“Once upon a time, in a world without cars and screens, people had no choice but to live where they lived,” writes author Scott Hubbard. While this seemingly obvious observation may not seem to be ripped from the pages of a profound philosophical essay or the mouth of a genius detective, its implications are actually quite deep and quite relevant to the present context we find ourselves in. How many of us would say that we are more prone to actively engaging the people around us and the physical places we inhabit than retreating to our screens? While we might be tempted to dismiss or rationalize this question away, our answer unavoidably carries vital significance for our lives.
Without a doubt, the era of social media and digital connectedness has given us the tremendous blessing of staying in touch with geographically distant friends and family. This is not the issue. The danger is in how our digital age has effectively uprooted us from the moment we are in.
An alternate universe that promises a sense of escape, distraction, and connection resides in our pockets and constantly beckons for our attention. Unfortunately, the more we run to this alternate universe, the more isolated and lonely we become. In his book, “12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You,” Tony Reinke puts it this way: “The smartphone is causing a social reversal: the desire to be alone in public and never alone in seclusion.” Rather than engaging in conversation with the real person sitting next to us, we’d rather engage the shallow online profile of someone we hardly know. Instead of participating in campus or community events, introducing ourselves to our neighbors, or getting genuine rest that feeds our souls and bodies, we’re content to hole up in our dens, mindlessly scroll, and settle for a virtual universe that robs us of the most meaningful aspects of our physical lives.
Reinke writes, “The more we take refuge in distraction, the more habituated we become to mere stimulation and the more desensitized to delight. We lose our capacity to stop and ponder something deeply, to admire something beautiful for its own sake, to lose ourselves in the passion for a game, a story, or a person.” The digital age has subtly yet drastically, altered the human psyche in ways that should startle us, and there are myriad reasons why we should attempt to counter this shift. Psychological studies have shown that those who live with a mindset oriented towards the present moment are most content with life. Ephesians 5:15-16 calls us to live wisely by “making the best use of the time” we are given. Perhaps most importantly, living out our calling of loving God and neighbor requires us to be present for it.
This is not to say that our phones and social media accounts are bad. Rather, it is a challenge for us to ponder and reorder our habits. It makes a difference when we put down our screens and engage with the person next to us. It matters when we embrace the stillness of quiet moments, take in our surroundings as we walk to class and regain our capacity to ponder deeply. Both ourselves and our neighbors will be better for it when we embrace the power of being present. Let’s be that kind of people.