Most of us have those handheld “devices.” The antiquated cell phone has become a multifunction unit. It’s an internet portal, camera, computer, emailer, texting device, music and game center, GPS unit, and advisor (“Hey Siri!”). You might even use it to make a phone call! Devices, can’t live with them, can’t live without them.
But we can learn to set proper boundaries and avoid the rudeness that can accompany their use. Too often, we allow the virtual to eclipse the actual and we pay insufficient attention to those physically present with us.
The word “device” comes from the Old French word, devis, meaning division or separation. Without doubt, our hand-held devices divide our attention, separating us from the people with whom we should be interacting.
In a typical meeting, many in attendance are gazing down frequently at their little units. Soon enough, thumbs are typing away and attention is waning. The same is often the case during conversations, walks, meals, movies, and car rides. We are often divided from those with whom we should be present and unified.
Our devices also drive a sense of urgency, a feeling that information has to be shared at once. This is especially true with texting. There is a general expectation that a text will elicit a quick reply. When this doesn’t happen we’re often either irritated or anxious: “I hope he’s all right; I texted him and he didn’t answer!” Never mind that the person might be busy; there’s still the expectation that he’ll reply quickly regardless of what he’s doing.
Do you remember the old “busy signal”? If you called someone who was on the phone with someone else you got the busy signal, which in effect said, “I can’t talk to you right now, I’m busy talking to someone else.” Imagine that!
Then came “call waiting,” that irritating clicking sound indicating that someone is trying to reach you. This created distraction, stress, and even the expectation that you should interrupt your current conversation and multitask or break away from the current caller entirely in order to talk to someone more deserving of your attention.
Today it seems that nothing can or should wait. Everyone needs your immediate attention, or such is the prevailing expectation. Resentment can follow quickly when expectations are not met.
In addition, many people have developed a kind of obsession with staying informed and connected. Not only are there the personal messages, but also the constant alerts indicating “breaking news” or something else of which you must be immediately aware.
Group text messages can be especially obnoxious, with dozens of replies and replies to replies back and forth between all the recipients. In short order, the text message queue is filled with long threads of often extraneous commentary.
The demand for instant information and quick response can cause a number of other problems such as impatience, imprudence, rash judgment, and becoming gossips and busybodies.
Somehow we have to get back to a more reasonable pace in our life. Many things can wait. Most interruptions we accept as necessary are not. It really is possible to go to a meeting or to Mass with your device turned off; you don’t need to be checking your messages or emails constantly. Your presence and your undivided attention is a great gift to those you are with.
Here are some New Year’s resolutions you might want to consider:
- Be less anxious or angry if someone doesn’t text or email you back right away. Remember, he or she might be busy.
- Don’t feel the need to apologize so much for not getting back to someone right away. Nearly instant access to people is a fairly new concept; not so long ago we managed to survive just fine without it.
- Turn off some or all of the sounds that signal a new text, e-mail, or the availability of some other information. Do this permanently if possible, or at least with enough frequency that you can break the obsession with always knowing what is going on.
- Check for text and email messages a reasonable number of times each day, but not when you are in meetings, in conversations with others, at lunch with friends, etc.
- Take out those earbuds as often as you can and just walk the old fashioned way: greet people, make eye contact, give some indication to people you pass by that you care that they exist, rediscover background noises or the sounds of nature, maybe even enjoy a little silence.
- Designate an occasional day when you completely unplug from your device and just “chill.”
- Make use of the “do not disturb” feature on your device. Most devices allow you to specify a limited set of people/circumstances under which the device will alert you to incoming calls or notifications. Carefully consider who belongs on the list and let the rest of the messages wait.
Sometimes less is more. We ought to consider pacing our day, having times when we gather information, times when we do our work without a lot of distraction, and times when we rest. It is too easy to allow the urgent to eclipse the important.
Consider making a resolution to do a little more triage. Many things that seem urgent or requiring immediate attention can in fact wait. Although God could solve everything all at once with the snap of His fingers, He does not do so; He has His reasons. Learn from God; let things have their time. Waiting and silence are key concepts in the spiritual life and in God’s world.