In continuing this summer series on renewing our domestic churches, I am writing today about the isolating and dehumanizing nature of technology in our lives. We think of ourselves as extremely connected to friends, family, and various social circles with all of our online touch points; but the truth is that these many connections actually create distance within our relationships and inhibit our human flourishing in private life, which — as G. K. Chesterton rightly observes — is the life and self that matters far more than the public one (“Turning Inside Out.” In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G. K. Chesterton. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011: 163).
We often hear a lot of talk about protecting our children in guarding what they have access to online (or what has access to them). While we certainly need to monitor our children’s media use, I would say that our own media habits are the ones that need primary attention, for they are the ones that are going to have the greatest impact on our children in the long term.
Here is the reality that we must face: whatever habits and behaviors we are modeling are the ones that our children are mostly likely to adopt for themselves. We see this evidenced in research. Studies have found that children grow up to be readers not so much because their parents want them to read or created a reward system for reading, but because the parents themselves were readers and modeled reading for pleasure as a habit. Our children do what we do much more than they do what we say. If our faith and values are not consistently lived out in our daily rhythms, if we don’t practice them with integrity and intention, then they likely won’t either.
That means that we are the trend-setters, the culture shapers, in our domestic churches. We cannot look to anyone else or lay too much blame at another’s feet before we have examined our own habits. What do our media/technology habits model for our children? What atmosphere do they establish in the home, and what kind of life do they set up to be imitated?
When our children observe our use of technology, are they seeing intentionality or fragmented attention? If the statistics on average media use are close to accurate (and I wouldn’t be surprised if the tech habits of Catholic adults and parents are in line with the general population), then we need to take an introspective look at what type of life and culture our behaviors are modeling to our children and promoting within our homes.
Let’s operate from the assumption that our children will do as we do, and consider what behaviors they are likely to adopt:
- Will our children be more likely to live contentedly in the private moments of beauty in their lives, or will every beautiful and meaningful experience automatically be shared for public consumption or voyeuristic interest?
- Will our children intentionally create quiet moments in their days and embrace the gift of solitude, or will a still moment be met with the anxious impulse for exterior stimulus?
- Will our children regularly seek live conversations with friends and peers, or will they be more likely to communicate via channels that allow them to edit themselves and keep people at arms-length?
- Will our children be more likely to let a blinking device steal their attention at any moment, or will they use their technological devices strategically, as tools that aid the rhythms and behaviors of an intentional, rich life?
- Will they be likely to have their lives run at the pace of incessant digital interruptions and the “tyranny of the urgent,” or will they command purposeful lives where time designated for spiritual activities, family life, work, leisure, and friendships is guarded and not interrupted at any given moment?
Well? How’s it looking? Do we like the answers that are coming to the surface? I think that it is possible that this might be one of those posts (one of those blog series, for that matter) that feels like a downer, like we are being shown all the flaws at once without any relief. But I would encourage a different perspective. It is true that seeing our flaws is unpleasant, because we have a lot of activity and effort logged away there. Our hearts can easily think: waste. failure. But I would encourage us to hear the word: freedom. When we are given a clear vision of how to stop living, then we have the freedom to choose with intention the better option. If we are oblivious to how we are living, how can we change? To recognize error is the first and necessary step toward discovering a different way to be human, a way that leads to flourishing in our private lives and in our domestic churches. It is a way that offers those we love most a path worthy of imitation.
If asking these questions reveals things that we don’t like about how we’ve been living and the patterns that we’ve been modeling in our homes, then let’s be encouraged: This is the first step down a better path, toward a hopeful renewal in our domestic churches.
Copyright 2019 Jessica Ptomey