I feel I need to begin this article with some sort of confession, like in a recovery meeting.
“Hi. My name’s John.” [The small group responds, “Hi John.”] “And I’m a user.” [Group leader says, “This is a safe place, John. Tell us your story.”] Shifting a little uneasily in my chair, I continue: “Well…I need it first thing in the morning. Every morning. I need it right before I go to bed. I have to get a fix even when I’m out to dinner with my wife. Or on vacation. I feel agitated and uncertain when I can’t find it. When it looks like I’m about to run out, I get panicky and look for some place to plug in, if you know what I mean.” [Group responds, “We understand.”]
Last month I was basically in paradise. My wife and I had slipped away from Colorado’s January snowstorms to the North Shore of Kauai. It is, without question, the most gorgeous of the Hawaiian Islands, maybe one of the most beautiful places on earth. Volcanic cliffs covered with lush tropical forest spill right down to the water’s edge. Hibiscus blossoms fall onto the peaceful rivers that wind their way through the jungle. This isn’t your tourist Hawaii. Apart from Princeville, the North Shore is way laid back, and after you cross a couple one-lane bridges, you feel you really could be on the edge of Eden.
Anini Beach is one of our favorite spots—far from the crowds, east of the Princeville scene, along a quiet neighborhood street that still has rural pasture and horses, if you can believe it. There is a reef about a hundred yards out which creates a massive protected lagoon where you can swim, snorkel, spearfish, SUP, hang out with the sea turtles. It is an utterly peaceful and enchanting place, made even more magical this year by huge winter surf which created 25-foot waves thundering out on the reef.
Sitting on the quiet beach there, with no one to our right or left for more than 200 yards of pristine white sand, it was so luscious I kind of expected Adam and Eve to go strolling by. Now—you’d think this would be enough to delight and enchant any soul, but as I took a stroll myself, I passed a guy sitting under a banyan tree… watching videos on his iPhone.
You’re s’n me.
You can’t unplug from your technology even in a place like Kauai?
Now, to be fair, I bet this is what happened: He had his phone with him—because everybody always has their phone with them—and somebody texted him a funny YouTube video, and he couldn’t resist the urge, and that was that. He was glued to a little artificial screen watching some stupid cat sit on a toilet when all around him was beauty beyond description, the very beauty his soul needed.
And I saw myself in him.
Because I, too, had brought my phone with me to Anini, and I, too, responded when the little “chirp” alerted me to an incoming text. (We always have our excuses; every addict does. I was “keeping myself available to my children.”) The thing is, I’ve seen this all over the world. Fly fishing along a stunning stretch of water in Patagonia, and some dude has a rod in his right hand—line and fly out on the water—and in his left his cell glued to his ear, chatting away. I’ve seen people checking their email at the National Gallery of Art in London. And of course there are the users who can’t even turn it off at the movies. I’ve climbed a ridge to check my phone while hunting; I’ve kept it on the table out to dinner with my wife, “just in case.”
Neo was never so totally and completely plugged into and hopelessly dependent on the Matrix. But our umbilical cord is a lightning cable.
You know what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about our attachment to our smartphones—an attachment that goes way, way beyond “necessary tool” or “helpful device.” Do you have the courage to read on?
Knowing that denial is one of the stages of addiction, let me ask a couple questions: When your little Chime, Glass, or Swoosh alerts you to an incoming text, do you easily ignore it and go on with the conversation you are having, or reading what you are reading, or enjoying the back seat view as you drive through the desert? I’m serious—when that thing vibrates in your pocket, do you regularly ignore it? Or do you automatically reach to see? Can you shut your phone off when you get home in the evening and not turn it on again until morning? When you first get up in the morning, do you allow yourself a leisurely coffee and bagel before you look at your phone? Or is your phone the very first thing you look at every morning?
And I hate cell phones. Which only shows how powerful the attachment is.
What blows my mind is how totally normal this has become. I’ve got a friend who decided to break with his addiction; he now turns his phone off over the weekend. I text him, and he doesn’t reply until Sunday night or Monday morning. And what’s fascinating to watch is my irritation. Like, C’mon, dude—you know the protocol. Everybody agrees to be totally available, anywhere, anytime, 24-7. It’s what we do. What does it say that you look like some sort of nut job when you turn your phone off?!
The early Desert Fathers fled civilization for their monastic outposts because they knew the “world” was corrupting their souls—in an age when everyone walked to work, there was no artificial light to extend the daytime late into the night, there was no internet, Wi-Fi, TV, Facebook, Youtube, no technology whatsoever. No smartphones.
What have we become accustomed to? What have we become dependent on? And what is it doing to our souls?
What does the constant barrage of the trivial, the urgent, the mediocre, the traumatic, the heartbreaking, the buffoonery do to us when it comes in an unending stream—unfiltered, unexplained, unproven, unexpected, and most of it unworthy—yet we pay attention on demand?
The brother of Jesus was trying to offer some very simple guidelines to a true life with God when, among other things, he said, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). That unpolluted part—that’s what worries me, when 81 percent of smartphone users keep their phone on at all times, even in bed (I’ll bet the number is much higher for Millennials, probably around 98 percent), and when we check our phones somewhere between 46 and 150 times a day.
The idea of forming a spiritual life is to create space in your day for God—to intentionally put yourself in a space that allows you to draw upon and experience the healing power of the life of God filling you. Over the ages, serious followers of Jesus have used stillness and quiet, worship, fasting, prayer, beautiful places, and a number of “exercises” to purposefully drink deeply of the presence of God. And to untangle their souls from the world. No one will care for your soul if you don’t.
So here are a couple steps I am taking:
I’m turning my phone off around 8:00 p.m. I’m choosing not to turn it back on first thing in the morning—not till I’ve had some time to pray. I’m putting it on silent mode during dinner and ignoring the buzz if it does vibrate. (Get this—it just buzzed while I was finishing this article, and my eyes started to glance over. Good God.) Last Saturday night Stasi and I went out on a date, and we left our phones at home. When it chirps or vibrates I’m not instantly responding like Pavlov’s dog; I’m deliberately making it wait until I am ready. In these small ways I am making my phone a tool again, something that serves me, instead of the other way around.
Gang—it’s time to cut the lightning umbilical cord.