On January 1st, I started a sabbatical daily log. On that day I wrote three paragraphs about what was happening in the life of the Kime Family, and mixed in there were these five words:
“I deactivated my Facebook account.”
For those of you who use Facebook, deactivating your account might feel like a big deal. Especially if you use it a lot, like I did.
For those of you who don’t have Facebook, or rarely use it, you might be thinking, “no big deal.”
I urge you all to stay with me here. Because there is more to the story. The next part of the story happened this week.
I was at the pet store this week. Buying dog food. Row after row of choices…for my dog. When we got him, he had been at the Humane League because his previous owners couldn’t care for him. He was sick from drinking pond water on their property. So the Humane League put him on special dog food for “Sensitive Digestion”. In other words, my dog is a vegetarian, and there is dog food for that.
No surprise, though. That is just like nearly any store, for nearly any product; we live in a society with so many choices.
We have been trained up from birth to be consumers. We have been told by our society that we should have a lot of choices, that we should get to pick between 50 kinds of chips, or cars, or anything. And so we have grown up under the influence of Consumerism, what Webster’s defines as “the theory that a greater progressive consumption of goods is beneficial.”
This applies to all of us: we are consumers in a consumerist society. We want our choices, we want to buy things, and when we use them up, we want more and better things. Our approach to media is no different: we consume media.
We live in a media-soaked world. I’m not just talking about social media, but also television, radio (especially talk radio), podcasts, sports, movies, publishing, music, and advertising. Think about how much media you are exposed to in one day’s time. Seriously, count it up. How many hours of media do you consume every day?
In my own family, there can be some sort of screen/media, whether it is social media, Xbox, TV shows, Netflix, podcast, playing nearly all waking hours. There are times when we are watching TV on one big screen, working on our laptops with smaller screens, and checking our phones at the same time!
So when I think about the fact that I deactivated my Facebook account on January 1st, it is curious to me that in my sabbatical journal, all I said was those five words, “I deactivated my Facebook account.”
Why is that curious? Because at the time, it felt like a bigger deal. I thought there would be sirens or explosions or something. But there was nothing. I worried it would negatively affect my life. But as far as I can tell, not having Facebook in my life, has not affected me negatively at all. That surprised me.
Why? Well, I had spent a lot of time on Facebook over the years. I started in 2008, I think. Over ten years, all the hours and hours reading posts, liking, sharing, and commenting. Being in the know. Posting, wanting people to like my posts, to share my posts. Checking. Updating. Checking again.
Simply put, Facebook was a big part of my life.
That’s why deactivating it felt emotional. Like I was cutting off something. I would no longer be in the know. But I had a sense that I needed to do this for sabbatical, so I did it.
I have been off Facebook for three and a half months, and I don’t think I’m going back. Yeah, I miss out on things. But if there is something important, Michelle lets me know. Just last week she told me about friends expecting a baby! She found out on Facebook. But since I deactivated my account, there have been surprisingly few important things that I missed. Instead I feel free. More on that later in this post.
I feel free from Facebook, but there is more consumerism in my life than just Facebook.
As I looked over my sabbatical daily log, I found another trend. Last week I told you how the first trend in my sabbatical was the month of January as filled with comments about stress and anxiety. The second thing that filled that first month was commentary about distraction.
I realized that I was a consumer of distraction. Social media was only one way I was distracted. How about you? Are you a consumer of distraction? And distraction from what?
A few days after I deactivated my Facebook account, I wrote this:
“I think right now, at this early phase of the sabbatical, I am realizing, painfully, how much distraction I have had in my life. My life has been drowning in distraction. So as I think about sabbatical, what I have found thus far, in the brief moments I have removed distraction, is that I am alone with myself. And I can’t say that I like it.”
In those early days and weeks of sabbatical, once I had cleared away some distraction in my life, guess what I found? I found a person with anxiety, a bit too cranky, a person looking for a distraction when I really needed to just be present for my family, or be alone with myself and my God. All that anxiety I talked about last week? I would use social media, TV, and phone games to try to distract myself from the anxiety.
I was surprised to learn that social media might have made it worse!
One report in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first nationally representative study exploring the link between social media use and depression. It looked at close to 2,000 people.
Each participant took an established depression assessment tool and answered questionnaires on social media use. This included the 11 most used platforms at the time: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Vine.
You know what the study found? The more time someone uses social media, the more likely that person is to be depressed.
Another study said that “all social media platforms use something called intermittent variable rewards.
“Imagine a slot machine. You pull the lever to win a prize, which is an intermittent action linked to a variable reward. Variable means you might win, or you might not. In the same way, you refresh your Facebook updates to see if you’ve won.
“What you are winning on social media? A new follower, a comment, someone liking what you posted. And what happens, the researchers found, is that you become more discouraged and depressed when people don’t give you the likes. Just like slot machines, when it comes to getting rewards out of social media, you often lose more than you win.”
So, for me, what started out as a good way to connect with the kids in the youth group (that’s when I activated and started my FB account, when we were youth pastors here and interacting with the kids in youth group), became too much of a regular part of my day and world. I could scroll through the news feed endlessly. To justify that use of time, I would say that I was I was learning about how things are going with people. But as I look back on it, I was mostly distracted.
I have no doubt that social media, screen time, talk radio, reading fiction books, or whatever is a distraction for you, is not all bad. But it can become a major distraction. What is a healthy balance to use of media?
