In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport applies the practices of the minimalist movement to our digital practice.
In the second part of the book, Newport encourages the reader to embrace the discipline of solitude. I found that quite fascinating. In our world of digital distraction, we see the need to practice what the church has practiced for millennia. It turns out that society does in fact need the church in many and often unnoticed ways. It turns out that some of the brightest minds in our world of productivity have discovered the wisdom that we have known for so long and are making it accessible to secular society. This is good news as far as I’m concerned. Followers of Jesus know inherently that if we are filling our gap time with screen viewing, we are not satisfying our longing to be with God. Those who have a relationship with Christ can feel God’s absence when they turn away from being with God in order to connect at a surface level with people from the digital world. For Christians, our need for solitude has always been threatened by outside forces. This is nothing new. Why would technology be any different? What surprises me a little is that it’s only the force of digital distraction that serves as the impetus for Newport’s call to solitude.
Newport argues that because of new digital media we suffer from “solitude deprivation.” He recalls a night in the life of Dr. MLK, Jr. when he had returned home from jail to spend time in solitude – prayer and reflection – in order to hear the voice that was calling him forth to stand for truth and justice. He uses other pre-digital media examples, such as Lincoln, to make his point that solitude was easier in the past. But his reference to Blaise Pascal’s famous 17thcentury quote suggests that we have always struggled to find solitude: “The soul cause of man’s unhappiness is that he is unable to sit alone in his own room.” Or Benjamin Franklin’s journal: “I have read abundance of fine things on the subject of solitude.” Or in the famous opening lines of Augustine’s Confessions: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Our digital world today is simply a new threat to an age-old problem.
But Newport is right, I believe, in his assessment that new digital media is the dopamine fix of our day that if we allow it to run amuck in our lives, we will lose our sense of self and our touch with the mystery of the world (he doesn’t use the word “mystery” but he could have). And he’s right that we are moving further away from natural experiences of solitude that enter our imaginations when we are without our devices: “… Regular doses of solitude, mixed in with our default mode of sociality, are necessary to flourish as a human being. It’s more urgent now than ever that we recognize this fact, because, as I’ll argue next, for the first time in human history solitude is starting to fade away altogether.”
The purpose of solitude, however, is not to make us more productive and efficient, but to draw us into Communion with God, out of which can flow a life of wholeness and flourishing. As Christians, we would do well to see that our digital environment can be a threat to our lives of faith if we are not mindful to apply what Newport has suggested.
Henri Nouwen was keenly aware that without solitude we suffer from intense loneliness. The problem with the digital world is that we then turn to it to take away our loneliness, which only makes us more lonely. It’s a destructive cycle. To practice solitude is to face one’s loneliness only in order to pass through it. On the other side of solitude is the realization that we are not actually alone. Soon, we discover our sense of self and our belovedness from being in communion with God. Then, our felt need to turn to Facebook can naturally fade. Nouwen said it best himself:
All human beings are alone. No other person will completely feel like we do, think like we do, act like we do. Each of us is unique, and our aloneness is the other side of our uniqueness. The question is whether we let our aloneness become loneliness or whether we allow it to lead us into solitude. Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling to others in desperation; solitude allows us to respect others in their uniqueness and create community. Letting our aloneness grow into solitude and not into loneliness is a lifelong struggle. It requires conscious choices about whom to be with, what to study, how to pray, and when to ask for counsel. But wise choices will help us to find the solitude where our hearts can grow in love.
The little Presbyterian church where I currently serve is a country-type little church in a little town called Summerland. The sanctuary seats about 50 people total, and there is an overflow room which seats the other 60 or so. We have no screens in our sanctuary. We use hymnals and paper. I love it that my kids sit with me in the pew in church and they get to learn how to use and sing from the old hymnal. It’s kind of nostalgic, but the tradition is important to me. There’s not a lot of assistance other than the musicians. We all sing and everyone’s voices can be heard. We do not depend on the perceived reliability of new digital technology to worship God (other than the sound board). There’s a timeless feel to the service that I feel is needed in an age of historical amnesia. The best part of the service is toward the beginning, when after the tolling of the bell and the call to worship, the liturgist prepares the congregation for a time of silence and solitude for about one minute. We are encouraged to sit up straight, take three slow deep breaths, place our hands in an open posture, and we sit in silent prayer together for 1-2 minutes in order to open our hearts. I think this simple practice in worship is a counter-cultural response to the noise that Newport understands has encompassed our world.
Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to take this moment to spend the next twenty minutes in silent, centering prayer…using my centering prayer app on my phone. J
8 responses to “Digital Loneliness”
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I like your introduction and quick summation of Newport’s need to recognize the value of Christ’s influence on the church and the long practice of spiritual solitude. Thanks!
Thanks for the wonderful introduction to your church in Summerland. I can envision you and your family going through the liturgical motions, singing hymns, rustling papers, hearing the tolling of the bell. I’m doing that without the aid of any digital enhancing devices. Just me, my mind, and my imagination from your written words, descriptions, and the ethnographic image of your church.
Thanks for the virtual moment created by good old-fashioned imagination and reflection. I pulled the church site and reviewed all on-line info and pictures. “Love Spoken Here” has a nice ring to it.
Chris, I love this, especially your focus on solitude and hearing about your new church. It sounds delightful and counter-cultural in the right ways. How amazing that only a few years ago many of us, myself included, would have scorned the idea of having everything so simple when we wanted to appeal to the culture. In some ways becoming a parent has completely shifted my perspective on technology and the church. Do you ever find yourself missing tech at the church? I know there is a quote (possibly by Nouwen as well) that talks about engaging in new community first as romantic, then disillusionment, then communion. I wonder if you have wavered between any of these or find this to be true.
Thank you also for highlighting Nouwen with regard to aloneness and loneliness.
perfect ending. I am looking forward to enjoying a quite walk on the way home today from this coffee shop. Howeve I still may use my airpods to listent to my prayer playlist. I think that still counts right?
Great reflections on how the secular world may finally understand what Jesus taught and modeled for us in times of solitude and prayer. The older my kids get the more opportunity I have to get times of solitude and I am teaching my 16yr old twins how to spend time alone at the same time. I find the loneliness vs solitude direction you took to be a great reaction to a overly connected but utterly lonely world. Great job.
Hi Chris! Your church is so cute and sounds like my little country church – simple (although we do have a projector) and relationship centered (we don’t have the ocean view however – I think I see the ocean peeking in the corner of the picture?) SOLITUDE…I yearn and appreciate it the older I get. I have a long commute to the university – an hour and fifteen each way. I look at this time as a gift of solitude. 2 1/2 hours a day where I control what comes in and out of my head and how I spend this time – listening to worship music, prayer, catching up with a friend via phone or listening to podcasts/books on tape. Either way, the act of solitude is restorative for me. It’s something I’m not sure the younger generation has ever experienced with their attachment to technology…
How do you get yours?
Great post, Chris!
We sang an old hymn in church today and my mind was automatically drawn to your word picture. I could visualize your small church, the quiet contemplation, the unified prayer and the robust expression of harmonizing voices.
You write, “There’s a timeless feel to the service that I feel is needed in an age of historical amnesia. The best part of the service is toward the beginning, when after the tolling of the bell and the call to worship, the liturgist prepares the congregation for a time of silence and solitude for about one minute.” So many times, worship is seen as an action – it’s viewed as a step forward, instead of a stance of reception. How have these moments of contemplation unified the church and deepened their faith?
Clearly, though Newport is concerned about the crush of the digital age, distraction is nothing new to humanity. He spent a good deal of time discussing Thoreau who felt the need to withdraw in 1845. It’s laughable now that he saw the frenetic pace of his neighbors and decided to be more intentional in his living.
I think you are in a perfect position with your family in that little church to help them connect with something more tangible and consistent. I believe that this will serve them well in the future as they develop a sense of grounding with practices that have served to connect people to God for generations. How will you help them find a balance between that world and the one they will inhabit as adults?
Love your title! And, also this quote from you, “The purpose of solitude, however, is not to make us more productive and efficient, but to draw us into Communion with God, out of which can flow a life of wholeness and flourishing.” SO WELL SAID and THANK YOU.
Have you been able to take a Sabbath from your digital consecutiveness? I know it is hard, especially at the same time as taking an online DMin program (grin).
Keep the faith, and thanks again for your good writing.