By: Michael Hryniuk
May 11, 2011
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, argues that we are now in danger of succumbing to what he calls “terminal distractibility.” We are less able to engage in any mental task that requires control, discipline, and the extended focus of our attention – such as actually reading a book or writing an essay. If we’re literally losing our minds to the Internet and other digital media, we might also be losing our hearts and souls as well. According to a recent study presented at the conference of the Association for Psychological Science, American college students today are 40% less empathetic – that is, less able to take the perspective or imagine the perspective of others – than 30 years ago, with the biggest drop occurring since 2000. The exact causes of this drop are complex but the paper’s authors noted that the perceived excess of narcissism, competitiveness, and unjustified self-confidence in young adults may stem in part from the vastly increased exposure to Internet media.
What are the implications of these trends for the spiritual lives of young adults? More specifically, what are the effects of a wired culture on young adults who are attempting to discern and respond to a divine calling to spiritual leadership? If Nicholas Carr is right, we need to begin giving careful consideration to the implications of “terminal distractibility” among young adults because such a condition will pose great challenges for those of us engaged in the task of awakening and nurturing that still, small voice of the Spirit in their lives. As Carr puts it, “When carried into the realm of the intellect, the industrial ideal of efficiency poses a potentially mortal threat to the pastoral ideal of contemplative thought.”
The problem of distraction in the spiritual life has always been a challenge. The gospel account of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary has often been a reminder to Christians of the call to let go of the worry and distraction we see exemplified in Martha and to choose the “better part” of attention on God that we find in her younger sister Mary. In the early desert tradition of Christian spirituality, the ancient monastics spoke of the need for Sabbath, solitude, silence, stillness and unceasing prayer in an effort to create enough space amidst inner distraction and dissipation to hear God’s call to relationship. Lest we think this was an impossibly remote ideal for young persons, the later medieval ideal of the school and university was based on the experience of “schola” (Latin for “leisure”) in order for deeper order reflection and contemplation to take place. It is this ideal that continues to inspire, at least in principle, the life of schools to this day. What can we do to recover and foster this ideal once again among a generation that is literally “wired for distraction?”
I believe the first step is to move out of denial. While there are wonderful benefits to being “wired” in a digital culture, we can no longer afford to ignore or laugh away the mounting evidence of its destructive effects. Educators at every level are beginning to face the truth of “terminal distractibility” in their classrooms and in the literature on media and mental health. As religious educators, we are also called to inform ourselves more fully of the shadow side of digital culture as well as discern our response in the light of the wisdom traditions of which we are a part. The “signs of the times” of which Jesus spoke are calling all of us to sober analysis and reflection on the implications of technology that is affecting the very souls of our young people. The second step is to discern the effects of our own personal relationship with digital technology. In my own review of the literature dealing with the use of digital media in public education, I find myself increasingly concerned that the “blind are leading the blind” on these issues. To what extent have we ourselves become victims of our own “crackberries” and the vertigo that accompanies compulsive connectivity? Are we ourselves compromised in our capacity to attend, discern and respond to the divine call to life in the Spirit because of our fixation on email, texting and surfing? Many decades ago, in his Four Quartets, T.S. Elliot described our condition as “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Can we see clearly enough ourselves to help others through to more sane and balanced use of digital media in our lives?
Finally, my sense is that we need to discern and develop concrete strategies to help free us of the potential tyranny of digital connectivity. The ancient ideal of ascesis needs to be radically reinterpreted for the citizens of a digital culture so that new disciplines can be practiced that clear space for attending to God’s presence in our lives. This is particularly critical in the case of young adults who are more fully embedded in the matrix of digital technology and have never known an inner life or daily experience free of its influence. School chaplains and youth ministers are now experimenting with “digital fasts,” Sabbath evenings, and sustained experiences outdoors to overcome what is now being described as “Nature Deficit Disorder.” We have much to learn about the practice of solitude, silence and stillness in order to heal and balance the effects of “digital mind.” Marketing specialists speak routinely of the imperative of increasing “mindshare” through digital advertising. In the face of this onslaught, we need to approach young adult spiritual formation with equal seriousness as an “intervention” in the potentially addictive patterns that seek to claim their mindshare.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes the observation that “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be filled with light, but if your eyes are bad your whole body will be filled with darkness. If the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness (6:28). I cannot help but wonder what his response as a spiritual teacher would be to the power of the “light” flowing into our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts today through laptops, netbooks, Ipods, tablets and Smartphones. More to the point, how is the Spirit calling us to respond to the power of digital media as leaders and ministers to young adults most affected by its influence? I hope that we are able to overcome our own condition of distraction and fatigue to discern with eyes that are “good” a fruitful way of life for ourselves and for those we seek to call to spiritual leadership in a digital age.