Every day we are bombarded by very technological devices created to help us be more effective, stay in touch more easily, and handle details for us. Some of are old enough to recall life before all these “helpers” came along. Our calendars used to be toted around in daily planners we carried with us. Some were small enough to fit in a purse or briefcase, but others were more cumbersome, and we tried to manage them with anything else we needed to carry.
When my parents were growing up in the 1920’s in the midwestern United States, only 35% of homes had a telephone. As a child, I recall the first phone was one that hung on the wall of the farmhouse where my dad had grown up. It was a brown box with the mouthpiece attached and a receiver with a cord you lifted to your ear. There were still telephone operators back then and to cut down on cost, many had what was called a “party line”, meaning that several other households used the same line versus one that belonged only to you. The phone of my childhood was like that and could sometimes tempt me to try to pick up the receiver and listen to the conversations of others – clearly not a good choice.
People could also use those telephone operators to connect you to a number you did not know even after large telephone books began to be published. In my home, the phone was something my mother enjoyed so she could connect with her parents and sisters who lived in the county next to ours. It didn’t ring often, and I don’t recall ever using it, but I do know that when it was replaced, the phone had a private line so we could access it at any time. That may have started the desire to be able to reach anyone at any time by this device, but it was still a long way from what this invention has become today. Part of that was because all it could do was handle a phone call. It couldn’t keep our calendar, show us a map, take photos, and store them, connect us to news sites, and a host of things our modern-day phones do for us now. We had tasted the convenience of the telephone and our appetites were whetted for more and it seems the taste became insatiable.
In the 1960’s when my husband and I were in college, connection happened by handwritten letters or occasionally a letter typed on a manual typewriter. In the 1980’s when our children were in college, they needed to stand in line to use a pay phone in the dorm, handwritten letters were still common, and electronic and electric typewriters were being replaced by the new computers that were not owned by students but available in the library. Our grandchildren in college have smartphones, computers, tablets, and all manner of devices. They FaceTime or use Polo or any number of apps to stay in touch. These devices track their calendars, routes via GPS, search for resources we used to spend hours looking for in card catalogs in the library, and capture moments of fun with cameras that have nearly replaced a separate camera.
Most of us will admit we would be lost without these new phones and the valuable tool they have become, but in the process of that is it possible they have had more downsides than we may have noticed at the beginning? Are they now the tool or the master of us? Some of us have begun to see these questions and set some new boundaries on them like not having phones at the table when we are eating at the time we are supposed to have a chance to relate with those who are actually present with us, but is there more we need to consider? There is a real core struggle with our smartphones.
“This is the core struggle with the smartphone. It’s amazing because it allows us to communicate our presence across time and space, but it’s dangerous for the very same reason. It can fracture our presence across time and space until nothing is left. Usually this happens simply by habit, like me talking via phone…whlle doing two or three things.”Justin Whittle Earley
Our presence is the greatest gift we can give someone else, but these new devices have sometimes gotten us caught up in so many places we are trying to be present that we are not present with anyone and with it, we are less genuine as well.
“Presence is at the heart of who we are, because presence is at the core of our relationship with God. From creation to salvation, the story of the Bible is fundamentally a story of presence. Eden was Eden because the unmediated presence of God was there. God was with Adam and Eve, until sin broke the bliss of that presence.”Justin Whittle Earley
Now the device we are holding almost constantly gets in the way of presence and allows us to hide from one another as we are captivated by the screen we hold in our hands. We say we are listening in more than one place at a time, but the truth is that we cannot be present in more than one place at a time.
These smartphones (even if we are limiting them at certain times and places) have become such companions for work, friends, family, entertainment, and more that we feel alone and lost when we try to put them down for any length of time or we experience the panic of losing or misplacing them. That would not only leave us alone but put us into silence and silence gets us in touch with who we really are. For some of us, that can be terrifying. Yet, knowing who we really are is vital.
“Only when we know who we are can we turn to love others, not use others. Only then can we actually listen to them…
Even more, when we cultivate inner rhythms of silence, we become attentive to the value of conscience, to the voice of God’s love for the world, and to the voice of our neighbor’s need.”Justin Whittle Earley
How do we tackle this issue that challenges us more than we want to often admit? Justin Whittle Earley offers a suggestion in The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:
“We were made for presence, but so often our phones are the cause of our absence. To be in two places at a time is to be no place at all. Turning off our phones for an hour a day is a way to turn our gaze up to each other, whether that be children, coworkers, friends, or neighbors. Our habits of attention are habits of love. To resist absence is to love neighbor.”Justin Whittle Earley