The person I’m most uncomfortable being alone with is myself. And that’s okay, because I’ve become very good at avoiding myself. For example, if I get stuck alone on an elevator, and I start to feel that anxiety, the dread of having to examine my life—even for a minute—I just take out my phone, and poof! it’s gone. Or if I sense that I need to have a heart-to-heart talk with myself about sin or doubt or fear, all of a sudden I remember that it’s my night to do the dishes—and I can’t do the dishes without listening to a podcast. Self-avoidance is probably my most advanced skill set. I’ve developed it over the years in response to the burden of being alone, which can bring up so many unsettling truths. Of course, I have plenty of help from the rest of society. I’m always being encouraged to read something, to do something, to watch something, or to buy something new. It’s an unspoken but mutually agreed upon truth for modern people that being alone with our thoughts is disturbing.
A friend once described a similar feeling of existential dread to me. He said it would hit him only when he woke up in the morning. Sometimes he’d feel like killing himself. It wasn’t something he shared with friends. But he’d get this sick feeling—like there’s no point to any of it—every morning. He said he needed something more to get him up in the morning. My friend could stave off this sense of hopelessness all day, except for those few moments right after he woke up. Lying in bed, he could feel the pressure of being alive constrict his breath. But once he got moving, drank his coffee, watched the news, and went to work, he was okay. He got swept up into the movement of the day, as most of us do.
The beauty of using my iPhone as my alarm clock is that when I reach over to turn it off I’m only a few more taps away from the rest of the world. Before I’m even fully awake I’ve checked my Twitter and Facebook notifications and my email and returned to Twitter to check my feed for breaking news. Before I’ve said “good morning” to my wife and children, I’ve entered a contentious argument on Twitter about Islamic terrorism and shared a video of Russell Westbrook dunking in the previous night’s NBA game.
While making my coffee and breakfast I begin working through social media conversations that require more detailed responses so that by the time I sit down to eat, I can set down my phone too. Years ago I would use my early morning grouchiness as an excuse to play on my computer rather than talk with my wife and kids, but now our family tries to stay faithful to a strict no-phones-at-the-table policy. We have drawn important boundaries for the encroachment of technology into our lives to preserve our family and attention spans, but that does not mean we’ve managed to save time for reflection. Instead, I tend to use this time to go over what I have to teach in my first class, or my wife and I make a list of goals for the day. It is a time of rest from screens and technology, but not from preoccupation.
As I drive the kids to school, we listen and sing along to “Reflektor” by Arcade Fire. On my walk back to the car after dropping them off, I check my email and make a few more comments in the Twitter debate I began before breakfast. In the car again, I listen to an NBA fan podcast; it relaxes me a bit as the anxiety of the coming work day continues to creep up on me. Sufficient to the workday are the anxieties and frustrations thereof. And so, when I need a coffee or bathroom break, I’ll use my phone to skim an article or like a few posts. The distraction is a much-needed relief from the stress of work, but it also is a distraction. I still can’t hear myself think. And most of the time I really don’t want to. When I feel some guilt about spending so much time being unfocused, I tell myself it’s for my own good. I deserve this break. I need this break. But there’s no break from distraction.
While at work, I try not to think about social media and the news, but I really don’t need additional distractions to keep my mind busy. The modern work environment is just as frenetic and unfocused as our leisure time. A constant stream of emails breaks my focus and shifts my train of thought between multiple projects. To do any seriously challenging task, I often have to get up and take a walk to absorb myself in the problem without the immediacy of technology to throw me off.
Back at home, I’m tasked with watching the kids. They are old enough to play on their own, so I find myself standing around, waiting for one of them to tattle or get hurt or need water for the fifth time. If I planned ahead, I might read a book, but usually I use the time to check Twitter and Facebook or read a short online article. But it’s not always technology that distracts me; sometimes, while the kids are briefly playing well together, I’ll do some housecleaning or pay bills. Whatever the method, I’m always leaning forward to the next job, the next comment, the next goal.
I watch Netflix while I wash dishes. I follow NBA scores while I grade. I panic for a moment when I begin to go upstairs to get something. I turn around and find my phone to keep me company during the two-minute trip. When it’s late enough, I collapse, reading a book or playing an iOS game. I’m never alone and it’s never quiet.
As a Christian, the spiritual disciplines of reading the Bible and praying offer me a chance to reflect, but it’s too easy to turn these times into to-do list chores as well. Using my Bible app, I get caught up in the Greek meaning of a word and the contextual notes and never really meditate on the Word itself. It is an exercise, not an encounter with the sacred, divine Word of God. A moleskin prayer journal might help me remember God’s faithfulness, but it also might mediate my prayer time through a self-conscious pride in being devout. There’s no space in our modern lives that can’t be filled up with entertainment, socializing, recording, or commentary.
This has always been the human condition. The world has always moved without us and before us and after us, and we quickly learn how to swim with the current. We make sense of our swimming by observing our fellow swimmers and hearing their stories. We conceive of these narratives based on the stories we’ve heard elsewhere: from our communities, the media, advertisements, or traditions.
But for the twenty-first-century person in an affluent country like the United States, the momentum of life that so often discourages us from stopping to take our bearings is magnified dramatically by the constant hum of portable electronic entertainment, personalized for our interests and desires and delivered over high-speed wireless internet. It’s not just that this technology allows us to stay “plugged in” all the time, it’s that it gives us the sense that we are tapped into something greater than ourselves. The narratives of meaning that have always filled our lives with justification and wonder are multiplied endlessly and immediately for us in songs, TV shows, online communities, games, and the news.
This is the electronic buzz of the twenty-first century. And it is suffocating.
Taken from Disruptive Witness by Alan Noble. Copyright (c) 2018 by Alan Noble. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Alan Noble (Ph.D., Baylor University) is assistant professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University and cofounder and editor in chief of Christ and Pop Culture. He has written for The Atlantic, Vox, BuzzFeed, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and First Things. He is also an advisor for the AND Campaign.