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Put down the phone

First slide

When I was a kid, my dad told me over and over again, "In life, you’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable." My mom wasn’t much easier. She didn’t allow us to use the word "bored" and even convinced us that it was a swear word.

There’s no doubt they agreed with poet John Berryman: "To confess you’re bored/means you have no/ Inner Resources." To this day, I wince at the word "bored."

My parents’ aphorisms hit me fresh the other day as I popped in my earbuds and cued up a podcast for a long early morning jog. Facing the potential b*redom and discomfort of my own thoughts and silence for the next hour, I once again chose comfort.  

Around me on that gravel country road, the natural world was a surround-sound symphony. From deep in the nearby woods, I heard the sublime call of the hermit thrush. And then, a pileated woodpecker —one of the largest forest birds of North America — swooped across the road. In my birdwatching phase years ago, I would have stopped in awe at such a sighting. But this time, I just glanced down at my phone to adjust the volume. I chose the podcast over the pileated.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that instead of consuming digital junk food on these jogs, I am seeking some of the healthiest protein available — a lecture from a Dominican priest, a homily from Bishop Robert Barron, even a recitation of the rosary. Honestly, is there anything wrong with this? In fact, citing Berryman in my own defense, wouldn’t such media fortify my spiritual "Inner Resources?"

I wish I could trot out the "I’m OK, you’re OK" platitude at this point, but I no longer can. That’s because this same "pileated vs. podcast" fault line is showing up in every dimension of my life: prayer, marriage, family, work and friendships. And quite honestly, I’m not liking the results of my tendency to choose the podcast and virtual new content over the reality around me.

In the life of prayer, "pileated vs. podcast" means that I’m fast-forwarding past the pauses, silence and "uninteresting" parts of prayer, constantly skimming for a new message. In worship at Mass, I find my attention flitting about, sometimes unable to focus long enough to even repeat the responsorial Psalm one second after I’ve heard it. In my relationships, the "pileated vs. podcast" dynamic finds me looking past old friends to instead download a new voice, a new idea. A new episode.   

In the pre-smartphone age of my childhood, I remember sitting with my dad for long stretches of time on the front porch as he smoked his pipe. No newspaper, no magazine, no podcast. Just us, the wafting smell of his Borkum Riff pipe tobacco, and the sparrows, chickadees, and nuthatches swirling around the nearby birdfeeder. I never remember my parents so much as hinting that they were b*red. Their Inner Resources were formidable. They seemed to know — as our Byzantine rite brethren pray daily — that the "Heavenly king, consoler, spirit of truth" is "present in all places and filling all things."

Neurochemically, we now know what my "pileated vs. podcast" dynamic is all about. By choosing the podcast (insert your own flight-from-being-alone-with-your-thoughts tool here), we are denying our brains their needed downtime and rest.

According to Michael Easter, author of "The Comfort Crisis," large amounts of media consumption are like "junk food" for the brain and correlate with higher rates of anxiety and lower rates of creativity, focus and productivity. By choosing the pileated less, I am also eroding my capacity to be alone with my thoughts — and present to God’s life within and around me. By running away from b*redom and into more media, we are becoming more b*ring people with fewer and fewer "Inner Resources."

My dad is no longer with us, but it’s time for me to get back to that front porch, to being more comfortable being uncomfortable. And it’s time to invite my kids to pocket their earbuds too and join me, while we still have time to build Inner Resources together. We’ll sit, talk, listen to the cicadas, perhaps face some b*redom, and push past the siren call of our screens. Who knows, maybe we’ll even be paying attention when that majestic pileated swoops in for a visit.

Johnson and his wife, Ever, are cofounders of trinityhousecommunity.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021