Sunday, April 20, 2014

Screen-Free Week: reflections and next steps

This was my seventh year of organizing Screen-Free Week activities for local individuals and families, and also of observing Screen-Free Week myself.* I always think at the beginning of the week that I don't use electronics much or mindlessly in my free time so it really won't make much difference to me.  I always realize that I have been wrong.
I wasn't on a total electronics fast. I still used my computer for the farm's work. In my free time I wrote email letters to some friends. But I stayed off Facebook, didn't read news or book reviews or blogs or random stuff online, didn't spent time searching Elance for write-for-hire jobs, and deleted all my mass emails from Good Causes unread.  This freed up a certain amount of time and unleashed a certain amount of discomfort.
There are good uses for all the things I stopped doing.  Facebook has helped me get updates from distance friends and relatives and has provided a space for some interesting conversations across religious and other divides.  Blogs have deepened, challenged and stretched my understanding of various issues. Online book recommendations have brought some excellent authors into my life. Online news sometimes occasionally helps me fill in the gaps in NPR coverage and get some understanding that can be well used for prayer or letter-writing...etc.  But too often I use these things to stuff the empty places inside myself.  When I'm lonely I crave Facebook or blogs for a quick-fix surge of connective feeling.  When I doubt the value and adequacy of the basic work to which I'm called I am easily drawn into 'clicktivism'. When I feel too tired to concentrate I can easily sink a lot of time into online reading.
This past week I didn't have those bolt-holes. I had also just finished my current favorite long-running fiction series. So I spent more time just sitting with my loneliness, my doubts, my tiredness.  That felt miserable sometimes, but it was salutary.  Here at the end of Screen-Free Week I remember more clearly what I choose to do with my life, why I choose that and what the price of that choice is, and I am clear that it's a price I'm willing to pay.  I am beginning, also, to have a clearer sense of when my attempts to reach out to people come from a clear. balanced and compassionate place and when they come mainly from nervous guilt. 
I've also taken plenty of time to enjoy the real world around me--hepatica and spring beauty blooming in the woods as the snow recedes, salamanders emerging, frogs calling, steelhead spawning, woodcocks courting with spectacular aerial displays, sunrise and moonrise.  I would have taken some time for this anyway as the spring unfolded late and quickly, but Screen-Free Week helped. 
I am getting clear about some practices that may help me stay clearer going forward. For the next month I'll be trying these:
Check Facebook no more than twice a day. (I find it a bit embarrassing to admit that this would be a substantial change.) I'm not putting a time limit on it--if a substantive message has come in I will take time to reply to it; but I won't keep logging on randomly or engaging in rapid back-and-forths in which it's much too easy to say something I'll later regret. 
Whenever I'm engaged in free-time activities online, stop every ten minutes, take a few deep breaths and notice what I am doing and whether it's a satisfying use of my time.
I am still trying to think what to do about the hydra-esque Good Cause emails.  If any of you have suggestions, please let me know.  If any of you have other online mindfulness practices that help you, I'd be glad to hear about those too.

*--The official Screen-Free Week dates are May 5-11 this year, but we've been observing it locally during the school's spring break week. 
The official Screen-Free Week site is

