I walked into the room. People were sitting in comfortable chairs, some at tables but for all the appearance of a crowd, the place was strangely silent. No one looked up or acknowledged I had entered. They were not rude, really. They actually weren’t there. Their bodies were, to be sure, but they were elsewhere. The little screens in their hands had captured them again and carried them away. I am finding this repeatedly wherever I go. People have parked their bodies in West Market Square or in a grocery aisle. They park their bodies in a waiting room at a doctor’s office or in classrooms. The little screen we all seem to carry exercises the remarkable ability to seize a person’s mind and diverts its attention to a place where the body is not.
I am not a Luddite (a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology), far from it! I enjoy and use the tech available to us all the time. However, I am seeing the dark side of tech washing over our civil society as it snatches our attention away from what is happening right in front of our noses. I often see children trying to grab phones away from their parents in an attempt to get their parents’ attention. I see parents hand over their phones to keep the kids quiet and the children disappear into the screen’s clutches.
But far more insidious than the mere escape from the present moment is the way the little screens keep us from quiet, reflective interludes imposed on us by the simple reality of having to wait for something to happen. Researcher Sherry Turkle, in her recent work, Reclaiming Conversation, discovered that students would immediately reach for their smartphones if they began to experience boredom in a lecture hall. They began to experience anxiety when “alone with themselves” without their phones. In fact, she suggests that the urge to avoid reflective “alone” time is so great that many will risk texting or checking their phones while driving rather than quietly sit with themselves as the car moves along.
This has huge implications for relationships at every level. Screens capture people and remove their attention from those surrounding them.
Flesh and blood real people who can be looked at in the eyes and whose proximity communicates far more than words or texts are being ignored. The Siren Screens (in Greek mythology, the Sirens were creatures that lured unwary sailors onto rocks and sure destruction) keep me from having to pay attention to the uncomfortable emotions I may be experiencing. They keep me from the hard work of thinking through challenges I may face in interpersonal relations. They also interfere with a deeper soul connection with God. The Psalmist wrote, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46.10) but how can we be still and know anything if we are anxious and agitated without our diversionary screens? How can we possibly know God?
I can extract myself, with some difficulty, from the ensnarement of the screen. I can do this because I have known a life without a screen. I have practiced the skill of quieting my mind and heart so that I can be open to the Holy Spirit’s presence. I know what I have lost when I give in to the bewitching electronic diversion. But the high school students with whom I converse, what of them? What of the pre-schoolers who have not known a world without screens? They have not learned the skill of sitting quietly without distraction. One student confided that if she is alone at a lunch table at school she will pretend she has something to communicate on her phone even when she doesn’t. “It would be weird to just sit there and look around at other people.” I don’t even know what to say to a comment like that. The unwillingness to just be present to one’s surroundings and the people with whom we share the space, let alone to the internal workings of one’s soul is nothing to condemn in our young or ourselves…it is something to address.
It is a curious fact that on our mission trips where cell phones and all other electronics are banned (mostly…adult leaders have them for communication with each other and they are on their honor to use them only for that purpose) the conversations immediately take on a depth and breadth that people do not experience on a daily basis. The lingering after dinner with kids and adults talking and laughing together is a joy to behold. The calm, quiet of Compline in the soft glow of “candlelight” allows our travelers to listen to their souls and to God in a very different way. They practice being still. They practice listening for God’s Spirit to speak to their spirit. They practice listening to their own spirit in relation to others and in relation to the creation. It is a precious time of spiritual awakening for many.
It is our challenge to build on that beginning. Helping our youth and adults practice “stillness” so that we can be present to the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in us and among us is vitally important to our spiritual health as a community of faith. One practice that reinforces the awareness of God is attendance at worship with phones silenced and put away. Without the possibility of screens interfering with attention, one is free to allow the words and the music to work into deeper places in the soul. Even if particular words or songs do not excite one’s imagination, the mental wandering that can happen in the meetinghouse rich with symbols of connections to God is valuable. It is all to the good. Each moment we resist the lure of the screen to “fill time”, we open the door to deeper connections to people around us, to ourselves and most importantly—to God.
The hallmark of followers of Jesus is their compassion and empathy for others. The only way to develop such sympathies is to freely interact with people right in front of you, resisting the screen’s siren call to be bodily present and mentally absent. It is the challenge of our age.
This is a clarion call to recognize our vulnerability to the Siren Screen’s song so that we can resist the temptations it offers. Fight back! Put it down!! Unplug!! Engage in conversation…look people in the eye…stop and listen to the world around you…and for God’s sake, embrace time for your relationship with Your Maker like the precious jewel that it is.