Going out in public these days can be strangely isolating. Airport gates and subway stations are filled with dozens of people silently bobbing to their headphones or typing on their laptops. At times, our homes reflect a similar trend. It’s easy for family members to quarantine themselves with personal devices, and sometimes for good reasons.
But the key to good family relationships is presence, and that’s also the key to our relationship with God. So in our technology-saturated world, we’re facing a big challenge: how do we remain truly present to one another and to the Lord?
The Temptation to Distract Ourselves. The draw of our devices is powerful, not just for kids, but for us adults as well. At the end of the day, we’re tired. We want to do something mindless. Getting on social media, tablets, or phones can be a great way to unwind and distract ourselves. But the minute we do that, we’re not just being mindless toward our own lives; we’re being mindless to the people around us.
When I began traveling across time zones for work, I would come home exhausted. I thought I was being a good dad because I was home. I was physically present, so by extension I thought I was emotionally present. Yet I was constantly checking my phone, suffocated by the need to respond to a text or an e-mail. The look in my kids’ eyes showed that they had started to believe the modern lie—that the person on the other end of the phone was more important than they were. I needed to reprioritize how I set up my own day and my own life.
Present to One Another. Now when I go home, I make sure to silence my phone. I want my kids to see me put it in a drawer and hear me ask questions about their lives. Every conversation is a chance to give my “self” to them, attending to their physical and spiritual needs. I’ve learned that attention is a gift that we give to each other. So when I’m talking to my eldest daughter and she’s looking down at her phone, I’m tempted to bark, “Put down your phone!” Instead, over time, I’ve learned to remind her gently that it is through attention and eye contact that we communicate respect and love.
In our home, we do not allow cell phones during dinner or family time. My wife and I like to think of the tables and couches in our home as domestic altars where we offer our lives, time, and attention to one another. Jesus did this when he dwelt among us. He laughed with us; he made eye contact with us. When I show interest and presence to my wife and kids or to the person in front of me, it is “incarnational.” I am being Christ to them.
One Thursday night as we ate a spaghetti dinner, three of our kids loudly vied for “airtime.” Amidst the chaos, my wife and I noticed that our our youngest daughter wasn’t saying anything. As I asked about her day, tears poured forth. She told us that she was “so sad” because some of her friends had been mean to her at recess. Suddenly, the roar at the table ceased. Our other kids turned and hugged her. We prayed with her as a family and slowly built her back up with encouragement. Then her older sister suggested a game of Scrabble instead of dishes or television time, and the whole family joined in. This is one small example of why mealtime is sacred. It is a time of encountering Christ in one another.
Present to God. Not only do we have to learn how to be present to the person right in front of us. We must also learn to be attentive to God throughout the course of our day. This is an ongoing challenge for me. I might be killing time between meetings, boarding a flight, or sitting in a coffee shop. Rather than turning to God or even looking around me to see what’s happening, I am tempted to go to my default, which is to turn to my phone or computer.
But instead, whenever I have a few moments to myself, driving alone in the car or waiting in line to pick up our kids, I try to remember to pray and to ask God for his perspective about my life. Often in these moments, God speaks most clearly and loudly to me. When I am present to him, he can be present to me and reveal what I need to hear. It’s as if the moment my screen goes dead, my soul comes to life.
Using Devices for Good. To be clear, I don’t think screens are evil; our devices can also help us connect with God and with other people. It all depends on how we use them. Let me share some examples. I like to set a series of alarms on my phone throughout the day as a reminder to pause and pray. When my alarm goes off, I set aside the work I’m doing and pray morning prayer, the daily readings, the Angelus, a decade of the Rosary, or whatever prayer or devotion it may be.
I stay connected with people’s prayer needs through technology. In the morning, I look at my Twitter feed to see where my friends are in the world and what their families are going through. Their needs get added to my daily intercessions. The next time I text, call, or see them, I have a chance to follow up. “Hey I’ve been praying for your dad. How are things going?” Maybe I didn’t stop to post on their social media wall, “Praying for you.” But it means even more when I bring it up in another context. It becomes interpersonal.
“Show Me That App.” It’s up to each of us, no matter what our age, to get personal with our families, our peers, other generations, and our Lord. If we’ve chosen in the past to let digital connections erode personal presence, we can choose instead to become “bridgers” of the digital gap.
Take the example of a married couple in their sixties who volunteer in our parish Life Teen group. They don’t know about the coolest phone apps. But instead of feeling alienated when a teenager pulls out their phone, this couple walks over to say, “Show me that app! How does it work? I’m not that technologically savvy.” They aren’t just showing humility and interest. They’re showing a desire to enter into that teen’s world as Christ entered into our world. No doubt they are out of their comfort zone. But to fulfill our duty as parents and grandparents and catechists, we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. When we do, it’s a gift that resounds into eternity.
Mark Hart serves as CIO/VP for Life Teen International and the series editor for the Something More Faith Series and the Something More Family Faith Series, available from The Word Among Us Press. To order or learn more, call 1-800-775-9673 or visit bookstore.wau.org/faithseries.aspx to watch Mark’s video.