A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation. The book is excellent and offers our constantly “connected” culture a much-needed message of caution. Turkle explores the various impacts that our use of digital devices has on our communication and our own psyches. One sobering problem she discussed was the lack of solitude in our lives. For many people, especially the generations of young adults and children who have grown up with smartphones, being alone is lonely. Turkle shared various stories to demonstrate how people are not comfortable being alone or in a quiet moment…without their phones.
She shared about a group of college students out to dinner together who instantly check their phones at any “lull” in the conversation. She told how one girl waiting in a hospital lobby for hours with a friend frantically searched for an outlet to charge her dying phone. Still others sleep with their phones, unable to drift off without them or offering the justification that an “emergency” may arise at any point and someone will need to get in touch. The stories went on and on, and it made me sad. While reading the book I was on vacation at the ocean, and I looked up to see a teenage girl walking down the beach with only a phone in her hand. It concerns me to see how much our culture and our generation views silence–whether in the middle of a conversation or alone on a beach–as a scary and lonely thing. Indeed, as Turkle points out, if we have a society full of people who do not know how to be alone (much less desire it), then they will also not know how to be together with others.
As Catholics (and Christians), do our lives mirror this societal trend? Do we embrace quiet moments as opportunities for solitude, or do we reactively and instinctively fill them with “noise?” Do we realize the gift of solitude and cultivate the discipline of opening spaces for it in our daily lives?
Because we live in a world of devices that is full of noise, we have to do more than just set aside space for solitude; we have to protect that space as well. We have to be both offensive and defensive. What does that mean? It means asking yourself where you are vulnerable. Where and how does your solitude continually get interrupted? What technologies or uses of technologies allow you space for solitude, and what uses encroach upon it? In questioning myself I figured out pretty quickly that all those “dings” that constantly sounded from my phone had to be turned off. I would be praying — ding. Reading to my kids — ding. Writing — ding. Sitting on the back deck watching the afternoon sky and my family at play — ding. I had created these wonderful spaces for reflection, prayer, and family time, but I was allowing them to be interrupted. What’s more, I was allowing my children to see me accepting that interruption. What I communicated with my behavior in responding to the noise on the phone was a complete contradiction of what I believed in principle, which was that this space was sacred and this time was not to be interrupted.
The problem with the “ding” is that once it goes off you are no longer in that moment. You are thinking about the noise that is calling you away from your purposeful moment of solitude. I have found that in order for me to maintain spaces of solitude, I can’t invite them to be interrupted. So I have turned off every notification on my phone; no more dings, beeps, chirps or chimes. It only rings if someone is actually calling me. It is wonderfully freeing and peaceful. Now don’t misunderstand what I’m advocating. Technology has a place and serves many helpful purposes. I’m a writer; I’m a college professor. I need to be present on social media (and I am), and I need to reply to emails and text messages. But I have begun to set aside intentional times throughout the day to check those things. I’ve stopped carrying my phone around to every room in the house all day, as if it was a fifth appendage to my body. It need not always be with me, inviting unnecessary noise and interruption.
Protecting spaces for solitude is also not just a one-time action. We have to continually evaluate how we use technology and how it uses us. We have to be intentional in creating atmospheres of solitude and then intentional in protecting them. And as we practice doing this in our lives we are modeling a physically and spiritually healthy way of life for our families. If we preserve the gift of solitude for ourselves, then we will have it to pass on to our children.
Copyright 2016 Jessica Ptomey