“Have smartphones destroyed a generation?”
That question, and article by Jean Twenge last month from The Atlantic Magazine, haunted me on a recent retreat.
While away, I observed for a while an African man standing on the sea shore. He was very still, arms behind his back, gazing at the vast ocean and sky before him. Later, as I came out from my swim and crossed his path, he smiled and motioned with his swooping arms into the air, ocean-ward, saying, “Clears the mind. God is awesome.” He was beaming. No smartphone here. He was communing, and, together, we communed.
Everyone’s seeking communion — with another person, drugs, God, alcohol, hobbies or themselves. We have so many choices today.
As I was making retreat I saw that Apple recently revealed its newest gadget: iPhone X, selling now for $1,000. As Ms. Twenge’s Atlantic article documents, teens and others are glued to their phones, becoming more depressed and separated from one another. They’re communing, in some way, with tweets, the latest apps, chat rooms or myriad other options via these amazing devices.
But that man on the sea shore, simple and free, inspires a question: What is deeper communion? And, how can we use technology, not abuse it?
In his book, “The New New Thing,” Michael Lewis documents how Silicon Valley and others design technology to interest users and then impel them to need or want the next best thing to fulfill the new threshold of desire. It seems we always want more — technology, communion or both.
And I believe they can coexist. When I was with Mother Teresa in Calcutta in 1993, she stressfully asked me to help her sisters to love God in prayer, and also commune with God in the poorest of the poor. My take, then and now: We can walk and chew gum at the same time. Ditto for the fusion of technology and communion.
When you think of some of the “hardest test cases” of contemporary communion, I instantly think of doctors, priests and parents.
I just visited my doctor for a checkup. After waiting for him he stormed into my room and said how happy he was to see me, then waxed about surfing (which we both practice for communion purposes) and sermonized voluminously about healthy living. His phone rang; he ignored it and kept speaking to me while checking my vitals and hammer-hitting my knee. He spent 20 minutes with me, unobstructed. The smartphone has not ruined him.
Pope Francis advises that we use technology but don’t let it stop deeper communion with others, the poor and God. He’s using the best of modernity and all kinds of tech, but no doubt connecting with the poor, the imprisoned and refugees.
While at the ocean I took a walk on the beach and saw a family of eight, all playing, with dad and mom and little girls in the surf. Yet, apart, there was little son up on beach, by himself, contentedly digging in sand, making a castle. Fixed and focused. While seeming so normal, this all seemed like a “mini-miracle,” no extra gadgets, simple play, communion.
How happy and connected are we? Are we suffering from the paradox of increased choices and decreased union, and happiness?
Psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his “The Tyranny of Freedom,” describes contemporary persons as overwhelmed by too many choices, causing paralysis; and Sheena Iyengar in “The Art of Choosing,” illustrates choice overload and the subsequent need to be mindful and aware of choice-making. Both show us we need to discipline our desires while benefiting from “the new thing.”
Walk and chew gum. Tech and togetherness. We can enjoy communion through the simple reality — and virtual reality, too.
Rev. John J. Lombardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Catholic pastor of St. Peter Church in western Maryland.