture of a single phone on a table or wall of a family home ringing only when a person called to talk now seems like ancient history. Nowadays almost all of us (including me) carry our cell phones with us all day and keep them handy at night. It’s not just our phones that demand our constant attention. A vast onslaught of social media and other online information and messages barrages us 24/7. We are well into the age of distraction.
Do we have to be? What is behind the fact that most of us allow our lives to be shaped by technology and its manifold gadgets and pressures, this drive to stay constantly in touch?
Some of it, I feel, stems from another addiction, workaholism, the belief that we need to be productive and hard-working nearly all the time to feel good about ourselves and respected by others. A modern T-shirt says: “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” Funny? Maybe not. Maybe a slower, more “unplugged” life can be a richer one.
The fact is, we don’t have to be subservient to our phones, to social media and to other technological devices. Feeling distracted and unsettled has, of course, long been a challenge for humankind. In his classic book The Sabbath, published in 1951, Rabbi Abraham Heschel notes that the technological accomplishments we’ve achieved in some ways amount to defeats in terms of improving the human condition. As he says, “we have fallen victims to the work of our hands; it is as if the forces we had conquered have conquered us.”
How do we unravel ourselves from this intense web of technological pressures, from “hurry sickness”? It could start with intention: deciding we want to live a slower, simpler life. By accepting that we deserve to rest from everything, especially from that which separates us from life in the Spirit. We can start by enacting “no-go” spaces and times for our phones and from social media.
Our faith has long affirmed the concept of the Sabbath as a spiritual practice that can awaken in us a deeper realization of who God is, enabling us to savour God’s spirit through entering into the holy present – a time of stillness and peace. Sabbath need not be limited to just one day of the week, but rather invites us into a mindset of letting go, of reflecting deeply about life and where we are going on our path through life.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann ponders the moments when our souls rest in God in his book The Spirit of Life, noting “if we become one with ourselves, the Shekinah (presence of God) comes to rest.” A life of relentless activity and distraction makes it harder, if not impossible, to attain this.
It’s worth noting that some of the most significant times in the life of Jesus occurred when he “unplugged,” that is, when he went off alone to pray in a garden, in the desert or elsewhere. Some today might say Jesus was “doing nothing.” Yet Jesus’ solitude was essential to his intimacy with God. He invites us to join him in a deeper connection to God.
Jesus also encouraged the disciples, after he had gone out to do ministry, to separate from the people following them: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:30-32). In the current context, he likely would have added: “Make sure you’ve turned off your phones. No checking your email, Facebook or Instagram either.”