A Right to Disconnect

This week’s post is the first of a two-part essay. First, I’ll identify and examine the problem. Next week, I’ll do my best to offer the solution…

Did you hear about the “right to disconnect” law that went into effect earlier this year in France?

Essentially, it requires companies with more than fifty employees to establish certain hours – normally evenings and weekends – in which employees are discouraged from making phone calls and sending or responding to work e-mails. In other words, the law makes it much more acceptable for a person to “leave work at work.” Imagine that.

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Those crazy French with their ridiculous berets, baguettes, and perceptive approaches to employee health.

I don’t know if you are as stunned as I am that France passed this legislation. Honestly, I’m surprised its proponents were able to get enough people on board in the first place. At the heart of this new law is the sober recognition that unchecked pressure in our occupations can lead to a wide variety of health problems, including, according to one article, impaired sleep, depression, alcohol abuse, and heart disease. However, I have no doubt that when this legislation was proposed, many people feared potential negative effects – for one, placing limits on employee connectivity would reduce workplace productivity and efficiency. Maybe its the cynic in me, but I’m blown away that enough French lawmakers could agree that the value of a human person is not defined by the stuff he or she makes.

When I first learned about this law, I couldn’t help but wallow within my own cultural discontent. I continue to doubt the U.S. would pass similar legislation, and not simply because of complications due to bureaucratic rigmarole (which, over the last decade, has surpassed baseball as America’s greatest national pastime). I don’t know how popular the law’s passage was in France, but I think it is an exceedingly safe bet that quite a few U.S. politicians and lobbyists would be up-in-arms about it here; this, as they so often shout with fists held high, “is a free country.” Granted, what people actually mean when they use that line is, “This is a country steeped in opportunistic individualism, and therefore, by definition, any suggestion of a better way to do, well, anything, is immediately and forever suspect.”

Let’s face it, any law that even suggests limitations on our level of connectivity would certainly be met with adamant opposition. After all, look how convenient technology has made it to stay dialed in to our voicemails, e-mails, text messages, and social media profiles? We can literally carry all of that around in a single pants pocket. Even if they somehow miraculously reached a consensus on the benefits of such a law, can you see our government succeeding in the same way France’s did? For the sake of comparison, after the Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Pulse shootings, multiple congressional representatives sought to regulate background checks for the purchase of assault rifles – assault rifles! – and hardly made a dent. How do you think people would react to regulations on items we can’t even bring ourselves to set aside when we we’re using the toilet?

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“How dare you tell me I can’t overstimulate myself? I earned this stress-induced Irritable Bowel Syndrome!”

So, kudos to the French for acknowledging something most perpetually stressed-out people don’t like to think about. There but for the grace of God go us not.

But whether we choose to acknowledge the dangers of ceaseless productivity or not, we also know there are other perils just as significant as physical health, and workplace pressure is not the only phenomenon in which they surface. The technological advances of the past few decades have been extraordinary, even mind-boggling. They have increased to an incredible degree humanity’s ability to produce, and to produce more efficiently. At the same time, we are awaking to the truth that increased automation and connectivity does indeed come with a downside. And it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the negative effects birthed by these new advances, whether in our occupational spheres, our local communities, or even our most intimate relationships.

My wife and I often talk of what we percieve as a pervasive, willing bondage to connectivity and endless productivity. While we do not have a “right to disconnect” law in our country (yet?), there are other laws intended to protect basic human health in the workplace. Even so, due to our society’s incessant striving to do more and do it faster, these laws are not always enforced very… forcefully. For instance, it is not uncommon anymore for Leigh to come home both exhausted and ravenous after her twelve-hour hospital shift, and this is because she did not get so much as a lunch break during that entire amount of time. I used to get so indignant about this injustice; because I care so much for her, I would fume about the blatant squelching of her occupational rights. Didn’t the hospital ever worry that fatigued nurses who hardly even have the opportunity to sit down over the span of twelve hours, let alone get time to consume a single meal, might become a liability rather than an asset? However, after ten years with little change in the culture of hospital staffing, now we simply shrug our shoulders, shake our heads, and I do my very best to make sure dinner is ready and waiting when she staggers through the door.

The hard reality is that our jobs are perpetually frenetic, and one of the main reasons for this is our culture’s habitual obsession with productivity and efficiency. But instead of viewing this as a hazardous or unsafe reality, we’re encouraged to think of our stress-saturated jobs as “challenging,” “fast-paced,” or “highly rewarding.” Thus, staggering through the door like zombies and collapsing onto the living room sofa at the end of the day is now our norm. No wonder a once negative word like “bingeing” has become the popular and acceptable way to consume entertainment; it takes far less energy to just watch another episode of something than to go for a walk, or actually carry on a meaningful conversation with another person.

