(Note: Part 1 appeared yesterday.)

Second, there is the threat of acedia. Acedia is an old word roughly equivalent to “sloth” or “listlessness.” It is not a synonym for leisure, or even laziness. Acedia suggests indifference and spiritual forgetfulness. It’s like the dark night of the soul, but more blah, more vanilla, less interesting. As Richard John Neuhaus explains, “Acedia is evenings without number obliterated by television, evenings neither of entertainment nor of education but of narcoticized defense against time and duty. Above all, acedia is apathy, the refusal to engage the pathos of other lives and of God’s life with them” (Freedom for Ministry, 227).

For too many of us, the hustle and bustle of electronic activity is a sad expression of a deeper acedia. We feel busy, but not with a hobby or recreation or play. We are busy with busyness. Rather than figure out what to do with our spare minutes and hours, we are content to swim in the shallows and pass our time with passing the time. How many of us, growing too accustomed to the acedia of our age, feel this strange mix of busyness and lifelessness? We are always engaged with our thumbs, but rarely engaged with our thoughts. We keep downloading information, but rarely get down into the depths of our hearts. That’s acedia—purposelessness disguised as constant commotion.

All of this leads directly to the third threat of our digital world and that’s the danger that we are never alone. When I say “never alone,” I’m not talking about Big Brother watching over us or the threat of security breaches. I’m talking about our desire to never be alone. Peter Kreeft is right: “We want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to, we want to. We wanted to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.” (Christianity for Modern Pagans, 168).

Sometimes I wonder if I’m so busy because I’ve come to believe the lie that busyness is the point. And nothing allows us to be busy—all the time, with anyone anywhere—like having the whole world in a little black rectangle in your pocket. In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers likens our digital age to a gigantic room. In the room are more than a billion people. But despite its size, everyone is in close proximity to everyone else. At any moment someone may come up and tap you on the shoulder—a text, a hit, a comment, a tweet, a post, a message, a new thread. Some people come up to talk business, others to complain, others to tell secrets, others to flirt, others to sell you things, others to give you information, others just to tell you what they’re thinking or doing. This goes on day and night. Powers calls it a “non-stop festival of human interaction” (xii).

We enjoy the room immensely—for awhile. But eventually we grow tired of the constant noise. We struggle to find a personal zone. Someone taps us while we’re eating, while we’re sleeping, while we’re on a date. We even get tapped in the bathroom for crying out loud. So we decide to take a digital vacation, just a short one. But no one else seems to know where the exit is. No one else seems interested in leaving. In fact, they all seem put off that you might not want to stay. And even when you find the exit and see the enchanting world through the opening, you aren’t sure what life will be like on the other side. It’s a leap of faith to jump out and see what happens.

The point of Power’s parable should be self-evident. Like Tolkien’s ring, we love the room and hate the room. We want to breathe the undistracted air of digital independence, but increasingly the Room is all we know. How can we walk out when everyone else is staying in? How will we pass our time and occupy our thoughts with the unceasing tap, tap, tap? For many of us, the Web is like the Eagles’ Hotel California: we can check out anytime we like, but we can never leave.

And the scariest part is that we may not want to leave. What if we prefer endless noise to the deafening sound of silence? What if we do not care to hear God’s still, small voice? What if the trivialities and distractions of our day are not forced upon us by busyness, or forced upon us at all? What if we choose to be busy so that we can continue to live with trivia and distraction? If “digital busyness is the enemy of depth” (17)  then we are bound to be stuck in the shallows so long as we’re never alone. Our digital age gives new relevance to Pascal’s famous line: “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.”

Or stay out of the room, as the case may be.

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21 thoughts on “Don’t Let the Screen Strangle Your Soul (2 of 2)”

  1. Lori Rogers says:

    Thank you. Thank you very much.

  2. Kevin Jandt says:

    Great article Kevin. Just like this incrementally snuck it’s way into our lives, we must take incremental steps to remove the constancy of the demands.

  3. Kip says:

    Great article, and so true. I just started reading Kreeft’s book on Pascal and it amazing, C.S. Lewis amazing. Kreeft also said:

    “The point is very simple: in order to create time to pray, we must destroy time to do something else. We must kill something, refuse something, say no to something. To what? Let me make a simple, obvious, radical suggestion: the TV. Kill the TV. Go cold turkey for a month. I dare you. If you can’t do that, then TV is your drug and you’re an addict. “A man is a slave to whatever he cannot part with that is less than himself,” said George MacDonald.”

