Something is wrong, terribly wrong, about our time. We feel it, like a splinter in our hearts. There’s no room for margin: we Twitter while we drive, talk while we text, and surf until we fall asleep—but even while in bed, we stay plugged in, available 24/7. People tell me they could not live without their cell phones or the Internet or e-mail—and they mean it. Yet in many ways, these technologies lead us to more disconnected—rather than connected—lives.
Can we resist these trends? Are we doomed by the Fall to live broken lives—not only in the inner sanctum of our hearts, but played out on reality TV, where viewers can vote us out of Eden?
Lots of questions, few answers. But I take that as a good sign: Jesus often teaches with questions, and living in tension often means that God is at work. C. S. Lewis says that “sometimes you do have to turn the clock back if it is telling the wrong time.” If we realize that we are traveling in the wrong direction, the only sensible thing to do is to admit it and retrace our steps to where we first went wrong. As Lewis puts it, “Going back can sometimes be the quickest way forward.”
Opting Out: Or, Sleeping with Your Good Ear Down
One way of “going back” is cheap, simple, and readily available: opt out. We don’t have to do everything that technology enables us to do—at least not all the time. The way I look at it, as ubiquitous as smartphones and social network accounts are, we still do have a choice in how we use them. Or, as I like to put it, I can sleep with my good ear down.
You know that ringing you sometimes get in your ear when you fly, and the temporary lack of hearing? Well, ten years ago, that happened to me, only it’s permanent. Flying home after attending the birth of my nephew, David, I lost most of the hearing in my left ear and gained a constant high-pitched ringing called tinnitus.
Although I still can’t hear much in my left ear—hearing aids won’t work for me—I’ve learned that deafness has its advantages: not everything is worth hearing.
Over the years, I’ve grown judicious about asking people to repeat something. Especially at a noisy gathering, I usually can get away with smiling and nodding my head. Although on occasion I smile and nod to some pretty strange things, this can have its upside, too—people think I’m a little daffy, and low expectations are easy to exceed.
Another advantage: if my beloved starts to snore, I can sleep with my good ear down. Who’d have thunk that the ability to tune out could add to marital bliss?
Metaphorically, I’ve found that putting my good ear down also can add to personal bliss. The world has grown increasingly noisy since my nephew’s birth. First, Internet. Next, message boards. And then the rapid-fire onslaught: chat rooms, e-mail, IM, text messaging, iTunes, Bluetooth, YouTube, Twitter—most of these did not exist a decade ago when David was born, but they now control much of our lives, and our kids’ lives. I’ve passed children younger than David texting as soon as they step off the school bus, not even glancing up at the trees and birds and open sky as their fingers dash across the touch pad.
Is there anything wrong with offering our ears to every available technological device? How does spending more than six hours in front of a screen each day affect a child’s brain development? It’s a billion-person experiment, and the initial reports are not promising: physicians, psychologists, and educators are sounding alarms about potential negative outcomes of a digitally addicted generation.
But my greatest concern is not physical, emotional, or social—it’s spiritual. How can we hear the voice of God if we are multitasking nonstop? How can we see the face of God in still waters and green pastures when we are chronically refreshing the screen? The digital generation is a distracted generation.
My husband, Matthew, and I have made many conscious decisions to limit the role of technology in our personal lives. No fifty-inch plasma HD TV screens, no cable networks, no video games. We don’t follow friends on Facebook or Twitter, and (so far!) I have managed to avoid sending text messages.
Our work, however, is Internet dependent. It’s easy to forget that ten years ago I could not navigate the on-ramp to the information highway; today I rarely go a day without it. But when we started our nonprofit, I made a rule for myself: no e-mail on the Sabbath. The world could be coming apart, but I do not answer e-mails on Sundays. Recently, I decided to try extending that rule to all Internet usage. A day a week without Internet—how easy is that?
Not very, as it turns out. Ninety percent of the time, I use the Internet for work. But much of that remaining 10 percent happens on the weekend. It’s when I look for new recipes. Or check my Netflix queue. Not bad things—but not necessarily great things. And not things centered on anyone but myself.
On one of my first Internet-free Sabbaths, Matthew and I took a long walk down to the Kentucky River. It’s a steep trail, with the downhill part coming first. Eugene Peterson, best known for The Message, has described his Sunday walks with his wife. They don’t speak for the first hour. Matthew and I did the opposite: we talked on the way down, knowing that we’d have no breath to spare for words on the uphill return.
As we started the descent, I asked Matthew for his thoughts on Internet dependency. Matthew knelt beside a tree stump to retie his shoelace. “Well, you know how I feel about time spent on the Internet. It’s kind of like incandescent lightbulbs: 10 percent useful, 90 percent wasted energy.”
“Exactly! Lots of excess heat, but not much useful light.”
I offered Matthew my hand as he stood up. He kept holding it as we continued down the path to the river: “Here’s the question I ask myself: When Jesus returns, do I want him to find me asleep—wasting hours on YouTube or playing Spider Solitaire? No. I’d rather have him find me sharing a meal. Listening to a friend. Planting a tree.”
I squeezed his hand, then let go. “Ditto.” Am I lucky to be married to this guy, or what?
After skipping some stones on the river—Matthew scored nine skips to my three—we headed back up, this time on a trail that demands walking single file. Matthew took the lead, I followed. Even if the trail were wider, it would be difficult to speak—the trail is that steep.
So, instead, I reflected on our conversation. I prayed that I would not be like an inefficient lightbulb, wasting 90 percent of my life on e-mail and Internet—or any other interesting but largely empty pursuit. I prayed that God would help me be a light on the hill and that I wouldn’t hide that light under a basket out of habit or laziness or fear.
I prayed that I would learn to keep my mouth shut and listen—to God, to my husband, to friends and family. For the moment, I simply listened to the squirrels scampering along the branch highway above our heads, the woodpecker searching for insects in a dead tree, and the snapping of twigs as we walked out of the dense woods and into the late afternoon sunshine.
After we got home from the walk, I intentionally spent an hour in silence. Not reading. Not listening to music. Not on the computer. Simply shifting from a human doing to a human being.
Besides taking walks, how do we spend our screenless Sundays? Sleeping in. Reading. Talking. Eating. Puttering in the garden. Taking God-ordained naps. Because our church meets on Mondays, we rarely even get in the car.
How do you get started? If there is any form of technology that is ruling you like a master rather than serving you like a tool, take a break. If the mere thought sends you into panic mode, start with half a day. Practice for a couple months, and I guarantee you’ll yearn for more.