I did not know what a good choice I was making when I announced to my church a few weeks ago that I would be practicing presence for Lent. After having a few conversations prior to Ash Wednesday and thinking about how I would approach the season leading to Easter, I thought about how distracted and anxious I have been feeling and decided to attempt to be present with one thing at a time rather than multi-tasking like mad all the time.
This is really hard for me. I have two little kids. I work in multiple environments with at least three screens and always have my phone on me. I keep several lists going and have at least four teams I am in communication with each week. Oh, did I mention this doctoral thing. Yeah, that too.
In lent, the season to remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return, while preparing for the death and resurrection of Christ, is a worthy time to slow down and be with one person, one group, one thought at a time. Being present is difficult and has already caused me to repent multiple times a day to the Lord. What is quite timely in this season is Cal Newport’s latest book, Digital Minimalism, which advocates for a method of reducing the screens and low-quality digital addiction consuming much of the world. Essentially Newport is offering strategies with ample data and stories to decrease digital content and increase the natural balance of being present with oneself and others.
Newport’s book is decently compelling in part one, where the reader learns that our minds are being coopted by the big four and other media sources through our constant connection via the internet and smartphones. But what is really motivating is the second half of the book, outlining themes of solitude, communion, leisure, and focused attention. In each of these sections Newport gives story after story of research and experiences of those who have transformed their technology to work for them and are utilizing the benefits of the themes to make their life more holistic. This is Newport’s hope for his reader. As he states in his conclusion, “My hope is that digital minimalism can help reverse this state of affairs by providing a constructive way to engage and leverage the latest innovations to your advantage, not that of faceless attention economy conglomerates.”
One difficulty one might have with Newport’s treatise is its length and in-depth strategy to get to the minimalistic place with digital content. This may seem ironic, but the reality is it takes a lot of effort to go through an entire book to reduce one’s digital reach when already looped into the ways of consuming content passively. It takes motivation to thoroughly strategize beyond removing apps from a smart phone (which I did immediately after reading the first three chapters). Removing apps is not enough. As Newport explains, old habits have to be removed while new practices have to be implemented. There may be a temptation for readers who are used to consuming to simply attempt to add in the habits from the second section without doing the work of the first. While a good idea on the surface, and something I think many people probably try outside of Newport’s book, the problem is that there is just not enough bandwidth to constantly check email while spending quality time with your family (I know, I have tried).
To really Marie Kondo your technology is a discipline that requires going through each item, recognizing where our real values are, and making and following through with decisions to act on them. Discipline is a commitment to a practice or set of practices with specific parameters, often with negative aspects to reinforce behavior. In this light, disciplines do not seem fun or effective. Yet, when perceived with the long-term goal in mind, the momentary pain may be worth the future gain.
Perhaps a reframe of Newport’s book could be helpful. What if it were viewed as the spiritual discipline of digital minimalism? This could be a good companion to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, as he does not attend to the digital world in any detail. In particular, Newport’s book might just be the root to helping people find more hope in the other spiritual disciplines and grow their life with God.
One aspect of Newport’s text I added to my life this week was that of high-quality leisure through attending a cultural event. On Tuesday night, a friend and I went to see Michelle Obama on her book tour of her memoir, Becoming. This was a good field study opportunity as well as a chance to hear from a woman who has embodied discipline and unwavering values in the way she has worked, raised children, and started initiatives to make a healthier America through the lives of youth. The focus of her book is to transparently share her story and help others find themselves in it, owning their own journey as valid and sharing it with others.
In reading Digital Minimalism and listening to Michelle Obama and watching Marie Kondo, I recognize the continued discipline of presence needed by me for my own good and for the good of others. It requires physical and mental work. To remove apps, to set schedules, to place my phone or screen away from me, to look people in the eyes, and more deeply listen to what is being said without considering how I might answer. Presence with others is hard. Sadly, in this new era of digitalization, being human is hard.
 Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism (p. 254). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Obama, Michelle. Becoming Tour, Portland, OR, March 21, 2019.