Luddite for Lent: A Phone-Fasting Testimony

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I did it. For Lent, I dumbed my Smartphone down to calls, texts, podcasts and maps, uninstalled all social media, and disabled my internet browser. Then I sank into the silence and waited.

At first, it felt like a house when the power goes out—too quiet. Where is the buzzing refrigerator noise I never noticed before, the dishwasher hum, or the click, click, click of the heater? Silence can be unnerving when you’re not used to it.

I read about an interesting study in the book Reclaiming Conversation recently. People were told to sit quietly without a book or a phone for fifteen minutes. Beforehand, they were asked if they’d be tempted to give themselves electroshocks if they started to feel bored. They said absolutely not. And yet after just six minutes, most of them opted to shock themselves, often more than once, rather than sit in silence.

We’d rather electrocute ourselves than be bored.

But it wasn’t so much that I had actual silence (I couldn’t fast from my gregarious 1, 3 and 5 year olds for a month), or even boredom. Instead, I was surprised at the overwhelming loneliness that slid over me in those first few days.

As I feared, invisibility was worse than silence.

Without a direct line to social media, I faded into non-existence, easing out of sight and out of mind. I still unlocked my phone just as frequently, but this time to see if anyone had texted or called. Usually no one had. Without the ability to make myself seen, I finally had to sit with myself and my actual life instead of inserting myself into the online noise.

I’m a failure when it comes to fasting from food. With low blood sugar to begin with, fasting for a day makes me irritable, tired and listless. It has the opposite effect of what is intended. Instead of seeing God more clearly, becoming aware of my idols, or making space for prayer and listening, I just end up snoozing by 6 pm.

Fasting from my Smartphone unearthed the ways I anesthetize my loneliness, distract myself from reality, and give myself the illusion of control.

Last weekend we watched the 2008 Pixar film WALL-E. In it, humans have fled polluted Earth for space, leaving robots like one called WALL-E to clean up the filth. Obese men and women zoom around inside a space ship, talking loudly into their screens as they fly from place to place. One woman’s screen goes blank and she suddenly looks around her. “We have a swimming pool?” she says, seeing the empty pool and recreation area for the first time. She glances over at the man next to her, who notices her and suddenly the sparks whizz and collide.

I stepped away from my Smartphone because I felt shackled and powerless. Addicted to the mirage of connection, it barred me from actual connection with the living, breathing souls sitting on my couch, at my kitchen island, or in my front yard. And it kept me from noticing the swimming pool, numbing my five senses down to finger swipes and a mindless pursuit of one dopamine fix after another.

So what now?

I’m still figuring that out. We can’t return to the days before we had computers in our pockets, and yet we can be wise, informed and reflective.

We can still be boss of our phones.

We can say when, how much and how long.
We can say who, how far and how much is too much.
And we can retain the right to mute them, freeze them, and TURN THEM OFF.

While I appreciate the ways my phone allows me to connect to friends, family, strangers, news, and trivial facts, I no longer trust it.

Instead of treating my phone like my best friend, I’m suspicious of the millions of marketers behind every perfectly-tailored ad chasing me around the internet, every carefully curated Facebook and Instagram feed, and every color, graphic and font pulling me under so that I never want to go up to the surface for oxygen. My phone does not have my best interests in mind.

Our phones are powerful, but their power is not Ultimate.

God metamorphoses and adapts to different times, ages, cultures, traditions and even technologies. God mastered the art of camouflage. Because of this, I’m not afraid of technology, because God is beyond, below, behind and above this. But I also want to be smarter than my Smartphone.

So here’s my plan: I’m back on Instagram, but have an app to limit the minutes I spend there because for me it is like the sweet and deathly call of the Sirens of The Odyssey—I can’t resist. But while Instagram can be a distractor and perpetuate pride or comparison, it can also be a communal celebration of the beautiful ordinary. What man intends for evil (uh, consumerism and materialism), God can still use for good.

I’m also keeping all other social media and even my browser off my phone. My laptop is in another room, so I can’t just jump on it when my kids start getting squirrely and I want to escape. I’ll check email three times a day, and spend a set amount of time on social media at those times. As soon as I start feeling like I’m gasping for breath, I’ll take an entire week off social media to recover my equilibrium and remember what it feels like to be a human being without an IV line to the internet.

