by Nancy Sleeth
Something is wrong, terribly wrong, about our time. We feel it like a splinter in our hearts. There is 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. In my faith, Jesus often teaches with questions, and living in tension often means that God is at work. C. S. Lewis says “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.”
One way of 'going back' is cheap, simple, and readily available: opt out. We do not 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 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, and the temporary lack of hearing, you sometimes get in your ear when you fly? Well, ten years ago, that happened to me - only it is permanent. Flying home after attending the birth of my nephew, I lost most of the hearing in my left ear and gained a constant high-pitched ringing called tinnitus.
Although I still cannot hear well in my left ear - hearing aids do not work for me - I have learned that deafness has its advantages as not everything is worth hearing.
Over the years, I have grown judicious about asking people to repeat something. Especially at noisy gatherings, 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 am a little daffy, and low expectations are easy to exceed.
Another advantage is when my beloved starts to snore I sleep with my good ear down. Who would have thought that the ability to tune out could add to marital bliss?
Metaphorically, I have found that putting my good ear down also adds to personal bliss. The world is growing increasingly noisy. First, Internet. Next, message boards. And now the rapid-fire onslaught - chat rooms, e-mail, IM, text messaging, iTunes, Bluetooth, YouTube, Twitter - of technology that now controls much of our lives and the lives of our children. I see children 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 and eyes 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? We are part of a billion-person experiment, with the initial reports not promising. Physicians, psychologists, and educators are sounding alarms about the potentially negative outcomes of a digitally addicted generation.
But my greatest concern is not physical, emotional, or social. It is spiritual. How can we hear the voice of God if we are multitasking nonstop? How can we see God’s reflection in nature 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 HDTV screens, no cable networks, no video games. We do not follow friends on Facebook or Twitter, and, so far, I have managed to avoid sending text messages.
Our work, however, is Internet dependent. It is easy to forget that ten years ago I could not navigate the on-ramp to the information highway, yet today I rarely go a day without it. 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 tried extending that rule to all Internet usage. A day a week without Internet - how easy is that? Not very, it turns out. Ninety percent of the time, I use the Internet for work.
On one of my first Internet-less Sabbaths, Matthew and I took a long walk down to the Kentucky River. It is a steep trail. We talked on the way down, knowing that we would 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 light bulbs: 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.
Matthew, a former physician, left medicine a decade ago to start Blessed Earth, the faith-based environmental nonprofit we now co-direct. “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 we headed back up, this time on a trail that demands walking single file. Matthew took the lead, I followed.
I reflected on our conversation. I prayed that I would not be like an inefficient light bulb, 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 would not 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. 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 my husband and I spend our screenless Sundays? We sleep in, read, talk, eat and putter in the garden. We take naps. Because our church meets on Mondays, we rarely even get in the car.
How do you get started shifting from a human doing to a human being? When technology 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 will yearn for more.
About the author:
As co-founder and Managing Director of Blessed Earth, Nancy Sleeth travels throughout the U.S. speaking and writing about faith and the environment. Prior to heeding this spiritual and environmental calling, Sleeth served as communications director for a Fortune 500 company and as an educator and administrator, most recently at Asbury University. Sleeth is a graduate of Georgetown University, holds a masters degree in journalism and is the author of Go Green, Save Green and Almost Amish. Nancy specializes in leading workshops on the nuts and bolts of stewardship practices. She and Matthew Sleeth have been married for more than 30 years and have two children.