October 06, 2016

Entertaining ourselves to death

It seems we have lost the ability to sit still and do nothing, which is more problematic than you might realise.

It seems we have lost the ability to sit still and do nothing, which is more problematic than you might realise.

Every spare moment, every tiny pause in the day, is soon filled by the mesmerising pull of those devices in our pockets. We check them when we wake, and then we tuck them under our pillows at night, having tapped, swiped, and clicked them 2,617 times that day [1].

This makes many of us uneasy. Why can’t we just sit still and be bored for a while? But few of us are ready to trade in our smartphones, even if we are aware of the compulsive power they have over us.

If we had a moment to really think about it (a moment we’re not allowing our thumbs to scroll and eyes to glaze over) we’d realise that it’s our thinking itself that is suffering the most. As one author lamented, ‘The last remaining place I’m guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower’ [2]. That device we worship — along with the endless cycles of box sets that swallow up countless evenings — is contributing to the death of contemplative thinking, of introspection, rumination, and reflection. And that’s surely a cause for concern.

But I don’t think our phones are the problem. Fantasising about throwing yours in the Thames and engaging in a digital detox is not going to solve very much. Why? Because this tendency towards escapism and shallow thinking has been a problem for longer than the internet has existed, and the smartphone is only the latest iteration in our quest for distraction.

Back in 1974, a Christian philosopher called Francis Schaeffer had begun to notice this same tendency under a different guise.

People today are afraid to be alone. This fear is a dominant mark of our society. Many now ceaselessly sit in the cinema or read novels about other people’s lives or watch dramas. Why? Simply to avoid facing their own existence. Many of us can sit in front of the television and, except on rare occasions, not face our own private life. Entertainment so fills every cranny of our culture we can easily escape thinking [3].

That seems accurate to me. We seek distraction because we’re afraid to be alone and face ourselves.

Schaeffer was unusually well-placed to comment on this sort of thing. He spent most of his adult life engaging in face-to-face conversations with a constant stream of people from all kinds of backgrounds, who came to stay at his home in the Alps. The home was named L’Abri meaning ‘The Shelter’, because Francis and his wife Edith aimed to provide a context where people could engage on matters of faith and life in relative solitude from the constant distractions of the modern age.

The people who came to stay in L’Abri were usually on some kind of spiritual quest for truth. Often they were taking drugs (this was the 60s and 70s), but they were also disillusioned by the hippie scene and its vacuous message of love without truth. They needed hope, but not the fluffy kind; they needed something more solid. Schaeffer was a Christian and unapologetic about it, so his conversations invariably swirled around the questions of who Jesus is, and whether his claims hold up to scrutiny.

Schaeffer was observing the beginnings of a sickness in our modern love affair with entertainment, and it bothered him because of what lay underneath, because distraction was only the symptom of a deeper sickness:

No one seems to want (and no one can find) a place for quiet — because when you are quiet, you have to face reality. But many in this present generation dare not do this because their own basis reality leads them to meaninglessness; so they fill their lives with entertainment, even if it is only noise [4].

When we are separated from a greater sense of purpose, a narrative that makes sense of life, it is only natural to feel in the quiet moments that we are staring into the void. Constant noise provides a means of running from realities and questions we find too difficult to confront, surrounding issues such as purpose, grief, boredom, death, or futility.

I think most of us know instinctively that something isn’t right here. We know that vicarious living through endless sagas on Netflix, or shallow communication through aphoristic interactions on social media, cannot be the best way to wile away our time. We know that we were made for more.

This tendency towards escapism is surely most concerning when it holds us back from exploring and developing a spiritual life; if we never take time to experience our own L’Abri, how will we ever know whether there’s more than the emptiness we so expertly avoid? When escapism becomes a way to run away from God and our own consciences, surely it is time to stop and really think again. New pleasures and constant distractions result in a harried existence, and many of us are careening down a motorway with no idea of the destination, unable or unwilling to reach for the brake.

The problem is not with our smartphones, our TVs, or our many other devices. The problem is with us. But modern-day attempts to fulfil that spiritual void through self-help and meditation are reminiscent of the fluffy ideas that disillusioned Schaeffer and his guests in the first place. So what are we to do? Do we allow ourselves to be enslaved by the constant need for distraction, do we seek shallow and temporary solutions, or do we bravely look into the void of our lives and ask ourselves what’s missing?

[1] Michael Winnick ‘Putting a finger on our phone obsession’ (16 June, 2016), research conducted by dscout: blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches
[2] ‘The end of reflection’ by Teddy Wayne for the New York Times (11 June, 2016)
[3] Francis Schaeffer, ‘Walking Through the Mud’ in No Little People (Crossway Books, 2003, first printed 1974), p.85
[4] Ibid

Andrew Haslam

Andrew Haslam
Andrew is a church leader with a wife and three kids. He is a walking cliché in his enthusiasm for coffee and craft beer.

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