Ever since I can remember, I have enjoyed sitting silently watching the snow fall. I can vividly remember as a child watching it fall in large, fluffy flakes outside my Montana classroom in grade school. While the classroom bustled and my classmates chatted away during free-time, I would sit and watch the snow fall. I entered into a kind of peace and silence in those moments. Considering how active I was as a child playing sports, riding bikes, and swimming, it was an unexpected discovery in my God given nature to enter into such moments. I was too young to understand the implications at the time, but it began at an early age. I easily entered into—and still do—contemplating God’s creation. Montana provided the perfect instruction since it lends itself easily to the wonders of Creation. Winters can also be long, so I made peace with snow at an early age.
I now live in less rugged mountains, but still beautiful in their old age. We don’t get a lot of snow in these parts — usually one or two storms per year — and when we do it’s a cause for celebration for children and consternation for adults. For me it’s a chance to enter once more into the silence of snowy morns. I brought bird seed out to the birds that become quite active during a gentle snow and I sat watching my daughter play with our Labrador Retriever and our new Australian Shepherd Mix puppy in the snow that is still falling as I write. She was out at sunrise, running, squealing, making snow angels, and attempting to build an igloo out of less than an inch of powdery snow. She entered fully into the moment and found joy in frozen flakes on her tongue while I found joy in the silence of softly falling downy flake.
In our digital age, how often do we truly enter into the moment? How do we come to know God’s presence in our lives throughout each day or at Mass,–even in the times of repetitiveness or mundane tasks–if we are glued to screens all day long? The research coming out now on the use of smartphones and social media should give all of us pause. Heralded as the great new world and solution to our lack of connectivity, we are now seeing that we are less connected than in the past. We are in fact more isolated from one another. Loneliness is at epidemic levels.
Our smartphones, televisions, computer screens, etc. have created a false sense of connectivity. We no longer see what is going on around us as our attention turns to the screen before us. We convince ourselves that we are multi-tasking, but in reality, we shut off the world around us in that moment and enter into a virtual reality that may or may not comport with actual reality. Our attention is often divided between the people around us and our technology. Who exactly is more important: The person before us in flesh and blood or the person on our screen? Both are people worthy of love and dignity, but only the one person is the one God has chosen to place physically in our lives in that moment. This is especially true of our children and spouses.
The lack of presence to others in our daily lives
We no longer know how to be present in each moment. We race through our days largely on auto-pilot, running from one task to the next and then “decompressing” before a screen of some sort. This means that we are largely unaware of the people around us, even in our own families, and the world just outside of our door. I sat at dinner the other night with some good friends of ours at what was supposed to be the birthday celebration of one of their daughters. The three teenagers spent the entire night on their cell phones with no conversation other than to order their meal.
My daughter came to me in frustration saying that nobody would talk to her or play with her. I said: “Honey, they are on their phones.” They heard me, so they didn’t completely shut the world out. They rather shame-faced briefly hid their phones from view, but went right back to them a short time later. The guilt didn’t last long. I teased the birthday girl about a time when a waiter told her that if she kept her phone off for the entire dinner then he would buy her dessert. Perhaps it was time to do that again? We can’t celebrate the joy of her birth with her if she’s not mentally present.
How can we enter into communion with God and our neighbor if we are constantly tied to screens? We can’t hear His still quiet voice if we drown it out with a constant flow of information or superficial updates. This isn’t to argue that technology is bad or evil. Most technology within itself is morally neutral, it’s all in how we decide to use it. The problem is our lack of discipline and proper ordering of the technology. It can be difficult to develop the much-needed virtue of temperance. I’m no exception. I know how mighty the struggle can be.
Does it help me grow in holiness?
This discipline is harder for some than it is for others. I tend towards an addiction when it comes to social media, which is why I got rid of Facebook. I tried for a decade to develop temperance, but I ended up sucked in every single time I would rejoin. I finally had to ask myself the difficult question we must all ask ourselves when examining our lives: Does Facebook (insert other) help me grow in holiness? The resounding answer for me was no. It is a source of distraction, and at times, anxiety as the constant 24/7 flow of information can easily rob me, or anyone else, of peace. We eventually have to look away from the train wreck of the Fallen world and trust in God. Eventually, all we can do is fall on prayer.
Overuse of technology robs us of time with God and others
The problem with our over-dependence on social media and other similar technologies like email, is that it can take away from our much-needed time spent in silence praying to God. It can also destroy time when families and friends should be communing together. I think most of us have seen two people on an obvious date engrossed in their phones, the teenagers at every table scrolling their smartphones while sitting together, or the entire family lost in screens while sitting in the same room. This is not communion, nor is it authentic friendship. It’s a group of people sitting near one another, but they are not actually together in the traditional sense. It is impossible to learn prayer and silence if we are constantly distracted.
Authentic friendship requires presence
Friendship requires us to be physically present to one another. Our non-verbal cues, eye contact, physical touch, body language, etc. are all essential aspects of being present to another person. It is not only about the words that come out of our mouths or that we hear, it is about being in the same shared space and entering into that moment together. Our friendships and relationships deepen through this communion, especially when it is grounded in a love of Christ. We can’t experience communion or friendship if we are mentally elsewhere. In fact, when we spend our time focused on smartphones when we are with other people, we essentially tell them that we don’t want to be there with them and that a virtual reality is more important than they are in that moment. What a slap in the face! We are clearly not practicing charity in that moment.
Being present to the moment and to others in our daily lives takes practice, love, discipline, prayer, and our focused attention. Not everyone is going to sit silently watching the snow fall and enter into the silence of that moment or even grasp some of the mystical dimensions of friendship. God has made certain people of a more poetic, philosophical, mystical, or theological nature who easily rest in such moments. It is a good practice, however, to notice little things throughout the day and enter into each moment. This may be as simple as focusing on the lines of your child’s face while you speak to them or practicing greater eye contact in conversations so people know you are truly trying to be present to them. Leave the smartphone on silent in a purse or pocket when spending time with other people, or better yet, leave it behind for a few hours.
These small changes prepare us and teach us how to be present to the people in our lives. Our attention will become less divided over time through disciplined practice. This requires us to put the smartphones, tablets, iPads, television, etc. away every now and then. As we learn to focus on the moment, we can learn how to be more present to God through prayer and in offering up each moment of our day to Him, as well as to others in our daily lives. This is the art of being. It is up to each person through prayer and discernment to decide how God is calling them to manage technology. It is important to constantly ask the question: Does this help me grow in holiness? We then have to be open to the answer, even if it isn’t the one we want to hear.