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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Shaking Off the Village

I bought my first iPhone this week.  It’s quite a change from the flip phones I’ve been using!  I’m not convinced life will be better, but it will make texting easier which is, apparently, the preferred and occasionally the only form of communication for my sons.  I’ll be able to check bus arrival times, and locate destinations, and have my calendar with me, assuming I can figure out how to make it work.

But my new iPhone has already been annoying me, sounding an insistent “ding” whenever a new email arrives.  It’s amazing how quickly this seductive little technological feature disrupted my concentration and solitude.  I like the quiet when I write, or read.  And when I’m walking with Lydia, I enjoy her voice, or simply the noise of the city.  I don’t want to have a device intruding, calling me from the solitude or the companionship.  And yet it was hard to ignore; the discipline it took to avoid checking the email message was as distracting as the email would have been itself.  So my first act of rebellion against the empire of Apple was to turn off the “ding” for email notifications.  Take that!

Henry David Thoreau cherished his time in the woods.  It was, he said, his way of “shaking off the village.”  But even Thoreau was easily distracted.  “It sometimes happens,” he wrote, “that I cannot easily shake off the village.  The thoughts of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is – I am out of my senses. . . .   What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

Few of us will voluntarily become hermits or enter a fully contemplative life.  And yet the times and spaces of solitude and contemplation are important, indeed vital if we are to know ourselves and God well enough to usefully engage the world.  As Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT puts it, “When people give themselves time for self-reflection, they come to a deeper regard for what they can offer others.”  Yet the village is insistent.  Even Thoreau found it difficult to ignore its siren call.  And today the village intrudes virtually in ways Thoreau couldn’t have imagined. 

We shouldn’t be surprised.  The designers of our various devices and apps have no use for our solitude, for the woods.  They want us Googling and Tweeting and Friending and Liking, feeding data into their algorithms so that the village and its commodities can call out to us, luring us to purchase.  They don’t want us walking hand in hand along the Lakefront; they want us – phone in hand – in the Loop purchasing the village’s wares or, more likely, in our bedrooms making money for Amazon.com.  Today Thoreau would not simply be distracted by thoughts of work in the village; he would be constantly mined for information, the prompts from his device luring him to feed the data bases that allow his every keystroke to be monetized.

The Forty Days are more than an ecclesiastical calendar designation preparing us for Holy Week and Easter; they invite us to follow the pattern of Jesus, shaking off the village for a time of reflection, introspection, contemplation, solitude.  It is a pattern ever more counter-cultural in a world that constantly tempts us to “connect.”  As Jesus reminded us, what tempts us threatens only to impoverish, not enrich.  We do not live by bread alone.

When word of my iPhone purchase was playfully announced by a colleague at our staff meeting this week, the news was greeted with applause and a bit of good natured teasing.  “The old guy is finally getting with the program!” So why am I not sharing in the collective enthusiasm?  This new tool will certainly offer me benefits and assists.  What’s not to like?  Perhaps it’s because I know that it has just become a little harder to shake off the village, that I’ll have to be that much more disciplined about protecting my solitude and the life giving practices and habits that accompany it and the precious ones who share it.   

Ironically, my iPhone’s arrived as I finished Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.  She is hardly a Luddite, but she worries throughout the book about the impact of our attachment to devices on the quality of face to face conversation so essential for nurturing empathy, friendship, learning, and work. She concludes,

“We had a love affair with a technology that seemed magical.  But like great magic, it worked by commanding our attention and not letting us see anything but what the magician wanted us to see.  Now we are ready to reclaim our attention – for solitude, for friendship, for society.”

Technology, like bread, power, and authority can enable and enhance life.  The Tempter, however, wants us to fall in love with them, using ever more amazing magic to enchant us.  We are so easily seduced, and like Thoreau find ourselves with thoughts only of the village when we are in the woods.  Suddenly we are not where our body is.  Ding.

                                John H. Thomas

                                March 10, 2016

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