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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