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Living With Our Limits

The prompt for this month's Spirit of the Poor synchroblog was "Affirm the Humanity."  As long as I can remember I have been painfully aware of the danger of defining other people as less-than-human.  I wrote about that in a recent post.  But for me there are other major obstacles to treating other people as I want to be treated, to seeing them clearly and loving them honestly. So today I find myself wondering: what would it mean for me to accept myself as fully and truly human, and how might that change my ability to see and love my neighbors as they are?
Humanity includes creatureliness, limitation.  The consumer culture isn't comfortable with that.  There is constant pressure to Maximize Your Potential and Be All You Can Be.   As a society we keep developing new technologies largely because we can; concerns about the damage done by the ever-mouting wave of unintended consequences are often dismissed in the name of 'progress', which we seem to assume is good or necessary.  As a result our power, en masse, increases, at the same time that our individual competence and the resilience of our ecosystems and communities decreases.  We reach beyond our limits, try to be more than human, and we end up failing to be fully human.
A similar message seems to warp our intimate relationships.  A disturbing number of young people have told me that they became sexually active just, like, to show that they could--that they didn't have some horrible flaw like prudishness or homosexuality or lack of sex appeal. [N.B. Just in case it isn't obvious--these don't strike me as flaws, horrible or otherwise; this is just what I've heard them saying.]   This hurry to prove something sometimes seems to crowd out desire, trust and intimacy as well as self-knowledge and self-control.
As a teenager I struggled most with messages about career Potential. People I loved and respected told me that as an intelligent woman I had a moral obligation to get an impressive set of educational credentials and a high-powered job--both because I might be able to Make a Difference through my work, and because the very fact of my holding the position would help to prove that there was nothing wrong with women. I bought that message on some levels.  I resonated with the appeal to women's rights.  More selfishly, I wanted to prove myself, I wanted to be special.  But I had already caused a certain amount of misery for myself and other people by focusing on that wish for achievement, attention, approval.  And I knew that I could all too easily live in my mind, in a world of causes and abstractions, and lose sight of my immediate neighbors and of other people who were harmed by the effects of my consumption.  So instead I chose to farm and be present to my neighbors, to try to live as a committed and responsible member of a small place.  I thought I'd made my choice and gotten over that danger. I thought I'd learned what I needed to about humility and solidarity.  It took me a while to realize that all the important choices have to be made over and over again.
I still find myself doubting my choice, wondering if it was really just a cop-out, a way of avoiding having to test my ability to make a name for myself and succeed in a challenging world. That doubt can sap my energy and attention so that I am less available to my neighbors, but at least it's uncomfortable and obvious enough so that I notice it and deal; with it.
The other temptation is more subtle.  There is a very real and important line that can be difficult to see. On one side is paying attention to people, trying to see them clearly and compassionately, and offering help where it's appropriate as they try to grow in the ways God calls them.  On the other side is trying to Fix People--either so that I can demonstrate my goodness or so that I don't keep having to know that they are in pain.  When I insist on being able to Fix People I fail to acknowledge the extent of the challenges they face and the wounds they bear.  I also fail to acknowledge what they can do, are doing,  for themselves, and what only God can do for them, and so I become unable to offer what legitimate assistance might actually be mine to give.
Not only now in Lent but all through the year I am haunted by the image of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, coming back to his sleeping disciples and saying "Couldn't you watch with me even one hour?" I can picture all too clearly what some of them might have been thinking: No, how could I? Hide you, yes, fight for you, yes, but just watch and not be able to do anything to stop your hurting? How could I bear to do that? I can imagine this because of all the times when I have wanted to look away--too often, have looked away--from the suffering of a neighbor: a mother tired by and afraid for her troubled child, a child steeling himself to go home to a chaotic and unsafe situation, a person struggling with mental illness more incapacitating than anything I've yet experienced, a migrant worker in pain from needless injuries incurred in the process of growing our cheap food without adequate safeguards… I do not want to have to see.  I want to make their pain go away so that it does not hurt me.  If I can't do that I want to unknow it, to distract myself with daydreams or petty worries or a long list of projects and accomplishments. 
I need not to do that.  I need to stay, as I have been stayed with in the hardest times that I have yet encountered.  Stay, and see, and listen, and offer what I can, even if that is only attention, prayer, grief. I begin to believe that most of what I can legitimately give begins with the experience and the acceptance of my limitations.  We've had guests at our Catholic Worker say that it helped them to see that we were able to have a satisfying life without a lot of the stuff that TV tells us we need. Some of these were people who had come to the US in hopes of earning more for their families--there were those who came because they couldn't afford to feed their children, but also those who said they could have had something like what we had, but that they thought they owed their children More.  Less tangible limitations and broken places also seem to contain possible gifts. Since my struggles with anxiety, obsessions and compulsions I have sometimes been able to accompany other people with mental health issues in a way that wouldn't have been possible before.
I read somewhere, and I can't remember the source: Out of our brokenness make us a blessing.  I pray for that sometimes now.  I don't know how to do that, but God can.