(To watch the Louis C.K. video that inspired this post, click here.)
I remember the first time someone was texting under the pretense of listening to me. Not to date myself, but it was before texting was really a “thing.” (I certainly wasn’t cool enough to do it, yet.) My friend Cy & I were eating lunch in the cafeteria at my alma mater, Chapman University. He had his hand under the table and was surreptitiously glancing down, with an occasional nod or “uh-huh” in my direction. It was obvious that he was multi-tasking. After several minutes of being ignored, I was feeling unheard, unimportant and unseen. As annoyance mounted to frustration and then to anger, I finally burst out, “What are you doing?!”
He looked up. “Oh. I’m just texting.”
Now, I’m not on the front of… um… any trends. I may have been late to the game, but this was the first I’d really experienced texting in action in the insidious way that it has now taken hold in our culture: something you can do while you’re simultaneously in the middle of a conversation with an actual, real live human. I was totally miffed. The message he was sending seemed obvious to me: “You’re not worth my full attention, Chelsea.”
(This is a short clip from my favorite new British comedy show, Miranda, on cell phones interrupting conversations.)
Confession: I am now a HUGE texter, and I frequently split my attention between a text and an in-the-flesh person. A few months ago my husband and I were driving home, and I was ignoring him while pretending to listen to a story about his work day. I was nodding “uh huh… uh huh… oh man….” (hopefully in the right places) while moving stuff in google calendar, texting a friend, and checking my email. Finally, Tim asked, “Hey… can you not text while I’m trying to tell you something?” He was not trying to be controlling. He just wanted my undivided attention. OH: I am dividing myself over so many tasks and communications streams in this moment, I am not really here. Tim is experiencing a fraction of me. I’m communicating more, but giving and receiving so much less. (*Sigh* And I wonder where the disconnect is between us, sometimes…)
In a delicious twist of irony, my friend Cy (the culprit behind my first experience of text invasion) has done a complete 180. He and his wife Bonnie Gail (who, incidentally, has a profound and lovely blog about life and faith here) are choosing to raise their son as technology free as possible. Right now with a toddler, this means that they don’t prioritize checking emails or answering texts over being in the moment with Chip. They want to give him their full attention as much as possible. They are choosing to connect less to connect more. These aren’t rigid rules condemning all technology, but rather choices guided by the principle of presence, and they will shift to reflect new seasons of life as their son grows.
Yet, technology isn’t inherently evil. Clearly, it’s enabling us to connect right now, isn’t it? At the same time, I find myself asking: Is the way I’m using technology helping me to live in a more embodied way? Is it deepening my experience of being human? Is it causing a meaningful experience of connection for me and others?
A couple of years ago, I became friends with an artist and spiritual director named Julie Barrios. I knew there was something special about being with her, but I couldn’t pin it down. Was it the intentional eye contact? The fact that she frequently said my name in conversation? There was a marked difference when we were together. I felt so…present. Somewhere in the middle of our second hang-out, I realized that she had not looked at her phone one time in the 3 hours we had been together. I was suddenly confronted with how accustomed I had become to competing for people’s attention amidst the constant interruptions of text and FB notifications… and how deeply satisfying it felt just to have someone here with me. I felt like I was her highest priority in that moment.
Julie is not Amish: she had an iPhone 5 the first month they hit the market. Julie is a
“theology of technology” expert. In my experience, one of her highest values is being fully present with people. Sometimes that calls for the use of technology, and sometimes not. She once told me, “Every time I can use technology in an embodied way to connect with someone, I feel like I’m kicking its ass.”
I just upgraded from my old HTC G2 to an iPhone 5C. (Go T-Mobile! Way to change the cell phone industry by decimating undesirable, binding contracts and being consumer friendly!) In spite of the benefits of Facetime, it’s not the same as being with someone, in the flesh. No one can reach across and take my hand, or hold me if I start to cry. Technology will never be able to fully replace the goodness of someone offering their embodied presence.
I’m becoming aware that the more time I spend on my cell phone (as opposed to connecting with others and the outside world “in my skin”), I am impoverishing myself. I am missing my heart, not fully seeing other people, and I’m disconnected from the natural beauty that feeds my soul. I wonder what my life would look like if, like Julie, I committed myself to being fully present in all of my interactions (technology-based and not). That would require me to assess the reality of how I’m using technology now (and how it affects my relationships) by asking people like my husband for feedback. I need to do some soul-searching about what I really want. Do I really want authentic, satisfying connection? Or do I just want to avoid my loneliness in any way possible? What does it look and feel like to genuinely connect with others? Why do I persist in using technology in ways that often that leave me feeling more disconnected? There’s a lot of gray area we get to sort through, together.
What do you think?