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