By David Hegg
The next time you walk into your favorite coffee shop and get into line, take note of a curious yet common phenomenon. Most of those already in line will be fixated on their cell phones. The same is true in a waiting room of any kind, or waiting for an appointment, or just plain waiting. We simply can’t pass up a chance to see if something new has happened, or if someone has reached out to us via email, text, or Twitter. And if all else fails, we can squeeze in a few moments on the new game that has us hooked.
What’s going on? Why is it we have become slaves to the excitement promised by outside sources? What has become of our ability to spend spare moments reflecting, thinking, pondering, and taking in the world around us? Better yet, what happened to conversation? It once was characteristic of successful people that they actually planned time away from outside stimuli to think. It was also part of our culture to converse with neighbors and friends, even those we didn’t know. Now we see any time away from phone, email and texts as personally threatening. We’ve become a society that is increasingly addicted to being relationally detached and passively entertained.
Apparently, this begins in childhood. It is now commonplace for parents to use the television, phone, tablet, or computer as a babysitter. Rather than play with the kids next door, we put them in front of a screen for hours on end. Sadly, this teaches them that the best excitement comes from outside sources. So, earphones become another appendage as they learn to be virtually alone, and externally stimulated 24/7. Many of my 20-something friends actually sleep with their earphones in, and the music on … all night!
There is great danger in all this. First, when we become addicted to external sources of excitement we become less and less able to occupy ourselves with deep thought and reflection, especially of the sort that demands long periods of concentration. While we are more and more alone, we become less and less satisfied to be alone with our thoughts, or to take in the natural beauty of the world around us. Simply put, we become smaller and narrower as thinking persons, even as we become intellectually flabby as a result of our voracious appetite for media junk food.
Secondly, the constant intake of media-driven “infocitement” becomes so intoxicating that two things happen. Initially, we run into the law of diminishing returns, and find ourselves needing more and more social media, email and texts to achieve that level of well-being we once knew. Every chance we get we go to our screens hoping to find a treasure. Yet, we need more and more outside stimuli simply because we become less and less able to entertain ourselves organically.
But the greatest danger of our addiction to outside excitement is that normal kinds of excitement lose their appeal. Try getting your kids to turn off the TV, put down the Wii, turn off their cells, and accompany you on a walk around the neighborhood. Try offering the chance to plant a garden and tend it to the time of harvest instead of texting for the next three months. What you’ll probably find is that being passive excites them more than being active. And that’s so dangerous.
Of course, I have a cell phone, and yes, I am guilty of checking email in line at the coffee shop. And yes, I am no stranger to social media. I don’t propose we protest social media and occupy some kind of virtual monastery. What I do propose is we become much more active in exercising our brains and bodies rather than allowing them to live in spectator mode.
For the good of our children, our neighbors, and our nation, let’s relegate social media to the half-hour a day it deserves and look to nourish our minds on great reads, thoughtful writing, and conversations that matter. At first it might seem boring and flat, but once our minds recover from the numbing drip of social anesthesia, we’ll find that true intellectual excitement beats passive amusement every time.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.