That is a question each person needs to answer for themselves. And it starts with simply admitting that you can be distracted. For me, it was a battle in my mind. I didn’t want to admit that I was so distracted by social media and phone games.
Ask yourself this: how distracted are you? If you are spending more time watching TV than you do with your family or with God, then perhaps that is a yellow flag for you. Think about how much time you read books, listen to talk radio, watch movies and Netflix. Are you giving loads of time to those things, but little to God? That might be a yellow flag to investigate.
When we do a time study of our lives, will we find that we have been distracted from spending time with God and from spending time with the important people in our lives?
We are consumers who can very readily seek to satisfy the desires of our hearts, our longings, our need for satisfaction through distractions like social media, through sports, through television, through phone games, and we will find that those outlets do not satisfy. There is one place to find the satisfaction we crave: in the presence of the Lord.
Do you ever feel that desire to be in the presence of the Lord, but it seems impossible or irrational? If we hear ourselves saying, or if we think to ourselves, that we feel distant from God, or that we don’t hear God speak, is it because we are so distracted?
During sabbatical, I read the book Beginning to Pray by Anthony Bloom, and here is a quote that hit me between the eyes, “God could complain about us a great deal more than we about him. We complain that he does not make himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door, and we answer, “I am busy, I am sorry.” Or we do not answer at all because we do not hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain about the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than he ever is.”
When I thought about my life, I knew Bloom was describing me. The way I treated God would have been a relationship-killer if it was a human. Imagine that was how you treated your spouse, or your best friend. Imagine you gave them only 5, 10, or 15 minutes each day, and during that short time, all you did was spout off a list of things you wanted them to do. When you were done with your list, you said goodbye, and you didn’t talk with them again until you read a new list again the next day, and the next, and the next. During any of these brief daily meetings you did not ask how they were doing, or listen to what they had to say. How would that work out for your relationship? It will kill that relationship. And yet, Bloom says, that is how we can treat God, and have the gall to blame him for not talking to us. I don’t know if that describes you. It sure did me.
But hear this amazing good news: Because of what Jesus did, through his death and resurrection, we can have access to God our father. The God of the universe wants to be with us! Think of Adam and Eve in the Garden walking and talking with God. Think of the Prodigal Son returning home and his father wrapping his arms around his son in a huge welcoming hug. These are pictures of what God wants. And we can avail ourselves of that. We can spend time with him!
In Hebrews we read that Jesus is our great high priest who opened the door for us to have access to God. That is good news!
In James we read “draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” That is good news!
What do you need to do about the distraction in your life? What do you need to do to spend time in God’s presence? I invite you to take action. For me, Facebook had to go. Games on my phone had to go. More distraction still might need to go. I had to learn about listening prayer, and I had to open up space in my life to make room for it.
Another article I found described a recent experiment where people voluntarily opened space in their lives. “The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.
Conclusion: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.”
The author then shared numerous examples of how people’s lives, freed from distraction, improved:
–> An engineer realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).
–> A writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others. “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.
–> A retired stockbroker began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.
–> A PhD candidate described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”
–> A government worker replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the print edition of a newspaper. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.
Look at the amazing thing that happened when people removed distraction, and opened space in their lives! Imagine what could happen if we do the same for God?
Maybe you’re not a social media person, will consider a break from TV? Author Tim Willard gives the following advice:
First, you must be devoted to getting off your couch and turning the TV off. That’s step one. Stop trolling social media for people talking about the next new great show, ranting about how much they hate basically everything they don’t agree with.
It’s all digital noise, literally. Then shut off your TV for a year. See how that grabs you. One thing I switched up, I watercolor paint with my daughters every single night.
“But Tim, I don’t paint.” Excellent! Neither do I! Been afraid to my whole life. So, I got some good paints, good brushes, good paper, and I’m learning. I’ve missed maybe four days since the first of the year. The girls love it. We play classical music, light some incense, and laugh and compare paintings.
It’s the best parenting move I’ve done yet, I think.
I don’t watch television as it is. But this year, I’m not watching any programming. I stopped watching news channels and ordered a paper. It’s tough, and I’ve had to sacrifice, but it’s been so worth it. Ask my daughters.
Get some ideas, get devoted, and start doing things with real people, with your real hands. Make, create, mess up. It’s quite liberating.
Second, Willard says, Get radical and don’t look at your phone as soon as you roll out of bed. Let your first thirty minutes be making tea or coffee and reading something, like, I don’t know, a real Bible, or devotional, or something inspiring. Perhaps usually something by King David or that murderous chap, Paul.
I guarantee that if you attempt this, it will begin to rewire your brain. It will change your rhythm. And you’ll fight it at first. You’ll think you need to check the weather, or just hold your phone like “my precious.” But you don’t. Just be alive. Walk outside. And breathe deep the real analog world.
Third, Take a walk at lunch, and listen. What do you hear? Probably that’s the sounds of God rolling into your ears.
Fourth, listen to music. Something quiet. Something that ministers to your frazzled spirit. I listen to Bach while I’m grabbing something to read. But most mornings, it’s just me, my tea, my Moleskine and the quiet blue morning.
You should read Tim’s whole article. There’s much more great advice.
What is one way you can remove distraction in your life today? Then, and this is the exciting part, how will you use your freedom? Be creative! Include God!