My students bring a lot of baked goods to class. It’s the consequence for breaking my technology policy: no screens, no electronic devices of any kind unless there is an academic accommodation, and if I see you on a device, or if another student points out that you’re on a device, you bring baked goods for the whole class the next day. It has worked like a dream. No one is unduly shamed, everyone likes baked goods, but no one wants to bring them, so students generally remember to stay off their phones.
I explain to students that the reason for this policy is to offer them one single space in their lives where they can be fully present and attentive. Most of them know that they are distracted and most recognize that they experience some kind of constant noise, but most of them also don’t think they can do anything about it, or that they might need to. So I tell them that I want to give them one space where they only have to focus on one thing. They can be fully present and give their brains a rest. Still, some of them are so addicted they don’t even realize they are reaching for their phones. That unconscious reach, the inability to detach, is growing more frequent among my students. And though we get more baked goods, I am concerned for them.
There are so many things that are clamoring for space in our heads all the time. Things we never even invited. I am not on any social media, and I am bombarded. I need to work on my computer, often on the internet, to do my job, and I am assaulted with advertisements and corporate enticements every time I need to look something up. My email dings constantly with more people wanting my attention. Even sitting in my shared office space in my own home as I write this, my housemate is telling me about the latest cute toddler story appearing on Twitter. And as I stare at this Word document, my brain wonders what might be on the internet that would be more interesting than finishing this essay.
A colleague recently asked me whether it would be harder for a person to walk away from our world now than it was for a person to walk away from the world and into the desert in fourth-century Egypt when desert monks proliferated. Are there things that have entangled us so that walking away from society to find God in the quiet has become more than difficult, maybe impossible? Fourth-century life was full of distractions and obligations as well, things that were difficult to walk away from into the desert to seek God. People had to earn money to eat and to feed their families; they had to go to the market, cook, clean, educate children, survive. Their senses could be just as overwhelmed as ours. Yet I wonder if we, with our technologies, have given away more of our headspace. I wonder if our souls are noisier.
People went to the desert to rid themselves of life’s distractions so they could focus on God, who we are told is not in earthquakes but small voices (1 Kgs 18–19). Eastern monks sought hesychia, a stillness of soul that allowed them to commune with God and hear from God. I’m not sure we have any spaces left quiet enough to allow us quietness of soul. Certainly, any time I have my computer open or my phone near me, my soul is not still. My mind is turned on.
We need more spaces where we can be still, quiet, and attentive. If desert monks left the cities to be rid of society’s distractions, how can we be rid of distractions when they are in our pockets and in our minds? I think my colleague is right—it is harder to walk away because we are more entangled now. The things that clamor for our attention and draw us out of focus on God are not only around us but in our line of sight all the time, overstimulating our minds. I’ll continue to make my classroom as quiet a space as possible so my students have a place to practice paying attention, but I need to find spaces for myself, too. The trick is, I’m not sure there are any spaces left for me to find. We may need to begin creating them.
We’ve made busyness and attachment to technology virtues instead of rest. In the rest, whether physical or simply an absence of screens, we can find a stillness of soul, and in stillness of soul we can, perhaps, find God waiting for us. Where can you make a screen-free space for yourself? Maybe by taking a walk? Maybe frequent retreats where my phone stays at home so I can detox. Maybe a screen-free Sunday tradition with the family. God is waiting for us in the quiet. Let’s go meet him there.