At the beginning of this month, my husband and I spent two weeks visiting the southeastern U.S. We just got married, and decided that an essential aspect of our honeymoon would be to eschew our cell phones, use only paper maps as much as possible, and contact friends and family only if absolutely necessary.
Among the many blessings of our first weeks of marriage, then, was a peaceful stillness in the absence of screens. Thus estranged from technology — especially from my iPhone — I discovered that the conveniences on which we’ve come to rely are not nearly as necessary as we often make them out to be.
A person is perfectly capable, for instance, of following a major highway and reading exit signs to navigate to a destination without the help of a disembodied voice emanating from a GPS. A person is capable of finding ways to fill free time without social media and texting.
Sitting outside a coffee shop that we discovered at one of our destinations, I noticed that my hands felt empty without my phone. I was waiting for my husband, and I wanted to look up the answer to a question that had occurred to me. I wanted to see if our wedding photographer had emailed us any pictures. I wanted to play a game or check an app or send a text.
I couldn’t, because I had no cell phone and no computer. I had no choice but to sit silently and wait. Once I had pushed through the momentary discomfort — which presented itself as a feeling almost akin to being trapped — it was freeing. I didn’t need to do anything except sit and think and observe the people around me — people who, it will surprise no one to know, were all absorbed in their cell phones.
It isn’t easy to break ourselves of the impulse to check our notifications or stare into a screen to cure our boredom and relieve uncomfortable silence.
I got a real laugh when, a day or two later, I read this passage in Mark Helprin’s novel, Paris in the Present Tense: “Do you ever just sit and think, or sit and not think?” one character asks another, as they sit down to a dinner out. “Not in a restaurant. If you sit alone in a restaurant and fail to distract yourself they think you’re a madman about to rob them or blow up the Eiffel Tower,” his friend responds.
In our technology-addicted world, it is a radical act to open a book rather than scroll through your phone while waiting in line at the post office.
A few years ago, shortly after I graduated from college and began spending more time in tall buildings, I began to resent the way that people in elevators instinctively reach for their cell phones rather than stand silently for 15 seconds in a small room with strangers and simply look at the wall — or, heaven forfend, actually speak to one another.
I decided that, as a tiny act of rebellion, I would never touch my phone while standing in an elevator, even when by myself. It’s a difficult resolution to stick to, but in an age of widespread screen addiction to which few are immune, accomplishing this small goal feels like an enormous commitment to self-possession.
Perhaps not all of us are victims of actual technology addiction, but I think most of us would admit we have an unhealthy relationship with our devices, at least some of the time. This isn’t because of anything inherently wrong with devices that give us access to one another and to the Internet. The problem arises because we human beings, with our disordered appetites and our hatred of self-reflection, ask our screens to do for us what they aren’t designed to do.
Instead of treating screens as a tool to use in moderation, we far too often demand that they satisfy all sorts of longings: our desires to fit in, to be well-regarded, to be understood, to be loved.
We look to the entertainment and connection our phones offer as a means of occupying our restless hearts or distracting ourselves from what we might find if we allowed our minds to be silent. In short, we look to screens to be filled, but in them we have only a fount that will never satisfy.
In the second reading for Mass of the Ascension, the Church heard a passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which the apostle describes Christ as “the one who fills all things in every way.”
We needn’t throw our cell phones in the nearest lake in order to live with awareness of this reality, to remember that we are called to embrace stillness, silence, emptiness, so that we can be filled with that which only He can give.