As this extreme Lenten season comes to a close, I have had numerous thoughts flitting about my mind on how the coalescing of Lent and the pandemic have shaped my understanding of technology and community. Below are two insights that I hope will form me far beyond this pandemic season.
The first has to do with my pre-pandemic Lenten intention to eliminate technology as a distraction. In past years, I had fasted social media, but still found myself turning to the news on my phone to distract myself from boredom, stress, and an unpleasant Metro commute. The effect was that I still spent just as much time on my phone, and even though I justified it by “educating” myself about world events, I ended up still turning to my phone for distraction, as I had done with social media.
In The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford makes an ethical and philosophical case for why we should fight back against the powers of advertisements and technology designed to keep us addictively scrolling. Technology forms habits, and in turn, our wants and desires. As a Christian, I can’t help but draw parallels between Crawford’s argument and books that I had read for spiritual guidance. How can I focus on prayer if I continually seek an escape? How can I listen if noise is a default? At the core of my Lenten practice was a desire to be formed by material and spiritual objects that draw me outside of myself and inspire me to something greater, rather than turning inwards and dimming my external reality.
The challenge remains that I have a pragmatic dependence on my phone for what are now basic tools—navigation, instant communication, and email are seamlessly integrated into my life in ways that are very useful. Some recommend to reasonably limit phone use, such as leaving phones in one room in the house, not using phones in bed, or deeming a time for when screens are intentionally set aside. However, for this particular Lent, I wanted to see if it was possible through sheer self-control to not use my phone for any type of extraneous distractions.
Then, the pandemic happened, and I failed. The longer a stay at home order has confined me to my home, the stronger the desire to escape from this current moment grows—to escape sadness, frustration, anxiety, boredom, and uncertainty. I also lapsed in my overindulgence of the news, reading article after article about the unfolding and rapid changes to the world because of COVID-19. This only made me more sad, frustrated, and anxious. On the Sundays that I “feasted” on social media, I felt overwhelmed with information and moved closer to an anxiety attack. What was supposed to be a day of reprieve became a day of worry as I despaired over another week of remote work and social isolation.
Not all is grim. When my self-control conquerors these technological temptations, I am able to create more and read more. I finished re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia for the first time as an adult and started writing my first fictional story. These hours feel good—they point me to what is enduring and orient me to hope and (ultimate) victories that are often best represented in fiction.
In my deep dive into the writings of C.S. Lewis (I also just started the Space Trilogy), I have come to appreciate the way he articulates for both children and adults that there is real power in the Christian gospel and that light can help us overcome times of darkness. He offers practical guidance for how to act and feel when the curtain is pulled back and we can see more clearly that the whole world contains extraordinary brokenness. In his essay “Learning in War-Time,” he curtly writes, “Life has never been normal.”
If life, death, chaos, and “bentness” (to use Lewis’ word) are normal, then how will I actively change my normal post-pandemic? Many op-ed writers and commentators are starting to write on this question—what will life look like when we finally leave our apartments to resume normal life? Because it will certainly be different than what it was like pre-pandemic. I don’t believe we should look to experts for the answer; now is the ideal time to examine our own pre- and post-pandemic yearnings.
This pandemic has made me realize that, beyond a momentary Lenten observance, I really don’t want to use technology in the same ways after the pandemic. The absence of the pleasures I used to enjoy—going out to eat with friends, watching live shows, reading in a coffee shop—has heightened the richness of those activities and my desire for them.
Regrettably, in my distracted pre-pandemic life, I saw daily routine as a to-do list or obligation hedged in by work. I hurried to the Metro, hurried home to rest, hurried to a social activity to have fun and then squeezed in praying, reading, and writing. While the most meaningful parts of life happened in the margins, my margins were incredibly slim. Technology was not the only cause, but in my first two weeks of Lent when I was still commuting to work, I felt a weightlessness growing and my mental space widening just by intentionally trying to be less distracted. When less distracted, we more fully experience the richness of the world and community around us which is so often taken for granted.
To be clear, technology is not all bad, and the pandemic has clarified that for me as well. I have never used it better or appreciated it more than I have in quarantine. I’ve learned how to create more intentional virtual meetings with my friends and family that live scattered across the country. For example, my college roommates and I did our first all group FaceTime almost three years after graduating. Why didn’t we do this before? It has become a cliché to say that we are now more connected than ever before thanks to technology, but simultaneously more alone. This cliché isn’t a fixed, permanent truth. We really can be more connected than ever before—in meaningful ways–with people around the world.
This brings me to the final point in my Lenten pandemic reflections: I more fully appreciate the power of community. Last night was Maundy Thursday and Passover. It was the night that Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, broke bread, poured wine. Together, they sat around a table. I was deeply moved by the realization that so much, if not the entirety, of the gospel is facilitated by people coming together and communing with one another.
It took the inability to gather with others this Holy Week and Easter weekend for me to truly see the beauty, depth, and simplicity of Christ eating a meal with his disciples. And what if, from here on out post-pandemic, we saw every opportunity to break bread with friends and family as an imitation of Christ’s greatest act of love? I hope I will not be able to eat a meal with other people in the same way again. After restrictions are lifted and we have made it to the other side of the curve, I want to feast.