A Clean Break from Technology

The thought came to me in Rome, sitting on a small balcony overlooking the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The shell windchimes hanging just inside the window of the apartment we’d rented for a few days were tinkling on a soft breeze carrying the peal of church bells from across the Eternal City. There were plump figs our hostess had brought from Umbria on the kitchen counter and bottles of sparkling wine and fresh-pressed melon juice in the refrigerator she had made us promise we’d drink—for our health. My husband was sleeping off jet lag in the other room, the heavy wooden shutters angled to block the sunlight. And I was turning another year older. I’d meant to write a short blog post before I left for the first two-week vacation of my adult life, just to let my readers know I’d be taking a break from blogging over the next few weeks as we traveled through Italy. But, in the whirlwind of packing and planning that didn’t slow until we’d boarded the airplane, that didn’t happen. So I thought I’d bang it out right there. On my birthday. On my dream vacation.

We need to cultivate time for quiet amid the constant noise.

That’s when I realized I had a problem: I needed to log off, needed a clean break from the technology that had taken root and grown, long and twisting, into every part of my life, from work to social interactions. That’s not easy to do when you’re social media editor for one of the largest newspapers in the United States. I’m a Type A personality, a 3 on the Enneagram: the classic “Achiever.”

I’m the type who catches up on emails and blog posts while brushing my teeth in the morning. I constantly am checking social media, tapping my phone screen while waiting in line or on a train or—and this is when you know things are getting desperate–for a page to load on another device. I work all day and then come home from work and work for fun. And I know I’m not the only one.

Researchers have noted a rise in Digital Attention Disorder, retweets and “likes” releasing pleasurable dopamine in our brains in the same way unpredictable rewards do in lab rats and pigeons. There is a rehab center for those addicted to technology, which, according to its founder, is “the vast majority of the American population”–at least, mildly. Aside from addiction, there’s research that shows the soft glow of a screen can disturb sleep  and links cell phone use to selfish behavior. And the fact that technology allows us to work all the time makes us feel like we should; meantime, being constantly plugged in brings those work-related issues home and keeps us from de-stressing at night.

This is something artists and monks long have known: that we need to cultivate time for quiet amid the constant noise, for reflection before rushing to the next thing; that sometimes our most real, most important work is done in secret. Not everything is meant to be shared with the Internet. Blogger and memoirist Sarah Bessey calls this the “spiritual discipline of secrecy.” Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Poet May Sarton wrote in Journal of a Solitude: “This is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and discover what is happening or has happened.” Of course, Sarton also wrote she worried if she made an open place for meditation, she might not find herself inside it. And maybe we’re afraid, if we left open places unfilled by the hum of technology and busyness, of what we might find—or not find—there. There’s a level of trust that comes with unplugging: trusting that your coworkers can do the work without you; that the dinner you made is good enough without the affirmation of a half-dozen likes on Instagram; that your people still will be there when you return. It doesn’t need to be posted, filtered and commented on to be real. It may feel like you’re missing everything that is happening, but it also may be that you aren’t missing much; that your life isn’t terribly enriched by knowing that Facebook was down for 40 minutes last night or that Taylor Swift’s Twitter account was hacked, hacked, hacked, hacked, hacked. I missed the announcement of the second royal baby while I was traveling, unplugged, across Italy. But then, I also listened to Pope Francis speak in St. Peter’s Square and a piano trio perform Haydn and Schubert under the stars at Rome’s Castel Sant’ Angelo. I knelt beneath the same cross where St. Francis of Assisi had prayed to God he might “carry out what is truly Your holy will.” I ate saucy tripe sandwiches from a street vendor in Florence and swished glasses of gold-flecked vin santo at a wine festival in Tuscany. And I felt something I hadn’t in years. I felt relaxed. I felt rooted. I didn’t feel like I was missing much at all.  

Emily McFarlan Miller
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11 thoughts on “A Clean Break from Technology

  1. Emily, I love this! I felt a strong nudge, that wouldn’t relent, to let go of my blog site after six years of tethered communication. Alone with my thoughts. No one to “like” my moments. No comments. Nothing. Strangely, I felt an inner peace I haven’t felt in a long time. I hope after you arrived home, your calendar marked out times/places to break from technology to reboot this inner peace. Maybe call it: Sabbath unplugged!

    • How courageous of you to say “yes” to that nudge! I love the idea of a Sabbath unplugged. It’s something I still am working toward – it’s OK to admit here I’m still in the midst of the mess, right? 😉

  2. Great thoughts Emily. I know for me this is easier when I am away. How do we find a way to practice being disconnected in our daily lives? I struggle to do this but realize how important it is. I sometimes cannot wait for a stop light to look at my phone.

    • I’ve totally done the stoplight thing. 😉

      It’s a good question – and something I still am working on. Almost missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime trip was my come-to-Jesus moment about needing to unplug. I saw how restorative it was NOT to be constantly tethered to a device and how rejuvenated I was when I came back to work, and that sort of broke something. I don’t log on as much at night, and I don’t post as much on weekends. So I’m working on finding that balance. One thing that’s helped this year is writing down EVERYTHING in my planner: If I can see everything I need to get done and then cross it off, I can stop worrying about those things and feeling like I need to be connected the rest of the time and actually make some time to relax.

  3. Steve, that is a great question. I am the same way, compulsively checking my phone. Sometimes I have to put it on a high shelf or in a drawer to just get it out of my field of vision. Sometimes I would do it on a Friday night and try to go through Saturday, as a Sabbath, without having it everywhere. It’s a challenge, and I hate the control it has over me. I appreciate Emily’s research and commitment to cultivating peace and stillness in her life. Excellent work, Emily!

  4. This. Excellent. Probably because it was written from ITALY!! The line I’m using as food for thought: There’s a level of trust that comes with unplugging: trusting that your coworkers can do the work without you; that the dinner you made is good enough without the affirmation of a half-dozen likes on Instagram; that your people still will be there when you return.

    • Ha! Thank you! The first few lines were written in Italy… before the church bells all started ringing, and I looked up from my screen to see if I could match sound and steeple, and I thought to myself, this literally is a dream come true. This probably will never happen again. What am I doing staring at a screen like I do every other day?! So I turned off my iPad and wrote the rest I wrote after I came home.

      There really is something to be said about unplugging, how restorative it is to come back to your work fresh – especially when it’s a creative work!

  5. It’s so hard to find balance in this online life. Awhile back, I felt the whisper on my heart to pull back, to choose carefully the words I put into the world, and I go back and forth being pulled back to the relationships that feel neglected when I avoid these online spaces and fighting the addiction of one more Facebook post, one more check for ‘likes’ and ‘comments,’ one more scroll through my newsfeed to see what my friends are eating for dinner…. I don’t know where to find the balance, don’t know if it’s even possible to balance, but I’m glad to know that we’re all trying to figure it out in spaces like these. Hope your time in Italy was wonderful and your break was restful.

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