Lenten mindfulness makes for an awkward dance.
The past few years, I have tried to fast from technology during Lent in one way or another. During this season that invites consciousness and conversion, I have longed for freedom from the shame that I feel about spending most of my time interacting with machines. Whether it’s limiting my social media time or quitting it all together, I have tried to honor my cravings for less screen time and more soul-centered time.
My Lenten intentions to reduce my attachments to technology have had varied results. Most of the time I fail. This year, what actually happened is that a clearer portrait of the roots of my struggle emerged.
Others are having similar experiences. A writer I greatly admire, Sara Zarr, recently wrote a reflection on her history of being an Internet user for the past 20 years. In the piece, she shares how she began this Lent with the intention of tracking (and possibly changing) her online habits. She acknowledges how using the Internet has its pros and cons, and much of her patterns of usage are ultimately rooted in the core human need to connect, to relate. As for her Lenten intentions and questions about whether she needed to change those patterns, she states that Lent provided “lots of reminders of why I wanted to change it in the first place."
I really appreciate Zarr's honesty about her tendency to use the Internet compulsively. She said it, but I have experienced it too: "It is the easiest, fastest way to relieve a moment of loneliness, to procrastinate, to fill a void, to get an ego hit, a dopamine rush, approval. . . . I mean, we all know how that works. It’s hard to turn off and look away." Whoa, doesn't she just name exactly what continues to drive us all online? Certainly, much of the shame and guilt I feel about my own technology usage is due to the things that drive me into it, and not actually because of the fact that I am using technology itself.
Our spirituality offers us some reassurance as we struggle with this. God is with us in our loneliness, in our habits of avoidance, in our needs for approval and connection. Spirit invites us into holiness and health, not disappointment or frustration. If we let the tools of technology lead us to the right places of prayer and communion, we can meet God, deepen our relationships and serve others. But if our human weakness and its sinful nature get the best of us, we can lose control and then technology can become self-serving or even an addiction. Fortunately, God remains steadfast in offerings of mercy and love to help us get back on track.
It seems to me that our relationship with technology enters into this awkward Lenten dance. Much of what is really at work here is that we are living in a bit of gap. There's a gap between our preferred behaviors and our actual behaviors. There’s a space between who we are and who we wish to be. If we try, we can find God in this gap and discover ways to serve others, live in community, to share and participate.
This Lent I have been amazed about how God has used that gap to help me experience greater connections with my brothers and sisters who were previously strangers to me. In particular, the CRS Rice Bowl videos have enhanced my Lenten journey. In my classroom and with my sisters at home, I have been praying through the Lenten calendar and “visiting” a different country each week. I have watched the videos about the people and situations we pray for. One of the sisters I live with has even tried out the accompanying recipes on her night to cook each week. It was a surprisingly powerful experience for me to view the video about life in the Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, to discuss it with all four sections of my students, to hear more details about the experience of fleeing the war as the week continued and then to eat food that those refugees might have eaten – what was to me a very foreign Middle Eastern meal, fattet laban, at the end of the week. It felt like a very potent act of breaking bread together, to sit down at the table and imagine those faces sitting across from me.
Indeed, because the CRS Rice Bowl is not simply passive screen viewing but also involves particular actions of fasting, prayer and almsgiving, it has helped me to experience a sense of solidarity with the church around the world.
Our Gospel living is about connecting, relating and serving. It's about communion and building community. It's about willing the good of the other through our loving actions. If technology helps us with that, then it indeed can be a tool used for God's purposes.
As we step forward into the future with these new and powerful tools in our hands, we must be as alert and deliberate as possible in the ways that we put them to use. In fact, as Ilia Delio writes, "We humans are becoming something new with technology. . . . Technology is evoking new patterns of relatedness which now include an artificial device. Hence, we need an operative definition of IT as ‘intentional technology.’” We need to look towards the ways that technology can help to build connections, inform our hearts and minds, and open our eyes towards opportunities for further action.
As it turns out, I need not be ashamed about my technology habits, as I am united with many in these dilemmas. Instead, I can heed the invitation of this Lenten season and let my increased consciousness influence my choices. By the grace of God, I can change and become more intentional in my use of technology. In this Lenten dance, we can unite and move together with greater intentionality toward true freedom. With more intentionality I shall gain more freedom, by the grace of God we all will.
This column is an adaptation of a recent blog post.
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]