DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

On Being Still

Written by: on October 10, 2018

When I was kid I used the watch a cartoon called “The Jetsons” about a futuristic family that zoomed around town in mini-aircraft, had robot servants, and could make dinner with the push of a button. It seemed like of world as fictional as that of Harry Potter, but in fact, much of what I found magical in The Jetsons is now an ordinary part of my everyday existence—from skype to smart watches to the ability to watch TV on my phone.

While these technologies have increased our connectivity in some ways (How did people survive before email?), they have also become sources of on-going distraction. Places of silence and solitude have become hard to come by—a desire for those things is rarer still. We’ve gotten used to constant entertainment. We listen to music while we exercise, we watch TV while folding clothes, we read our kindles on the train, and we check our emails while in line at the grocery store. It’s not uncommon for any given room to have more active screens than actual human bodies present.

Of all of these things, I was the worst of offenders. It was my teenage sons who set the rule, “No phones at the dinner table.” I regularly checked my inbox at bedtime, in the middle of the night, and first thing in the morning. I played games on my phone WHILE watching movies with my family…because being entertained wasn’t enough for me. I needed distractions from my distractions. Over the past few years, I’ve been learning the art of being still, what Newport labels “bored.”

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport boasts, “I’m comfortable being bored, and this can be a surprisingly rewarding skill…”[1] Newport is not defining “boredom” as my Depression-Era parents would define it (laziness, idleness). Newport presents “boredom” as simply being free from diversions and interruptions. Modern technologies enable (enslave?) us to live in a constant state of distraction and multi-tasking, all with the promise of making our lives simpler. Ha!

When I realized that I was in bondage to technology in general, and my phone specifically, I picked up the book The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an age of Distraction. It was the subtitle that drew me in. In that book, author Matthew B. Crawford quotes a note by novelist David Foster Wallace, found shortly after his death. It read: “Bliss…lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”[2] I began to long for moments of lying in the grass watching clouds blow by or sitting in a café with nothing but a warm cup of coffee in my hands.

I was further inspired to curb my digital appetite when I learned that my Internet habits were actually changing the contours and capacities of my brain. “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion.”[3] In his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicolar Carr describes an experiment that proved that the brain pathways that activate moral and psychological domains of the brain take time to respond to stimuli. “The experiment, says the scholars, indicates that the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.”[4] It’s no wonder that empathy has recently become a topic of much research and social concern. We’re losing our natural capacity for empathy, and so now we have to learn it remedially.

It seems that the ability to be constantly connected has not made us more efficient and better at our work, but less and efficient and sloppier. There are no longer easy boundaries between office and home, work and rest, important and trivial. Everything endlessly clamours for our attention: Email, text messages, Instagram, FaceTime, Evites, Zoom chats, 24/7/365.

Selah.

“She didn’t spend time bemoaning her fate. She looked to herself, took responsibility, made a plan.”[5]

We cannot become hermits—not if we want to engage in the world with a positive impact for the Kingdom of God. Total disconnection is not the answer. But partial disconnection—planned, deliberate blocks of time away from the beeping and buzzing of our digital world—might be a workable solution. Newport describes a process that is similar to what I have been training myself to do (by God’s grace, and through His Spirit!). He talks about developing rhythms and rituals involving both time and space that provide for stretches of “deep work” (focused attention on a single idea or task) interspersed with moments of shallow work (email responses and administrative tasks) and connectivity (checking headlines and texting family members).[6]

Newport explains, “An often overlooked observation about those who use their minds to create valuable things is that they’re rarely haphazard in their work habits.”[7] Indeed, building structure into my life through the creation of a Rule of Life has enabled me to make connectivity something that serves me, and not the other way around. For several years now, I have done as Newport suggests, created blocks of time in my day for “deep work”—including times for contemplative prayer, times for research, times for ministry, and times for writing. In these moments, I keep my phone on silence, I ignore email, and I turn off music. These are highly satisfying blocks of time, and always productive –though not necessarily in conventional ways.

As a result of the research of Newport, Carr, Crawford, et. al., coupled with  my personal experience, I’m convinced that creating a Rule of Life is essential  to missionary effectiveness and sustainability. Thomas Moore says, “Every thoughtful person, no matter what his or her lifestyle may be, has a rule (meaning a pattern or model for living).”[8] I realized that even before I had a Rule of Life, I had patterns and habits, but they were unhealthy and destructive (see above: checking email in the middle of the night!). Those who believe a Rule of Life would be confining are usually unaware of the fact that they are living under the tyranny of the urgent. Even Jesus had a Rule of Life.

“But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”[9]

 

[1] Cal Newport, DEEP WORK: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. (S.l.: Grand Central Pub, 2018). 17.

[2] Matthew B. Crawford, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). 169.

[3] Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Norton pbk. [ed.] (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011). Kindle loc 3620.

[4] Carr. Kindle loc 3613.

[5] Laurence Ganzales, Deep Survival (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005). Kindle loc 2384.

[6] Newport, DEEP WORK. 100.

[7] Newport. 117.

[8] Brian Rice, The Exercises Volume One: Conversations (York, PA: Leadership ConneXions International, 2012). Kindle loc 4816.