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“This isn’t even good, but I’m too tired to have standards.”

And that’s the other side of this cruel coin. Even if your drive to produce stays in the office parking lot, still the ever-expanding human appetite for connectivity is not satiated. The cravings for instant and perpetual stimulation follow us no matter where we go. We have become a people less and less comfortable with quiet and stillness, with morning commutes not infused by drive-time radio or Spotify playlists, with evenings not spent sitting in front of the electronically-enhanced binge boxes we still quaintly refer to as “TVs.” Quiet, meandering, agenda-less conversation is fast becoming a lost art.

Every time my family has the opportunity to eat out for dinner, my wife and I cannot help but subtly draw each other’s attentions to how many couples, families, or groups of friends are all staring down at smartphone screens rather than actually talking with the flesh-and-blood humans sitting mere inches away. It’s become a kind of game, like when you would play “Slugbug” on car rides. Except the pain you feel isn’t from your brother socking you in the shoulder, but rather a gradually swelling sense of melancholy at the state of the American social circle. Is this really the picture of our future? Is this the relational landscape my children will inherit?

It turns out that having our eyes glued to smartphone screens for hours on end, whether we’re checking e-mails, texting “friends,” or allowing our brain cells to gorge on YouTube videos, can be detrimental to both our mental and social health. We marvel at how cutting-edge technologies have ushered us into a brand new epic of human existence. And yet, hidden beneath every utopia is a dystopia. Yes, we can celebrate that humanity has become deeply connected across the entire globe. But we should also acknowledge that an increasing number of face-to-face relationships between family members and proximal friends are quietly suffering in the aftermath of such an extraordinary societal shift.

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Pictured: suffering.

I realize the French law doesn’t address personal overuse of smartphones, or how many hours we wile away staring at Netflix and Facebook, or that our knee-jerk response when our children get rowdy is to shove an iPad in front of their faces. But all these issues orbit the same evolving nucleus of human behavior. How we interact with one another (or how much we neglect interacting with one another) is changing. Whether it’s the job pressures or a personal addiction to Twitter that’s causing this distancing, something needs to change. And soon!

Now, please understand the purpose of this essay is not to make you feel rotten for indulging technology. That would be highly duplicitous of me. I own a smartphone that I’m constantly stuffing full of frivolous apps. I’m entrenched in a half-dozen different television series on Netflix and HBONow (because, I mean, c’mon, it’s not like I’m going to just pass on the last two seasons of Game of Thrones). And I’m definitely aware that, at this very moment, I’m using an online word processing program on my laptop to write this post, all while iTunes ticks through song after song in an 80’s/90’s Rock playlist.

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And to answer your inevitable question, yes, “More Than a Feeling” is currently up to bat… again.

So, no, I’m not advocating we rid ourselves of technology – that we actually go “off the grid” like that family in the Domino’s commercials. I realize doing so would, among other things, mean the death of my blog and its humble little audience. After all, you’re also accessing this article on a smartphone, or a tablet, or a laptop (or, if you’re reading it sometime in the future, on the fully integrated nanobot sensory chip imbedded behind your left cornea, which we all know AmaGoogleSoft recommends as the most proficient of the implant’s locations).

But there is a distinct difference between indulging the benefits of our technological advances, and allowing these advances to infiltrate every aspect of human existence. Especially those moments that once provided us with stark, unbounded, freewheeling contact with others. Last week, after a three-year abstention, I decided to rejoin Facebook. I was tired of finding out secondhand, and months too late, about the significant events in so many people’s lives. However, if you were to tell me I had to choose between the 950 Facebook friends (yep, still there after three years) and a single, face-to-face friendship with another person, I would not hesitate to choose the flesh-and-blood friend. Wouldn’t you?

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Now there’s a good TV show pitch! Next week on The Bachelor: Facebook Edition, find out which one of Skyler’s 1000 friends will receive the final red rose emoji!

My intention with this essay was not merely to lament the harmful side-effects of our increasingly connected culture. But I do think it would be a very healthy choice for us to tred carefully through such societal advances. To not be so quick to trade human interactions for the artificial succor provided by our various devices and other online compulsions.

Even if setting aside or turning off our gadgets results in awkward silences or off-putting stillness, let’s not be so quick to flee the emptiness we have momentarily established. There is something hidden within it – something deep and eternally true. Someting that, if you are patient, will gradually begin to make itself known to you, and, in so doing, reveal a treasure that all the sleekest gadgets and fastest connection speeds in the world cannot replace.

