Saturday, January 27, 2018

Six Months Sans Smartphone: Alive and Well and Getting Better with God's Help

It has now been about six months since I sold back my smartphone. Six months later, I no longer have phantom pains; I no longer reach for a device that isn’t there. (Not that phantom pains were unreasonable to expect: the average smartphone user checks her phone 80 times a day, or 30,000 times a year. I can’t think of anything beyond breathing to which I had been so regularly committed.) Now, it is not uncommon for me to lose track of my phone for days at a time, to have no idea where it is, so worthless is its utility.

Six months later, I have discovered growing edges and necessary next steps, like leaving the laptop at work so that I do not simply replace addiction to one device with addiction to a larger one. Rebekah and I even had a blasphemous conversation the other day about the possibility of discontinuing the internet at home, altogether. Stay tuned. As it turns out, leaving the laptop at work is also a good first step toward leaving one’s work at work. Who knew? I remember telling a colleague at lunch one day how I had unexpectedly discovered that I cared as much or more about my progress learning the guitar as I did about my community’s flourishing. It felt scandalous. My colleague kindly reminded me that, for creatures made to glorify God and enjoy God forever, the true scandal is that prioritizing lives of holy enjoyment would feel like a scandal. And then he confessed the same scandal in his life.

My friend and I are not, of course, alone. In his classic Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper reflects at length about how our world thinks about work. “In his well-known study on capitalism, Max Weber quotes the saying, that ‘one does not work to live; one lives to work,’ which nowadays no one has much difficulty in understanding: it expresses the current opinion. We even have some difficulty in grasping that it reverses the order of things and stands them on their head.” Sometimes I distract myself from work. Most times, I distract myself into work. From my life and the lives of those around me. In his wonderful book Silence and Honey Cakes, Rowan Williams calls such distractions from what really is the life of fantasy for which regular prayer and long silences are good medicine. 

Since selling back my smartphone, I have discovered the peace of waiting for someone who is late with folded hands and without anxiety. I am learning that I do not need to forgive myself for not trading my presence for more potential productivity - what could have been, or should have been - a hard lesson learned in a vocation in which nothing is ever finished and I imagine that I could have always done more. I am reading more books. I am writing letters to friends, with fountain pens and beautiful inks. I am discovering practices that help me grow my ability to receive the gift God, in a given moment, is giving, rather than seeking to control my environment for the gift I wish I had been given instead. I am making more room for possibilities I do not script or predict.

Where I used to go around filling my days with, well, filler, and then wondering where the time went, I now find myself with the opposite dilemma: more than enough time, such that I find it increasingly imperative to spend more time each day in God’s presence, calling to mind the values I pray will animate me: Joy, Listening, Generosity, Trust, and Prayer. 

Josef Pieper again writes that 
The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.
St. Thomas Aquinas named the same struggle more simply and positively: “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than in the difficult.”

Rhythms of prayer dispose me to receive the giftedness of life and the Christ whom my baptismal covenant would remind me is there, in each person, to be sought and served. To not know, therefore, to be open, to embrace the uncertainty, is an important part of allowing the present to be God’s gift.

I need God’s help to remember that I am ever walking in God’s sight. Prayer is good help. Hymns are helpful, too; prayers I can sing to my children and that they can sing back to me! What a gift. The rhythm of daily prayer, for me, is like the breaks that are built into the really good roller coasters. Up and down a hill, maybe two or three of them, and then the click, click, click, because it is relatively easy, all things considered, to go off the rails, get caught up in the speed of things, even to become disoriented and forget what the thing was about in the first place. So about the time I want to put it all on my back or, alternatively, pat myself on the back, click, click, click. Sit with the scripture. Click, click, click. Soak in the story. Click, click, click. Sit in the silence. Rest in the presence. Call to mind the things God has shown me about God’s love and its depths. Be surprised one more time by God at work in this world and the corresponding truth that it isn’t all up to me. Remember that Karl Barth called laughter the closest thing to the grace of God. Click, click, click. Receive all these things as gifts. Go back to the work, foolish enough to believe the work can be offered as prayer, sure of the fact I will forget how to pray, blessed by the truth that the rhythm of prayer will find me at about the time I forget where glory goes: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” Just when things threaten to go too fast, my head get too big, my heart grow too anxious, it will find me. Click, click, click. And I’ll return to the grace that it is my privilege to proclaim.

Relieved of the burden of being salvation to the world I return to, with any luck, I will have been opened again to receive the strange, unexpected gifts it is, in God’s ocean-deep love, God’s joy to give.

From my favorite hymn:

For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind. 
And the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. 
If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word 
and our lives would be thanksgiving, for the goodness of the Lord.

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