    My wife and I did this a few years ago. Last year I set a goal to read 50 books and did it. I resist the smart phone because I know I easily transition to acedia. So much of my life has been diluted away in TV, video games, Facebook, etc.

  4. This reminded me of a piece from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and if he’s right there are community implications to your point.

    “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. Alone you stood before God when he called you; alone you had to answer that call; alone you had to struggle and pray; and alone you will die and give an account to God. You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.”

    “But the reverse is also true. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.”

    “We recognize, then, that only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship. Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship.”

    “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” (Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pp. 77, 78).

  5. LG says:

    Thanks for this, brother.

    I’m right on the cusp between Gen-X and Millennial, so I’m really comfortable with technology. I like facebook. I like Netflix. I love my Kindle. I really enjoy having a smartphone. But they’re tools, not ends. I like facebook because it’s an easy way to be involved in the lives of my friends overseas. I like Netflix because I like the stories I can access, and I like that it helps keep me out of the loop — I can watch on my schedule and not a network’s. I read WAY more now that I have a Kindle than I did before (and I was a big reader before). I like being able to look up stuff on my phone instead of having to haul out my laptop.

    But still, every Lent I give up social media. It gives me a chance to unplug, and makes me appreciate its benefits so much more when I come back (I also always end up cleaning out my feed and friends lists after Lent). All that stuff — TV, social media, movies — comes at us with such urgency that it can be hard to prioritize, hard to see them as tools for rest or enjoyment or connection. Taking a longer-term break from them can, I think, help us do that.

  6. anaquaduck says:

    I think in No 2 the enemy is busyness more than the screen. Priorities is a difficult lesson, like knowing your limits & saying no for many people it woud seem. Mary, Martha & Jesus would know a thing or two about this.

    The TV can be informative & revealing as much as a destructive or a negative influence.

    There is an old hymn…”take time to be holy” on nice evenings I stroll outside to lock up the car or garage…I look up & am blown away by the silence & majesty of creation.

  7. Melody says:

    God’s voice still gets through. Not even my sin has silenced Him.

  8. Tim says:

    I can’t help but think that the speed at which the internet changes also makes us competitive in getting our voices “heard” and as such, we don’t think about our words, responses, or even IF we need to respond, or WHERE and HOW we need to respond. I myself feel the pull that you describe. Even now, I write this response on my iPad. (how ironic, eh?) But, I’ve been very convicted to not use Facebook as a means to “debate” my point. I don’t think, most of the time, that it is the right place to debate.

  9. Ben says:

    The third threat reminded me of this from Pascal:

    “Diversion. — Men are entrusted from infancy with the care of their honour, their property, their friends, and even with the property and the honour of their friends. They are overwhelmed with business, with the study of languages, and with physical exercise; and they are made to understand that they cannot be happy unless their health, their honour, their fortune and that of their friends be in good condition, and that a single thing wanting will make them unhappy. Thus they are given cares and business which make them bustle about from break of day. It is, you will exclaim, a strange way to make them happy! What more could be done to make them miserable?- Indeed! what could be done? We should only have to relieve them from all these cares; for then they would see themselves: they would reflect on what they are, whence they came, whither they go, and thus we cannot employ and divert them too much. And this is why, after having given them so much business, we advise them, if they have some time for relaxation, to employ it in amusement, in play, and to be always fully occupied.
    How hollow and full of ribaldry is the heart of man!”

    Not so much a new problem, so much as a more acknowledged and ubiquitous one.

  10. Early in part 1 you indicated that you had not been a geek but now, based on the list you gave, you are deeply involved. I would like to hear a follow up giving your own personal strategy for dealing with the problem. You gave us plenty of the dangers, but at least for me, you left us hanging as how you avoid the pitfalls personally. I’m an older person but identify with the struggles. I feel like I have more tools to help me because of my pre-tech life. But I’m concerned about twenty and thirty-somethings who may not have had to develop the quiet life because they’ve always been immersed.

    Last year I wrote a lengthy series on this very issue if you’re interested. Part 1 is at http://rogert.me/U2jWm9

  11. anaquaduck says:

    It is possible that modern living with all its technology is like the Trojan horse, what is inside the package has the potential to takeover.

    When I look at those images of the stock market with people buying & selling franticly & where every second seems to count as loss, it just looks like a formula for stress & breakdown.

    If it’s anything like my garage, sooner or later I have to decide that something has to go. As useful as many things can be & hold a certain value somewhere in the universe. We have to become pickers…& wise ones at that, the usefulness & value of our lives depends on it. I know of an old book that was written for such situations…

  12. rafiul islam says:

    wow .. its nice unique article

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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