Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
It was happening night after night; my husband or I would decide after the children were in bed to “do a quick email check.” The other would join in and before we knew it half an hour had passed and all we had done was give into the temptation to idle curiosity and lose ourselves in distraction.
We have fought this vice our whole lives—distraction, the bane of a recollected life. It pulls one from one thing to the next, never allowing a task to be completed well, never giving one time just to think. The philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand in his book Transformation in Christ described distraction as the “exact antithesis to recollection” and “a state of being dragged along from one object to another, never touching any of them by superficially” (Ch. 6). The time sap of social media and the gossip-ridden sites of the internet are just another symptom of this fallen human state, one that we came into when we first gave into the vice of curiosity.
What is Von Hildebrand’s solution to being distracted? Learn how to become recollected. Take moments to recollect yourself—place yourself before God and let Him show you who you are. Allow these moments of recollection to seep into your whole life, so that you are always aware of God. But this also means giving up some things we enjoy—it means limiting the time we spend becoming drained by “empty and superficial conversations” and “shun[ning] everything that appeals to our craving for sensation” (Transformation, Ch. 6). To be Christian, to become like Christ, is to be ourselves before Him always. Mindless use of our devices just pulls us away from Him.
My husband and I made a resolution a couple of weeks ago—an experiment that I hope by the grace of God we can hold to. We decided to not check anything on the internet in the evening except out of real necessity—and we will hold each other accountable to that necessity. In just a few weeks it has made a real difference in our lives and in our evenings. We have more time to set aside for meditative prayer and to spend together while the kids are asleep, and we are free to go to bed earlier as the last-minute distraction before bed is no longer available. Some of my friends have told me about purchasing an alarm clock and charging their phones outside the bedroom to keep from whiling away the evening or checking their phones first thing in the morning. Hearing my friends make similar resolutions has shown me that this poor use of time is widespread. Yet, I have to resist the desire for it continually to the point of restricting my daytime use of social media.
But why is the overuse of social media a bad thing? First of all, it is an act of intemperance. It is an attempt to use a created good to satisfy our desire for the eternal—something that it was never meant to do. Too many times I have stopped my writing or paused by the iPad in the kitchen to check my Facebook account. Maybe someone said something to me! How many likes did that post get? I wonder what she is up to these days? I get on and browse the time away. Then my soul feels empty—instead of using my time for God’s glory I used it to serve myself and in the process I gave myself away to the world. Even when I don’t click over, my mind wanders to the temptation. I turn off the Wi-Fi on my computer in a vain attempt to keep from opening my email. But it is so simple to do it. Curiosity, distraction, and sloth pull me away from doing my duty. We were not made to be slaves to vice, but we cannot help ourselves. The only One who can help us is the One we are avoiding in our distracted state.
A recent article about what the author calls the iGen — children born between 1995-2012, who are growing up/have grown up with social media and smart phones — demonstrates the startling effects of on humans who grow up absorbed in social media. Many of these children are spending their social lives on a smartphone with Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, and growing incapable of authenticity in personal human contact. They have lost touch with physical reality for the sake of a virtual one. They sit at family meals or in the car all ignoring each other for the sake of contact with another person through a device. When they see these people in person, they don’t even talk to them—they just turn to their phones. They are cited as being extremely lonely, which makes sense given that they are never even given a chance to recollect themselves or have authentic contact with other human beings. This is a state I am trying to keep my children out of by giving them real contact with the world and limiting their screen use to almost nothing, except out of necessity.
Most of my day is spent in my home resisting my own temptations to distraction while I home school and perform the mundane tasks of my vocation, but when I do get out in public with my intelligence-challenged phone I see the absurdity of our society’s internet addiction. I spent a weekend in NYC and was one of the few on the bus and subways not staring at a smartphone as the train when along — I tried to focus on a rosary instead — but the demon of distraction saw my weakness and attempted to thwart me along the way. On a date with my husband as we were sightseeing along the Mississippi river we saw a group of about 10 people standing around the front of a museum, pounding on their phones with their fingertips, ignoring everyone else around them. It brought to mind the apes we had been hearing about on our road trip audiobook, Tarzan of the Apes, with their mindless, instinctive activity. The world of distraction is reducing us to the level of animals — our natural ability to form habits (which is meant to help us be virtuous with good habits) has been reduced to vicious, habitual addiction to distraction.
Yet, the Christian life, the call to become like Christ is one that requires us to rise above the world — to lose ourselves for and find ourselves in Christ. We were not meant to lose ourselves to the internet or our manmade devices. These things are goods to be used for the sake of Christ, not instead of Christ. We are not supposed to abandon them entirely, but learn how to use them well and for the glory of God. If my use of the internet is neither bringing glory to God nor leading my family and me to a life of sanctity, then I need to use it differently at whatever cost.
Von Hildebrand describes it so well as he talks about how we need to cast aside distraction and live a recollected life so that we can experience contemplation of God—as Christians we should want unity with God. But this is a never-ending struggle:
In order to remain recollected in the broader sense of the term, we must (aside from particular cases of extraordinary grace) lead an unceasing struggle, regaining unity with our true self again and again by an express act of recollection. The creaturely things that surround us involve, in varying degrees, a constant danger to our recollection in the real and ultimate truth; a danger inherent, above all, in many peripheral interests which appeal to our lust for sensation. (Transformation in Christ, Ch. 6)
These creaturely things are a great temptation to us, but if we struggle to be recollected and seek God’s grace, we can learn how to use them well. If we use the Internet to form the virtue of studiousness, pursue knowledge that we genuinely need to live holier lives, rather than as a means to satisfy our idle curiosity, we do not lose ourselves. I do not stop eating entirely because I find myself prone to gluttony; rather I forgo some of the goods of food recognizing that my cravings for it are not virtuous. When I create a habit of good eating and become temperate at my meals, the temptation to gluttony is much easier to overcome. The same goes with using the internet—the world wants us to be distracted from ourselves and from our final end of happiness with God, so it tempts us to use it immoderately. Yet, it can be used a means to God; it can be used to help us learn more about Him and His truth.
That is why I struggle on to use the internet temperately, and pray daily that God will give me the grace I need to use it for the salvation of others and myself. And I always, always take my attempts at virtue to prayer, for “not unless we again and again pause to take breath, abandoning ourselves to contemplation, can we escape the danger of losing ourselves in the peripheral and of allowing the deeper meaning of our life to be swamped.” (Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Transformation in Christ, Ch. 6).