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Monday, March 29, 2010

The Cost of Availability

My addiction started about 15 years ago.  I was recently married and was working as the Network Administrator at Piece Goods in Winston-Salem, a since bankrupt competitor of Michaels.  There were only two of us working in the IT department supporting 240 retail stores.  Every night those stores transmitted their sales figures, which were then crunched through my database program, coming out the other end as the CEO's daily sales report.  One day my boss called me into his office and gave me a pager.  Yes, I know that sounds like two soup cans and a string today, but the pager communicated something to my heart - I was important, I was needed, I was indispensable.  They needed me to be available at all times in case something went wrong, something only I could fix. 

Now my addiction to being needed goes back much farther than that, but that pager introduced me to whole new way of feeling needed.  I discovered technology that made me available to anyone at anytime, a constant reminder that I might be needed at any moment.  Superman had super-hearing, Batman had the bat-signal searchlight, I had my pager.  And like any good Pastor or professional, I now have the latest and greatest smartphone to make me available to anyone who might need me.  (Unfortunately, the tongue-in-cheek humor reflects the realities of my heart more than I like to admit).

Not everyone struggles with the need-to-be-needed like I do, but there is a cultural expectation of near constant availability for everyone living in an urban context.  We expect everyone to have a cell phone and to answer it when we call.  If they can't take our call then they can respond to our text.  There are dozens of instant messaging programs so they we can be instantly available anytime we're at our computer.  We expect emails to be responded to within hours or a day at the most.  And because we expect others to be available to us, we live under the same assumed pressure for ourselves. 

In my first post, I mentioned that I had just returned from a five day retreat where there was no access to a cell phone or email.  The experience was so freeing, I've tried to leave my cell phone off on Sundays since then.  It's been fascinating to pay attention to what goes on inside me whenever I turn my phone off for the day!  First I feel rude for making myself unavailable and ignoring people's calls for 24 hours.  Then my ATMS flares up (Afraid-To-Miss-Something).  By turning off my phone I'm running the risk of missing out on being invited to something or being the last to know about the latest news.  ATMS is also what fuels my constant checking of Facebook and Twitter.  And then of course there's the painful realization that I'm not as important as I like to believe.  So far, my church and the rest of the world have gotten along just as well without me on Sunday afternoons.

I'm not intending to simply throw stones at technology.  I have a smartphone, Facebook account, and Twitter account.  And there are ways that technology can aid our spiritual growth.  I love having a bible I can reference at anytime in my phone.  Knowing what's happening with friends via Facebook and Twitter often makes our face-to-face times more meaningful because we already know some of what's going on in each other's lives.  And as Jason mentioned in his PoemFlow post, technology can even slow us down at times.  But there is a cost to the constant availability we live with and the technology that keeps us "connected" to the rest of the world.  There is a degree of soul distraction that comes with being constantly connected.  The regular "ping" of calls, texts, and emails keeps us from being fully present to our own thoughts and hearts, much less attentive to the whispers of God's Spirit within us.  Even when the phone isn't ringing the potential for interruption is a source of distraction.  There is a reason that couples need times away from the kids to reconnect.  Meaningful conversation and times of being fully present to each other are difficult when little Johnny and Suzy might burst in at any moment! 

Experiencing God's presence and hearing His voice is difficult in the city.  I'm discovering that it is easier though when I'm unplugged and intentionally unavailable to anyone else.  In these undistracted times I'm more aware of what's rumbling around in my own heart and more aware of Jesus speaking to the deep places of my soul.  Perhaps this is why Jesus told his disciples: "when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray" (Matt. 6:6).


Brett Briggs said...

WOW - this is great Matt - you always have a way of saying things that I need to hear. I can completely relate to this post. Thanks

ben4trials said...

I agree with all of that and thought it was really insightful and well written.

My thought is that cellphones have created more of an individualistic society where we have lost a sense of organization and planning. Phones instead of helping us to be organized instead allow us to approximate. For example when we make plans to meet with someone, those plans change all the way until we actually meet up with that person and we are literally on the phone with them seeing each other across the parking lot of a totally different location.

Texting has also taken a wall of emotions that we used to have to deal with and has fast forwarded our ability to emotionally disconnect with people while still communicating with them. We could be having a really bad day and tell them over text, "I am great" I have done that!

We need to be aware of these things and also think for others constantly. I think I have a tough time with the phone b/c it can be a constant distraction and source of something to run to when bored. Instead I need to call someone and meet them and speak face to face with them!

I am glad you wrote that blog Matt, it was intellectually stimulating, just thought I would contribute. :)

Rebecca said...

I too suffer from ATMS syndrome!! So the line, "By turning off my phone I'm running the risk of missing out on being invited to something or being the last to know about the latest news." really resonated with me. But then as you said, how humbling to realize the world continues without you and it's okay if you are in fact the last to know something. :)

I am impressed by your commitment to one day a week without the phone. I think that would be extremely difficult for me and I'd also have to be conscious about not over-compensating on facebook to make up for my lack of availability by the phone. Plus if I turn off my phone that means no access to all those fun Apps! All of that probably means I should try it, right?

Thanks for this post and this blog, it's really helped me be conscious of slowing down to be with Jesus.

Matt Guzi said...

Thanks for the encouragement everyone!

Rebecca, let us know how your phone-fast goes too :-)

jen hunt said...

Hmm..realizing that my need to stay connected is not to feel important and needed. In fact, being so connected makes me feel less important and more like something to be consumed by others. Taps into my fear of not enoughness - not good enough, not witty enough, not interesting enough..And I'm afraid too, but not because I think I'm going to miss out on what God is saying but more afraid that if I get too quiet, then I will hear what God has to say. If I knew He'd say yes, I'd turn off my phone.