Someone recently shared with me how difficult it was to unplug from their cellphone. This person shared how he had a difficult time even making it through a meal without checking to see if work was trying to reach him, and how, when an alert would “ding” he felt the urge to check it. He told me he didn’t want this to be his norm, that his family was frustrated by this habit, but that he finds it difficult to ignore the lure of the device. I wonder how many of us find we have the same problem? Just after Christmas this year, I was trying to plan several funerals at the same time and I found myself juggling emails and texts while sitting in the living room with my family. I realized I was ignoring the people around me during what should have been “time off”, but I also knew this was the only time I had to get the work done and that the needs were pressing. However, my family was not amused.
But is it really necessary to be “plugged in” to our devices for every minute of every day? We live in fear of missing something important, and it is not just the important emails or texts from work, it is important breaking news that comes up in my Twitter feed, or what some long-lost friend is having for lunch and posting on Facebook. Hmmm. Not everything ranks the same in terms of importance, but in our fear of missing the important messages and news we get drawn in, even addicted, to less important things that command our attention from our devices.
How many times have you heard that “ding” and rushed to your device, leaving family and friends who are physically present, to check what must surely be an important message, only to find that someone in Africa is going to deposit 5,000,000 in GBP to your account if you will only give them your banking information, or that Shopper’s Drug Mart has some great bargains for you and an opportunity to earn more Optimum points?
Based on these experiences, it is very easy to decide to disconnect and tell myself that I am not going to miss anything important if I unplug for a few hours, but all it takes is missing one important thing for the guilt to mount. For example, a few years ago, on one Friday morning I went to the gym at 7:30 am and forgot my phone in the car. It was actually quite nice to be without it for about an hour or so, but when I got back to the car at 9 am, I realized I had missed a flurry of texts from a parishioner whose relative was dying. I felt as if I had let them down. I rushed to the bedside and said some prayers and all was forgiven, but it begs the question, is it a realistic expectation for anyone, even a priest, to be available every hour of every day? Expectations from others drive our anxiety, and being tethered to our devices heightens that anxiety. But do people really have the expectation that we will respond instantly? Or is this some sort of constructed expectation that we put on ourselves because we are always available?
Plugged and Unplugged
Often we think the solution is to “unplug” and we think of time without our devices as “unplugged”, but I wonder if we can shift our mindset a bit and be more precise about how we use those terms? Is leaving our devices aside for intentional periods not so much “unplugging” but “plugging in” elsewhere? Think about the moments we “unplug” from our devices and “plug in” in different ways, especially ways in which being “unplugged” from our devices doesn’t bother us. It may be that you play a sport, like Hockey. One doesn’t (or certainly shouldn’t) check their phone while playing hockey. Most people, when engaged in a sport, don’t even think of, or miss, their devices. Why? It is because they are “plugged in” to something else. Sporting tends to be an “all in” sort of activity. For me, it is ballroom dancing. I leave my phone in my shoe-bag, and for the three hours that I am dancing, I never check it. To be honest, I don’t think about it, and I don’t care what is going on in the rest of the world. There is great value in choosing a different way to “plug in” to life. The interesting thing is that it is not an intentional “unplugging” from the phone. It’s not a chore to disconnect; it is incredibly easy. Why? Because I am so “plugged in” or connected with what I am doing, the people I am with, the fun I am having, that I really don’t miss the device. I don’t think of it as being “unplugged” because I am “plugged in” in a different way.
The questions I would therefore pose are:
When is it that you put down the device without thinking?
What is it that makes you forget the outside world, the obligation to be available, the expectation that you can respond instantly?
What are the ways in which you “plug in” in other ways? Where are those places? Who are those people? Is it at the movies? During certain social events? In church?
It is not wrong to be plugged into work, into social media, into caring about what is going on beyond ourselves and our four walls. On the contrary, this can be a very good thing, but as St. Paul says, “all things in moderation.” Perhaps all we really need is to be intentional about understanding where we “plug in” in other ways, recognize how healthy it is to have a variety of ways in which we connect with our families, our jobs, our world, and yes, our God, and seek to be intentional and thoughtful about how, when, with whom, and in which ways we choose to be “plugged in”.