[9] “Bible Gateway Passage: Luke 5:16 – New English Translation,” Bible Gateway, accessed October 10, 2018, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+14&version=NET.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

11 responses to “On Being Still”

  1. mm M Webb says:

    Jennifer,
    It was so nice to see you again at HK! We have a great cohort for sure, PTL.
    I’m glad you said, “might be a solution” instead of jumping on the Newport bus of boredom seekers. When I think of how Jesus just “knew” everyone’s thoughts, needs, hopes, and struggles when he walked the earth I am just amazed. He did not need a smart-phone to get or share information because He is the source of all knowledge. He is God incarnate, who surpasses any information technology system or awesome human advances. He does the Universal Work and knows the beginning from the end and is the living supernatural creator triune God who can send Instagram style messages into our hearts and minds just by thinking it. The water boy would say something like: that is some powerful high-tech tesseract level H20!
    Overall, I like the low risk ideas but think Newport lacks depth in the workplace and leadership roles that must prepare for and lead through the lose-lose scenario’s in life.
    I do not get too worried about whether I will be bored or immersed in non-stop information flows because God knows! God wired me as an adventurer, so slowing down and searching for boredom goes against my nature.
    Great post! I support the Jetsons too.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • I am an adventurer, too. But I’m also learning to yield to the Sabbath rest, which is a gift God created for me. I love my work, so I never desire to STOP doing it. But God has asked me to “take my hands off the wheel” once a week, and trust my work to Him while I let Him re-create me through rest and re-creation. I’m not “bored” on my Sabbath, but I am restful and still, contemplative and reflective. It is a change of activity and sometimes scenery that actually makes me better at my work when I return to it.

  2. Great post, Jenn!

    You captured my attention right away and drew me into your post. You mention that, “It’s no wonder that empathy has recently become a topic of much research and social concern. We’re losing our natural capacity for empathy, and so now we have to learn it remedially.” Intentional space is imperative for deep work. However, has social media increased or decreased empathy? Yes. Newport makes a great case for personal time management, but I find that his cold-turkey approach limits empathy, because his militant use of personal solitude overshadows those around him and their immediate needs. It’s important to live in balance and set personal boundaries, but I found his views a bit insular.

    Cal Newport claims the social media has created artificial relationships and barriers to deep work. However, according to Pew Research, social media has increased racial diversity, political discussion and a higher incidence of community outreach. This has also increased empathy due to a globalized worldview. Pew Research asserts that, “Contrary to the argument that internet use limits people’s participation in the local community, local institutions, and local spaces, our findings show that most internet activities are associated with higher levels of local activity” (http://www.pewinternet.org/2009/11/04/social-isolation-and-new-technology/).

    I loved your statement, “We cannot become hermits—not if we want to engage in the world with a positive impact for the Kingdom of God. Total disconnection is not the answer. But partial disconnection—planned, deliberate blocks of time away from the beeping and buzzing of our digital world—might be a workable solution.” Deep work needs to be balanced – it needs to be rhythmic.

    • I don’t disagree with you (or pew research) about community interactions, but do question the DEPTH of those interactions. Are we doing “deep work”? can we empathize? Those are the questions that are important to me.

  3. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jenn!

    I loved the Jetsons!

    I agree that we cannot become “hermits” but rather must engage our lost world. Your comments reminded me of the folks who did a Y2K Hideaway when we crossed into the year 2000. Drove me crazy! Christians were hiding out instead of helping out…

    I thought your Blog did an excellent job of bringing in outside resources. Well done! Could I add this one to your list?

    https://www.amazon.com/Replenish-Leading-Healthy-Lance-Witt/dp/0801013542?crid=5GJN1CIG41HQ&keywords=replenish+lance+witt&qid=1539396533&sprefix=replenish%2C+lance+witt%2Caps%2C402&sr=8-1-fkmrnull&ref=sr_1_fkmrnull_1

    Jay

  4. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Jennifer,

    The Jetsons! What an awesome cartoon. I had not thought about it in years but you are correct in recognizing how much of that supposedly futuristic life is now reality. I’m still waiting for my flying car though.

    You pointed out research that suggests our distracted lifestyle actually inhibits our ability to express essential emotions of deep connection with others. This is a frightening realization and should fill us all with grave concern. Spirituality requires calm, quiet, time but if human brains are losing the capacity to experience life at a slower pace what will that mean? Do you think we will develop new ways to be spiritual or that we will just accept shallowness? How do you think the Church should respond to this latest challenge?

    • Me too! I want my flying car! I think people are working on it.

      And yes, I am gravely concerned about the fate of a humanity that could lose its capacity for compassion. But my kids’ generation give me hope. More and more of them are trading their “smart” phones for simpler models, and pulling back from they tyranny of total connectivity.

      I do think we are also developping new ways to be spiritual. JUst last week Jason CLark shared a Prayer 24/7 app that I’ve already started using–and I find it to be an asset to my prayer life!

      Son once again, I don’t think the Chruch needs to see it as an “either/or” question, but rather a “both/and.” We will both embrace technology AND learn to find a balance between connectivity and disconnectivity.

  5. Great post Jenn, and glad you added a title so we can click on it now 🙂 I loved the Jetson’s as well and always think about how technology is catching up to what was depicted in the show and how enamored I was with all the gadgets and things they could do. I couldn’t agree more with your connection to the tyranny of the urgent over the important (which I struggle terribly with) and how we need to follow Jesus’ example of withdrawing to lonely places to pray and do deep work. Great hangin’ with you in HK!

  6. Greg says:

    Jenn. Not sure I like that you are stepping on my toes, ouch 🙂 I have and still do much of what you describe as “distractions”….I was the one that made the rules no phones at the table, only to have my children remind me of my own rule, ouch again.

    Appreciate the reminders and challenges.

    I have a sneaking suspicion that some “success” in our work in directly related to what we consider important and how much time we set aside for our own reflection and growth. How to measure that honestly would be difficult

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