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What to give up for Lent

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This is the week traditionally reserved for discussing what to give up for Lent. I’ve got two ideas. How about giving up noise and hurry? Give up the constant chatter that keeps you from ever being alone with your thoughts (or with your God) and give up the impulse to rush from one thing to the next without being fully present anywhere. In order to give up both noise and hurry in one fell swoop, spend this week considering what you are going to do with your cell phone for Lent.

Our smart phones train our brains to hurry. We’ve picked up the pace of human conversation so that “mail” is delivered instantaneously with an expectation for an instantaneous response. Conversation is abridged in order to be texted and that too demands an instant response. The device is always on and always with us, so phone calls all have urgency — rarely is the phone left ringing because it’s not a good moment to answer or we are away from our desks.

And then there are all the apps inside the phone — all the ways that developers of artificial intelligence have snared us and kept us coming back. People who would never spend hours every day in a casino click on social media icons as frequently as every 17 minutes in order to see if they are going to be rewarded by some sort of social connection. Tristan Harris, a former Google engineer who is now a whistleblower alerting people to the dangers of social media, compares a smartphone to a slot machine, where designers intentionally create addictive habits.

“Well, every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see ‘What did I get?’ There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used (by developers) to get you using the product for as long as possible.”

We’ve grown so accustomed to the constant refresh of our apps that we are restless when we are still. We have been conditioned to hurry from one quick bite of information to the next. And we twitch towards constantly having some outside source pinging at our interior thoughts. We cannot be alone. The more we fill our time and head space with the things inside our phones, the more we crowd out time and soul-space for God.

“Be still and know God.” (Ps 46:10)

In the hurry to be connected, we miss the conversation that comes when we put down the phone. We miss the nuance of expression. We miss watching the inhale that precedes the telling of a big story. We miss the sparkle in their eyes. We miss catching the tears with our fingertips. Put the phone down. Put it face down. Look up every single time a real person comes into your presence. And then force yourself to slow down and be truly present.

Few of us can give up our smart phones for Lent. They are necessary tools that can improve our quality of life. But all of us could consider using the screen time function to limit the times of day when we use certain apps. All of us could keep our phones off our dining tables and out of our bedrooms. All of us can intentionally devote a few minutes a day to silence with our Lord.

It has been estimated that the average American who lives an average lifetime will spend five years looking at his phone. Five years. As Lent begins, we are asked to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Consider carefully the time of your death. What if you could get five years back?

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019