Gazing at Ourselves

On occasion (when rotations involve a rare generous schedule) my husband offers to hang out with our boys on his day off so I can spend a few hours reading at a local coffee shop. It’s a time I treasure, when I get to drink coffee and pour over my stack of books without interruption, with the comfort of knowing my boys are back home wrestling, sword-fighting, and being loved by their daddy.

Usually halfway through my coffee I look up from my books and people-watch for a bit, I always find I’m disheartened to see how many people sit across from one another, their faces lit up by a smart phone screen. Shoulders hunched as their thumb scrolls for something interesting, something to fill a void, or simply because it’s become a mindless habit. Occasionally they will look up at the person they sit with and share whatever they’ve found on their device, or to take a “selfie” together to commorate this moment where they looked at their phone surrounded by new scenery that won’t be seen because their own face fills the frame. I can’t help but notice the faces of lonely people in a crowded room, where so many find more interest in virtual, faceless friendships than with the face of the Other right next to them.

It hasn’t always been like this. Certainly we have always had a propensity to avoid the gaze of the Other in our midst, to not really see them, or to choose to ignore them, but now this has become the norm, a habit we aren’t even aware of, and the effects are farther reaching than we may realize.

Five years ago my husband and I had the opportunity to travel Western Europe after he finished his study abroad term at Oxford University in England. This was long before either of us had smart phones, and before they were a commonality. We didn’t even own cell phones that worked overseas. If smart phones had been something in our possession at the time I am certain our experience would have been vastly different, and I think we would have lost much more than we would have gained by their presence. We likely would have taken obligatory selfies to mark our experiences, reducing them to more self-reflecting images. As it was, we didn’t have that temptation, just an outward looking camera. We had the freedom to explore the historically rich places of Europe without feeling compelled to share them immediately, before we had even processed what we’d seen. We passed time on trains between cities with discussion, processing what we’d seen and learned together. We read books, played games, and conversed with fellow passengers who spoke English.

I am very thankful we had that experience without the temptation of smart phones, I am certain I wouldn’t have seen, heard, felt, or processed as much if I had that addicting little machine in my pocket. The draw is just so alluring. It seems so innocent to just quickly check my Facebook, my email, or send a quick text while my husband is in the bathroom, or while we wait in line for food, I can be entertained, or interact with friends in a virtual context rather than sitting with my own thoughts for five minutes, or engaging with the stranger next to me.

Our world is a very different place than it was five years ago.

It is no secret that our use of technology has significantly altered how we as a society interact, and it is most notable (and perhaps most concerning) in our use of smart phones.

It seems like everywhere we turn people’s attention is fixed down, and really, it is fixed within: the face we tend to interact with most on our phones is our own.

I’m certainly not exempt from this problem.

How many times do I check my phone throughout the day?
When moments lull, conversation becomes disinteresting, when my boys play together contentedly, when I’m surrounded by people I don’t know, or people I know well, or when I sit alone?

Consequently, what moments, opportunities, and experiences am I missing by turning to my phone? What am I losing? Who am I not seeing (and I mean really seeing)?

When we habitually and compulsively check our phones in the midst of alone time, new experiences, social atmospheres and during conversations, we will most certainly be losing a great deal, no matter what we gain in that phone check or how cute that “selfie” may look.

Consider this article recently published in the New York Times.

The author, Sherry Turkle, after studying the psychology of online collectivity for 30 years, illuminates a number of sobering consequences of our unhindered welcome of technology in our lives.

Consider this quote:

Timothy D. Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, led a team that explored our capacity for solitude. People were asked to sit in a chair and think, without a device or a book. They were told that they would have from six to 15 minutes alone and that the only rules were that they had to stay seated and not fall asleep. In one experiment, many student subjects opted to give themselves mild electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts.

And this:

One teacher observed that the students “sit in the dining hall and look at their phones. When they share things together, what they are sharing is what is on their phones.” Is this the new conversation? If so, it is not doing the work of the old conversation. The old conversation taught empathy. These students seem to understand each other less.

