"Hooked on Gadgets," a lengthy New York Times piece detailing how the Internet, e-mail, video games, and other digital innovations are influencing our lives, makes for sobering, and sometimes frightening, read. Our increasing reliance on, and even addiction to, electronic media is changing the way we relate to our families and friends, and it may even be rewiring our brains.
It is also rewiring our relationship to God.
Whether commuting during rush hour, relaxing at home, or even traveling on vacations, many of us (me included) are never far from e-mail or without our cell phones. The sight of someone nervously pressing a phone against her ear as she races to catch a cab is a common one in many cities, as is the sight of traveler desperately punching out yet another e-mail on his laptop or BlackBerry as he waits for the next flight home in a crowded airport. And many parents, as theTimes article pointed out, are increasingly fighting a battle against digital media overwhelming the family home.
While all these gadgets are terrific for keeping us in touch with our work and our families and friends, they also pare away the few remaining moments of solitary time we have left -- for reflection, silence, and inner quiet. Where is the time for "recollection," as spiritual writers say?
How can the busy person balance the need to be "connected" with the need for solitude, a requirement of the healthy spiritual life?
Sometimes it seems as if we can no longer stand to be alone or be "out of touch." People use Facebook, cell phones, and text messages as a way of staying in touch with friends -- an admirable goal. Many websites, apps, and gadgets help us to draw closer together -- even if it's a virtual closeness.
But without some inner silence, it becomes harder to listen to God's voice within. It is difficult to listen to the "small, still" sound, as the First Book of Kings described God's voice. If your eyes are glued to your iPad with your ears stopped up by your iPod, it's hard to hear what might be going on inside you. Cutting back on these gadgets, not answering every single e-mail and phone call right away, may be necessary for a measure of calm. "Deep calls to deep," says Psalm 42. But what if you can't hear the deep?
Time set aside for contemplation and prayer also allows us to grow more aware of God's presence, which can sometimes be elusive. We all need some time apart, some time alone, some silent moments with God, to enable us to recognize God's presence -- it's like having a quiet, one-on-one conversation with a close friend who wants to tell you something that requires your full attention. If you're always online, you might miss out on this one way of relating to God.
Likewise, if you're completely absorbed in the electronic world, obsessively checking e-mail or constantly returning phone calls, it becomes impossible to experience the quirky surprises in the world around us.
James Martin, SJ