The first few days fasting from my smartphone slammed me to the ground. I squirmed in the silence, the boredom, the invisibility, and the exposure of all the ways I was using it to hide from reality. But untethered, freedom found me in the silence.

God met me in hidden places I had been too afraid to venture. I stepped into the void and found God was still there. And I made a powerful discovery: my Smartphone doesn’t have to be the boss of me.

What about you? What boundaries do you have in place with your smartphone and other technology?

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Leslie Verner
I am a goer who is learning how to stay. I’ve traveled all over the world and lived in northwest China for five years before God U-turned my life and brought me back to the U.S. to get married to an actor in Chicago. I’m a former middle school teacher, mama to three little ones and like American cuisine the least. I currently live in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and write regularly about faith, justice, family and cross-cultural issues at Scraping Raisins.
Leslie Verner
Leslie Verner

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Comments

  1. It was the piece about invisibility that really resonated for me. As a single mom who, as a result of my kid’s needs, spends a lot of time alone at home,I often feel invisible. While I know this isn’t where you were going – but for those of us who feel invisible or cut off, social media can be a great antidote. A way to be connected (in some fashion) and seen (in some fashion) when it can’t be face to face. Thanks for putting words to what I’d been feeling.

  2. Unplugging is a veritable spiritual discipline in our smart phone world. Intentionally switching off reveals our inordinate attachments. I’m inspired by your story– not only did you take an intentional break, but you also examined your heart and you created a new way of healthier living going forward. That’s wisdom.

  3. Debbie-Dabble says:

    Thanks so much for stopping by and for leaving such a kind comment on my post about my nephew and thanks for your prayers…..
    Hugs,
    Deb

  4. Kathleen Bertrand says:

    O yes, o yes, o yes. I have tried to give up my smartphone for Lent for years and have failed spectacularly every time. I didn’t even try this year. However, my phone melted earlier this week and I haven’t been able to use it. I am REALLY enjoying the forced break-up and am taking this time to set up boundaries for myself once my new phone arrives. (What is that app you use for Instagram?)

    • Ha! The app is called Quality Time, but I think there may be better ones out there. I actually just ended up leaving it all off my phone and I just install and uninstall Instagram every day (okay, sometimes three times a day…). I find the extra minute or so keeps me from mindlessly clicking and scrolling. I’ve even set a timer for myself after I install it…I know this sounds extreme, but I really was/am addicted, and it’s helping!

      • Kathleen Bertrand says:

        I can’t believe I have never thought of using a timer before! *smacks head* Thanks! I made myself a little bag for the phone yesterday. And funnily enough just having to open up the zipper and get it out of its sleeping bag is preventing me from mindlessly grabbing it. Let’s hope it keeps working!

  5. shzelly says:

    This was so important for me to read today. Thank you for your insights!

  6. You would love Esther Emery’s What Falls from the Sky, her account of a year without the internet. Like you, she found it to be transformational. We have a vacation coming up in which I’ll be unplugged (Hooray!), and your experience is a helpful preparation.

    • I second the recommendation for Esther’s book! Excellent. It is so hard for me. I feel the need to be on it less but it is my only connection to home. What’sApp and Facebook are my lifeline to my family. But yes, I get it! Being 8000 miles away from friends AND taking a writing hiatus – I feel invisible. And it’s lonely and sad. And I can go to social media to make myself feel seen and to see. I think I’ll try the time limit apps you mentioned. It is so hard to be present and to need that connection also because of the distance.

      • Nicole, I know that you are not looking for a recognition or a pat on the back, but I have to chime in here with affirmation for your willingness to follow God to a hidden place and to leave behind the known and the comfortable for His bigger and better plan. Praying for you and your family.

      • What’s working best for me is actually installing and uninstalling Instagram every day!!! And I feel like I had an even harder time with this when I lived overseas since it felt like my lifeline to community and family, so I get that.

    • Already read it! LOVED IT! And hooray for forced unplugging!

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