The Common Good

Screen-Free Week and the Still Small Voice

“Be still and know that I am God.”  - Psalm 46:10a

Serene pier, Eugene Sergeev / Shutterstock.com
Serene pier, Eugene Sergeev / Shutterstock.com

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From April 29 to May 5 individuals, households, and communities will celebrate Screen-Free Week by disconnecting from their screens — TV, computers, games, mobile devices — during their free time and reconnecting with relatives, neighbors, the natural world, and the quiet voices that may be drowned out by the constant barrage of electronic noise. My neighborhood celebrated early so we could offer a variety of cost-free and screen-free family activities during the school's spring break week. I organized the celebration, as I've done for the last six years. It was satisfying to see kids slow down and engage in gardening, carpentry, music making, nature exploration … 

I also observed Screen-Free Week myself. Seven days of fasting from electronic media showed me how much time I spend using then mindlessly and forced me to confront my idolatries that are fed or masked by this mindless use. I'm using Michael Schut's definition of idolatry:

"An idol is anything we put before God, a partial truth mistaken for the whole Truth, a lesser good elevated to the ultimate good. … Idols [promise] what they cannot deliver."

These are the false promises that I sometimes pursue through screen-time:

“If you can get attention, it means that you are important, worthy, and loved.”

I thought a lot about things I'd like to say on Facebook, or on my blog, or wondering if I shouldn't be looking for other markets to try to sell my short stories. Sometimes I have messages or stories that I want to share. Sometimes I just want to the reassurance provided by attention, comments, and ‘likes.’ It doesn't work. When I fail to get attention, I feel insignificant and unloved. When I do get attention and I wonder if I'd still get it if people really knew me.

“If you don’t look at it, it will go away.”

Often I come away from listening to the news or the hard stories of my neighbors and wish to un-know what I have just heard. The easiest way to do this is by focusing on something else. Going online offers an endless succession of images and ideas in which I can forget everything else for a little while. Of course, when I stop the problems are still there.

“If you know there’s a problem, you have to do something to fix it right away. Then whatever goes wrong won’t be your fault.”

Besides the temptation of sheer distraction from difficult truths, there is the subtler temptation of 'clicktivism' which lets me feel that I’ve done something without requiring me to think deeply, pray earnestly, and change my life.

I know the Internet can be used constructively to address problems. I’ve been grateful for reminders of public comment periods, for well-crafted petitions, for sites like this one. Sometimes I use these things in a way that is mindful and constructive. Sometimes I use them as a substitute for the real work of conversion.

When I refrain from grasping at these false promises, I am left uncomfortable in the presence of hard truth. But if I stay with this discomfort I also remember the more comforting things that are true. I am worthy and beloved as a child of God and a member of the body of Christ. Some problems are beyond my ability to affect; these I can commend prayerfully to God’s keeping. Some problems are within my power to affect, God helping …

Joanna Hoyt is a homeschooled Quaker who has spent the last 12 years tending goats, gardens, and guests at St. Francis Farm, a Catholic Worker community in upstate New York.  

Image: Serene pier, Eugene Sergeev / Shutterstock.com

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