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We all know the point of the story of the frog in the boiling water. Experience makes clear that we humans too can become accustomed to things that are in fact very bad for us. We can become used to them to such an extent that we really don’t notice the reality of our situation and the threat that we face. Indeed, not only is the warm water not ostensibly dangerous, it’s downright comfortable, at least up to a certain point.
While it is not so hard to imagine this happening to other people in other circumstances, common sense demands that we recognize that this could be happening to us and our children right now. I think it is. I will make a case that our now practically compulsory and compulsive use of communication technologies—especially in the form of handheld devices—is just such a situation. In other words, we have become accustomed and accepting of—even if with some grumbling and reservations—a state of affairs that cuts at the root of human life and happiness.
To go to another animal analogy: we remember the canary in the coal mine. When he starts to ail, then it’s time for the miners to leave. They aren’t going to stay to test just how much stronger they are than the canary.
Our children are the canaries. They’re suffering intensely right now, even though they probably don’t know why. And they almost surely won’t want to leave the mine. But in this case, obviously, the canaries are not expendable. We know these things, but we aren’t grabbing our children and running out of the mine, or jumping out of the water. We probably don’t think we can. So I ask: must we not find a way to do something?
Here is my plan: I will go through the three stages of detoxification, taken from standard practice in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. If this article is going to address how to detox from tech, then I must take for granted that, to some extent, we agree that we have a problem. Let me be honest and direct: if you don’t at least suspect that you and your children have some real problem with tech, then this article is probably not for you. But if you’re willing to think with me about how to go about detoxifying, then let’s get started.
You’ll see as we proceed that the main aspect of poisoning I will address is not bad content—the pornography, the ugly and sinister images, the violence, or even the propaganda glorifying what shouldn’t be glorified. The poisoning I’m addressing is, in a sense, deeper. It has to do with how technology shapes the basic habits and structures of lives: habits of thinking and reflection, of conversation and other human interaction.
There are three standard stages of detoxification: evaluation, stabilization, and preparation for the future. I will go through each of these.
Consider: How many have seen this: young people—especially in a romantic relationship—prematurely and unnaturally maintain almost constant “contact” with one another, something never before possible, but now possible. And what happens? It undermines their learning to live in the presence of those they are actually with, and it also often undermines the romantic relationship itself.
‘The silence we seek, and that we must cultivate, includes a willingness to be alone. It will feel like we are cut off from others. But this being cut off is for the sake of connection and presence.”
This is real; and this is dramatic. Indeed, it’s toxic. You can lose the ability really to be present in the here and now. And many of us are losing it. Perhaps the most alarming aspect is that more and more people don’t know any other way of being; they have little or no concrete experience, imagination, or notion of anything different. We literally don’t know what we are missing. Serious problems call for serious remedies.
Silence, solitude, and presence all go together. Cardinal Sarah writes, “[S]ilence is indispensable if we are to find God. The Father waits for his children, in their own hearts. Solitude is the best state in which to hear God’s silence. For someone who wants to find silence, solitude is the mountain that he must climb.”
The silence we seek, and that we must cultivate, includes a willingness to be alone. It will feel like we are cut off from others. But this being cut off is for the sake of connection and presence. This silence is ultimately an interior disposition.
But at the same time, being bodily creatures living in time and space, we must in humility recognize the real effect exterior context has on us. Our Lord constantly patterned this for us: he retreated away from others—to the mountain, or to the desert. For the sake of presence, he retreated to silence and solitude. Bodily context matters. This is why Cardinal Sarah emphasizes silence and solitude, both interior and exterior.
Our mobile devices and other technologies are effectively removing exterior silence and solitude. The context for contact with God, and other human persons, is being eliminated. This can be a very serious poisoning.
Our plan must be twofold, both negative and positive. There are certain things to which we must just say no, and there are others which we must affirm and cultivate.
Remember, in human life, and in the spiritual life, saying no is always for the sake of saying yes.
The cornerstone of my suggested plan is this: in all our uses of technology, especially handheld and communication devices, we must determine their use in view of our (or our children’s) forming the inner dispositions and habits that conduce to real, rich, personal relationships, human and divine. This calls especially for thinking in terms of cultivating silence and solitude, and forming habits of rich, sustained conversations in bodily presence.
Why does Cardinal Sarah have hope and confidence in victory? Because God is almighty and all-loving, and His Will is that we have life and have it to the full. We need but enter into His plan for our happiness.
He is a God of silence, of reality, and of presence. Silence is stronger than noise and distraction. Reality is greater than appearance. Presence is more powerful than absence. Our God is a God who knows how to make Presence happen. One can simply consider the Eucharist.
Silently, day in and day out, the Eucharist gives witness to what, in God’s Mind, is most important. His delight is to dwell among men, bodily. May our efforts in the area of technology, as in all areas, better dispose us to enter into that delight with Him.