One of the many benefits of being active in a spiritual community, in my case an Evangelical church, is the rhythm of spiritual practices that are enjoyed, if not endured, together. I am not talking so much about formalistic and repeated rituals, but regular 30 day plans using one practical spiritual practice or another.
In January, we fasted from food for 30 days, at differing levels of commitment (juice only, one meal a day, or no sugar for the month), and this past month we engaged in a digital fast. Some people rented Light Phones, which have only the most basic communication features – no social media, and no video players.
Me personally, I fasted from social media (for me, that’s just Facebook) and video games, both on my Xbox and my phone. Here’s what I learned.
1. How little I make eye contact with my wife and kids
When you think about it, we have our phone in our hand almost the entire time we are awake. We even look at it in the bathroom, at the dinner table, while we are watching TV, and when we drive. We look at it first thing in the morning, and last thing at night. And one of the most damaging things about this is that we look at it while we are talking to one another. Both my wife and I often sit in bed for 10-20 minutes at night catching up on the news, but not with one another. And when we do talk, we aren’t looking much at one another.
At the dinner table, when we put our phones aside, we sometimes struggle as a family to talk about our day, as if we are not used to engaging on a more than superficial level. I mean, I know that my teenagers are not yet ready for adult conversation, but where is the excited sharing about what we are learning, doing, or finding in our life? It may be partly that we are so preoccupied with our phones that we are not pursuing the inner life, our passions and interests, much at all.
Corrective Action: When I enter the room with people, I intend to put my phone away, and focus my interest on others in the room, to engage with them and find out where they are at. I might learn something, and enjoy the fruit of conversation with another human being.
2. My appetite for information
We moderns are not unique in our hunger for information, especially men. The proverbial husband reading the paper at the morning or evening meal table, or on the train, has merely been replaced by the phone. But the phone is much more pernicious.
Not only is there an endless amount of information available, the phone is more interactive, engaging, and the addition of games makes it way more addictive than print on paper or crossword puzzles.
My experience was that even though I was not on Facebook interacting with other commenters, I was still using other apps to read in every spare moment – google news and Flipboard became my time fillers. The question I asked myself is, “Whence this need for continuous information?”
I think there are many possible reasons, some noble, most not so noble:
- Learning is satisfying: we are made to grow and learn, and learning is satisfying. However, when it becomes an obsession, it can negatively impact the other necessary means of human becoming and satisfaction, like relationships, physical and financial health, and investing ourselves in others.
- Looking for answers: In this broken world, we all experience the existential dread, loneliness, and lack of ultimate satisfaction that drives us to pursue a happiness that is just out of our grasp. Information promises to reveal the solution to us. I am pretty sure that the philosophers and Bible are correct, that what we are seeking for is not an idea or information, but for a life-giving goodness – and that thing is becoming virtuous (it’s own reward), and experiencing the ultimate good, the God of love and truth himself.
- Needing control: Information promises not only to provide an answer to our gnawing unfulfillment, but for control in a world which can be chaotic, dangerous, and out of our control. To some extent, if being knowledgeable prepares us to meet the challenges ahead, it is worthwhile. But of course, ultimate control of our circumstances is impossible.
- Fear of missing out (FOMO): When everyone online seems successful and having fun, we can feel like we are missing out. How come my life isn’t that exciting and fulfilling? In part, it’s because we have become information consumers instead of creators and people who live actively instead of through others. In part, it’s a lie – people exaggerate, only show their best side online, and in their personal lives offline, are often miserable. Their “Hollywood movie life” is as fake and unattainable, if not unfulfilling, as movies. In reality, missing the latest funny trend or lifehack is nothing compared to missing your own life.
Corrective Action: Remember that what I am seeking for is an experience with goodness and with God. Prioritize time alone in mediation and prayer OVER daily time with information.
3. What is my definition of sobriety?
I participate in the amazing and awesome parachurch ministry called Celebrate Recovery. It’s basically a Christian 12-step program, not only for people with substance abuse issues, but for any of us hurt humans who want freedom from our “hurts, habits, and hangups.” Celebrate Recovery started in 1991 at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. There are currently more than 35,000 chapters worldwide.
For those of us quitting intoxicants, defining sobriety is pretty easy – don’t use them anymore – cold turkey. But what if your issue is co-dependence, anger, over-eating, or video game addiction? For some of those, you could define sobriety as not doing them at all, but there are gray areas. I can’t go cold-turkey on eating, so when am I engaging in addictive behavior? Do I never play another game on my phone? Never use social media again?
3.1 Defining Sobriety
Admittedly, the core of recovery is not merely stopping outward actions, but healing the inner wounds that lead us to addiction. But it helps to have a way to alert ourselves to addictive behavior, and this is often called “creating a definition of sobriety for yourself.”
For the over-eater, sobriety may entail not going back for seconds, or tracking one’s calories faithfully, or restricting desserts to weekends. For the information or phone addict, what does sobriety look like?
For me, it means:
Corrective Action: I should not engage in social media, news gorging, or video games UNTIL after I have fulfilled the daily disciplines I have outlined based on my priorities.
