Twelve years ago, we made the decision to remove our television from the comfort of our living room to the much less desirable, unfinished basement. The decision had the impact we hoped it would, in that it cut our screen time to almost nothing, except for the occasional family movie. Instead, we encouraged outdoor activities when weather allowed, hosted bonfires, built a tree house, played in the leaf piles, and even attempted a garden (something we have yet to master). The long Wisconsin winters were spent reading, sledding, baking cookies, snow-shoeing, and playing endless games of Monopoly (my daughter, a novice of the game, would ask in exasperation “how do we END this?!). We felt good about the intentional engagement with each other and with our community. My husband and I struggled through the challenge of opposite shifts and child-rearing, but with just enough patience, a sense of humor, and probably far too much ‘hamburger helper’, we made it work. When I wasn’t at the office, the small window between the kids’ bedtime and ours was filled with an opportunity to talk over the day, listen to soothing music, or step out on the porch swing and gaze up a the stars. We didn’t miss the TV set. Except for our fondness for Christmas movies and my husband’s need for Packers football, we could have easily given it away. Our days were filled with screen-free pursuits and we were thriving on this set-up. We didn’t have the perfect life, but we were making every effort to be present for it.
Fast forward nine years and, thanks to a steady soundtrack of creative cajoling and shameless begging from our teens, we became a smartphone family. I, for one, was hooked instantly. The lull of constant connectivity sucked me in…podcasts, social media, news, recipes, how-to videos, texting! The world at my fingertips!! Always an eager learner, I found the breadth of information now available to me to be exhilarating. If I had a question or a remote interest in something, I could access that information immediately…and then find links to other questions or bits of information I didn’t even know I wanted to know, but now had a keen interest in finding out. Given the time, I could get lost for hours in endless rabbit holes of truly fascinating content. Several years into this crash course in the wonders of this new-to-me technology, I started to notice my waning ability to focus in depth on hobbies that previously interested me. My attention was increasingly fragmented. Sitting down to read a book became a challenge as I was easily distracted by notifications or my mind would suddenly think of the ‘perfect’ response to that one post. Even my usually serene hikes in the woods would be interrupted by my need to capture the perfect picture for posting later or a quick Fitbit check to see how my steps were adding up. I noticed that, particularly in the times when I was under the most stress, I would find my phone most compelling. Immobilized by the amount of things that needed my attention and feeling guilty about taking time to actually rest and rejuvenate, I would use my phone as a mindless transition between tasks…10 minutes here, 5 there, just to let my mind rest on funny video, a friend’s beautiful vacation photos, an inspirational article. The problem was that those minutes added up and squeezed out any opportunity for an extended period of intentional rest, where I could pay attention to and slowly still the chatter in my mind.
The first week in January this year, our always busy holiday season ended with our oldest leaving home for the first time on a 6 month mission trip overseas, compounded by the loss of my father-in-law just two days before her departure. Back home, after this whirlwind of painful goodbyes, I found myself once again drawn to the steady hum of distraction in my always available phone. For a few days, I willfully ignored the limitations I had crafted for myself on my Moment app (a helpful iPhone tracker for those who want to monitor and reduce their phone time). But, as my homesick daughter and my heartsick husband began to share with me the depth of their feelings, it became apparent to me that I could not run on the fumes of funny cat videos, political rants, or vacation photos, and really be there for my family. The extra stimulation of my screen time was adding fuel to the intensity of thoughts rolling about in my mind. I needed the rest and the refueling my phone simply could not give. I said a goodbye to my Facebook community and signed off for the foreseeable future. I replaced podcasts with soft music or simply, silence. This allowed me the space to pray for those I was concerned about or to find ways to show them I care. I have turned off most notifications, so that I can sit on my couch and absorb a book or jot some thoughts in my journal or write a letter or pet the dog and breathe for a while. It’s amazing what a solid 30 minutes of intentionally set-aside, stimulation-free rest can do. I find myself less in need of mindless distraction when I have mindfully allowed myself the time for rest that I initially felt I didn’t have or felt guilty about taking. I am more efficient when I take that break instead of pushing myself through, allowing frequent checks of my phone along the way. I am giving myself some significant respite before figuring out what I can add back in and for what amount of time. And ultimately, I do reserve the option to go back to a flip phone (the equivalent of putting the TV in the basement), if I ever again feel that my device is controlling me instead of the other way around. Real rest and a quiet mind in my busy life are worth that to me.
I share this with you, not as a slam against technology, but in an effort to get you to think about your own use or misuse of it. As I counsel others and listen to their stories, I hear in many of them the same pull towards mindless distraction, anything that can just take some of the weight of the world off their shoulders. Often times, people will share with me that they can’t seem to make time in their schedule for relaxation and that, if they do, they just want to watch their show or scroll through social media or play some video games. All of these are enjoyable pursuits, no doubt…and when you have enough spare time for them AND for true rest, go for it. But if you have to choose, let me caution you that reducing stimulation, not adding to it, may be what you actually, desperately need. Our minds race to keep up with a fast-paced world and sometimes we keep them on overdrive for far too long. When that happens, feelings of anxiety, depression, and a general sense of overwhelm can creep in. Screens can offer temporary self-protection from this, but they also refuse to allow us the mind-space needed to experience genuine joy, gratitude, or compassion. Yes, we can control what happens on our little devices. We can escape for a time. We can plug in only what we want people to know and pause our life on perfection. Off of our devices, our lives are far more complex. We are flawed, we face challenges, we struggle, we fail. Yet, we need the time and space to be honest with ourselves about these very challenges or shortcomings, if we are to problem solve solutions or grow beyond them. We also need to recognize and appreciate the blessing in our life to remind us of the many reasons why we persevere and the strengths that enable us to do so.
So, what are you doing to cut out the noise and to create stillness in your life? Are there screens that have dominated your time of rest? If so, it may take some time to retrain your brain not to crave stimulation, to linger in your focus, and to find activities that are life-giving, instead of life-draining. You may have to battle for that space, for the gift of rest. It is not a luxury and not something to feel guilty about taking. In this frenetic, constantly connected, information-highway kind of world, it is essential to find a regular off-ramp, establish some breathing space, and refuel so that you can continue on your journey, more refreshed and ready for the inevitable bumps in the road. Life will not be perfect, but it is always best to be present for it.
Larisa B. joined Empathia in 1998 as an EAP Counselor. Larisa has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Alverno College and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Larisa thrives on being with her family, has a passion for photography, is always up for a good hike, and is typically in the middle of no less than three books at any given time.