Turkle argues that solitude and empathy are intimately intertwined, and they have both been hampered by our unchecked smart phone use.

This lack of empathy (which blossoms both from distracted conversation and an inability to be alone in thought) simply furthers our natural tendency toward self-interest. Smart phones feed this as we self-promote, pursue self-interest, and self-gratification. There isn’t the same give and take exchange as there is in face-to-face interaction, and when we allow our smart phones to replace and impede face-to-face relationships we disable our abilities to see and love the Other.

This idea of loving the Other, instead of interacting with them as another extension of ourselves, is essential to Christianity, and we will miss it when our gaze is turned down at a screen full of half-realized relationships that reach their penultimate through a “like”.

Consider Emmanuel Levinas’ words on the subject of the Other:

It [the face of the Other] expresses itself.. The face brings a notion of truth. […] To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. […] The relation with the Other, or Conversation, is a non-allergic relation, an ethical relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a teaching.
[…]This means concretely: the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised, be it enjoyment or knowledge.”

Simply put, our interaction in conversation face-to-face allows us to understand the Other, moving past a state of “I”-centered thought (wherein we see others as merely extensions of ourselves) and instead the face of the Other brings truth and from this open exchange we learn and are able to love and act accordingly.

But, when devices interfere in this exchange (or remove the face-to-face element altogether) we don’t have the opportunity to move past the “I”-centered thought.

This should be exceptionally concerning for us as Christians, for whom solitude is essential to our communication with God and understanding his Word, and empathy toward the Other is essential to our ability to learn from one another, to share who God is, and to love well. Solitude and empathy are essential components to Christian discipleship and growth, and if we are unable to sit alone with our thoughts (and our God) or engage in thoughtful, empathetic conversations because we have been handicapped by our undisciplined smart phone use, then the effects will be devastating and far reaching.

But it doesn’t have to be so. If we can in fact steward our technology as a tool rather than passively allowing it to alter our social interactions negatively, then we can stand as a mark of difference. This requires discipline on our part, but the gain of our being intentional will be worth our effort.

After all, light shines the brightest in the midst of the darkest places. And in a roomful of faces hunched over screens, to be one of the few gazing out, seeking the face of the Other, this will allow us opportunities to share the hope we have in ways that are becoming increasingly unfamiliar in our society. This hope that we have in Christ, the One who fills us up with himself, so that we don’t need to seek fulfillment in a piece of plastic, it ought to be enough for us to be disciplined in such a small way that will have such a large impact.

I’ve made up a list of a few practical steps I’m taking to try and approach my smart phone use with the intent to use it as a tool rather than feeding some compulsive need. Join me, and I’d love to hear back from any of you who gave it a shot. We may be surprised by what we learn if we are willing to gaze up at each other:

1. Put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” from 8pm-8am. Do not Disturb makes it so you don’t receive notice of calls or texts unless someone from your “favorites” list calls, or if someone calls multiple times in a short time.

2. In the morning, refrain from checking your phone first thing. Spend time reading a real paper bible, book, or just praying and thinking.

3. When at home, put your phone in a room removed from you and only check it every few hours.

4. Have a “no phone policy” at mealtimes.

5. Resist the urge to check your phone every time you find yourself waiting (grocer checkout, coffee shops, doctors office, etc) leave yourself open to think in that time or to interact with those around you.

6. Parents of young children, make a concentrated effort to put your phone down, when our children play happily it can be easy to turn to our phones, but let’s enter into their world of play instead.

7. Not everyone can, but for those of us who don’t always need to be available, try spending a day or weekend without your phone, either by going someplace without cellular service, or by simply turning it off.

8. When going to church, or meeting other people, consider leaving your phone in your car if you can.

Let us most certainly enjoy the gains that technology like smart phones have given us: talk to people, use social media, take pictures, but do not let it steal the present from you. Think about how you use technology; be mindul, not automatic; be disciplined not compulsive. Life is too short and too precious to allow our interactions with one another to be hampered by something that gives a weak and fleeting gratification.

Let’s take Jim Elliot’s words to heart, meditate on them (without turning to our phones), and live them,

Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.

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