But that means I have to first define my priorities, and the discipline and habits I intend to follow to reach those goals. That is not as easy as it sounds.
3.2 Covey’s Simple 4L Model for life planning
Productivity guru Stephen Covey’s book First Things First, a follow-up to his timeless 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, proposed a pithy rubric for setting goals for all of life. His “four L” method is proposed with the idea that the goals that lead to human satisfaction are well known, we just have to prioritize and plan accordingly. If you need a model for setting goals in all of life, you could not do much better than this:
- Live: plan for your physical and financial health.
- Love: consciously invest your time and self in relationships that give you life (God, self, others)
- Learn: continue to invest in your own development and learning, for your entire life
- Leave a Legacy: invest your time in people and organizations that do good and live on after you.
So for example, let’s say that you set some goals and establish some daily or weekly disciplines based on these areas of focus. You might make a list like this:
- Walk or exercise daily
- Track your calories
- Save 20% of your salary and don’t touch it
- Spend regular time daily, and maybe a weekly date, with your significant other
- Spend time daily in meditation and prayer for at least 10 minutes
- Make 10 page progress in a book daily.
Corrective Action: Accordingly, my definition of sobriety would mean that I must NOT engage in social media or games until AFTER I have accomplished the daily disciplines that I have chosen to reach my primary goals.
4. Focus on what is in my control
The well-known Serenity Prayer intones:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Time spent obsessing over social media, especially around political and social event that I have no leadership role, is a waste of my emotional and physical energy. Of course, complaining about grand events and issues makes us feel engaged in important things, but it’s more of an avoidance of developing our own expertise and powers in the real world, and employing our energies in doing good in ways that ARE within our sphere of control and interest.
There ARE gray zones here. It’s good to be an informed citizen so that our voting is done responsibly. So watching the news or learning about the latest indictments can be useful. But arguing about it online? Maybe not so good a use of time.
But sometimes, even arguments online are helpful, especially if done in a kind and principled way – as a former and future teaching pastor, I learn a lot from “discussions” with atheists and doubters online.
Corrective Action: Don’t waste time being angry online, or spending time talking about topics I do not intend to become an expert at. Make sure I am creating (like writing this post or working on one of my books) before commenting.
5. Absence of hang-out friends
Having no media to fill my time, I notice that I also have few friends that I enjoy hanging out with. Don’t get me wrong, I have many caring and nice people in my life, but few who share my passions and obsessions. I have a few lifelong friends that I can pick up with any time, but they don’t live near me.
Having moved a few times in my life, I realize that making good friends is hard, perhaps even harder as I age. It takes at least 4 years in a new place to develop friends, and even that requires involvement in some community like church or workplace. Of course, as an IT worker, I have the privilege of working remotely, and that means I am not eating lunch with my coworkers or really making hang-out friends there.
The couples we made friends with while raising our kids together can not be replaced, and even though we regularly have friends over, I find it hard to find anyone close enough to my peculiarities that has the time or desire to hang out.
This is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the vocation I would now prefer is still not my full-time job – I am aiming to become a college professor and pastor, but I am not doing that full time. I still must work in IT to make ends meet. Rather than discussing data analysis, I’d rather discuss spiritual formation, philosophy, and pedagogy.
A man who has friends must himself be friendly (Proverbs 18:24a)
Corrective Action: Pursue my avocations aggressively, and engage at least part time in the activities I feel are a calling. Pursue relationships with the people who share my passions and interests, and whom I enjoy.
6. Volunteerism is a key to satisfaction
Again, Celebrate Recovery has been a huge boon to my inner life, as well as providing avenues for meaningful service. As mentioned, the central key to satisfaction is experiencing and becoming good, i.e. virtue is “it’s own reward,” and is the next best thing to experiencing the ultimate good that is God himself.
Learning to care about and serve others with my gifts and experience is more satisfying than mere personal accomplishments. And when I am feeling listless and addictive with my technology, I forget that there are people who need my attention, kindness and willing ear. And they are just a call or text away.
With less addictive time filling with my phone, I have looked for other things to do, and calling on or meeting with others is a wonderful opportunity that I have been missing. Quick regular calls to my family and friends goes a long way.
Corrective Action: Volunteer my time and regularly check in on people I care about, or are learning to care about.
7. The lost art of hospitality
I admit it – I am an introvert. Big groups of people wear me out. At a party, I always hope to find a conversation in a corner with someone willing to talk about important and personal things. Chit chat is hard on me, and honestly, for all of us.
But in addition to being talkative or personable, we have a home that can serve as a place to care for and enjoy our friends and neighbors. If we are bored, instead of filling time with our devices, we have started inviting our friends over for meals. This has been very satisfying as long as we don’t overdo it :)
Corrective Action: Regularly invite others over for a meal.
Various types of fasting are actually incredible spiritual boosters, as long as you realize that the fasting itself is not meritorious, but what you do instead of the activities you are skipping. Learning to know yourself, others, and God, and all of the other important things learned when we remove distractions, is very powerful.