But more on that next week…

Thoughts at 37

One of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., had a bit about how being forty years old isn’t very impressive – that what it essentially means is you’re half-dead. And another favorite comedian, Patton Oswalt, on one of his albums, scolds the crowd for cheering when he mentions turning thirty-seven, and goes on to explain how most birthdays are completely insignificant after a person turns 21.

Well, today I turn thirty-seven years of age, and I can’t help but sense the truth of both of those bits. I feel that I’m just about half-dead (if I’m even fortunate enough to make it to my mid-seventies), and that the sweetness of one’s birthday does indeed pale considerably upon the addition of more candles. If I was trying to craft my own comedic bit on the subject, I would start by suggesting that the day in which your regular-sized cake cannot adequately accommodate the number of candles signifying your age, you should forego a birthday celebration. But it occurs to me that most people my age probably haven’t had a regular-sized cake baked for them in several years, what with all the unhealthy sugar and gluten.

I digress.

But digression is the point of this post, actually. If only to document this mostly insignificant moment in my life, I felt it a worthwhile use of my time today to jot down some random notions and half-formed thoughts that have been fluttering about my mind as I approached, and woke up within, this day. Some are introspective. Others are melancholic. A couple are even happy.

So, here they are, in no intentional order…

  • If your concept of what genuine beauty is doesn’t change as you age, I think this might well be a sign of personal immaturity. The same goes for your ability to relate kindly to people who hold different viewpoints than your own.
  •  People’s perspectives are the hardest things to alter. Because of this great difficulty, compassion is one of the most elusive and poorly understood virtues in the world.
  • Culturally speaking, at thirty-seven I am simultaneously too old to be viewed as relevant by the younger generations and too young to be viewed as an authority figure by older generations. This doesn’t mean I can’t earn those qualities, but both endeavors are uphill battles.
  • Chick Fil A’s mobile ordering app is incredibly convenient, and that makes it physically and financially dangerous.
  • I’ve been a “full-time minister” in the Church for sixteen years. (See point #3 for why that warrants little validation.)
  • My wife really does know best an incredibly high percentage of the time. Probably something like 96.7 percent.
  • Divorce is truly an ugly, heartbreaking thing. So is cancer.
  • Some Church-goers can be the sweetest, most generous and humble people in the world. Others can be unbelievably stubborn, insensitive, and exceedingly selfish. So, you know, just like the people you find wherever you go in the world.
  • Deepening the relationships we have with a small group of friends is vital to the quality of our lives, but more and more of our relationships have become thin, stagnant, and technologically dependent. This is perhaps the most frightening and damning reality of our present time.
  • On the whole, television is currently telling more genuine, compelling and engrossing stories than movies ever have.
  • I am now fully convinced that 2 Timothy 4:3-4 is indeed referring to the Church itself, not secular culture. Local churches, pastors, and Bible teachers have become like items for consumption spread upon a vast buffet, so that no one must ever again listen to teaching or advice that corrects or irritates them. As a result, more and more people are building their individual Christian faith according to their own image, rather than the Imago Dei.
  • One of the most inspirational life stories I recently heard belonged to Billy Crystal. That man has led a remarkable life! I hope any retelling of my own life is even a quarter as compelling as his.
  • No matter how tragically human beings are currently trashing the planet – and, yes, it’s certainly true that we’re significantly affecting the climate – it remains extraordinarily beautiful. Here I find a correlation in the unwavering sovereignty of God despite how many intelligent people have completely rejected his existence.
  • I want to preach more often. (Not just “want.” I think I need to, not only to improve the skill, but to continue in obedience to God.)
  • I feel sorry for the Baylor students who were victims of sexual assault. I feel equally sorry for the student-athletes who have been vilified-by-association with those few players and administrators who actually perpetrated the crimes. And I feel guilty for feeling “equally sorry” for the latter.
  • I want more people to learn about spiritual disciplines and take the practice of them seriously. I am convinced this is why so many people in the Church lack maturity, because my own years of immaturity as a Christian was the result of ignoring the disciplines.
  • More and more often, I miss living close to the kinds of friends I could talk to about anything, and in whatever way I needed to do that talking.
  • I still have a long way to go in bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit, most notably self-control.

Okay, that’s enough for someone turning thirty-seven.

Are You Doing Someone Else’s Quiet Time?

This is the second post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.”

We started doing something at my church recently that I think is incredibly important.

No, not that.

No, not that.

We enhanced our process for new members, not by adding more prerequisites to being one, but by inviting them to a carefully designed gathering in which we encourage them to recognize how their individuality should influence where and how they get involved in the church.

Some people know how to say no. But many others do not, and when ministers and lay leaders start getting desperate to fill spots in their volunteer base, we’re rarely concerned with whether or not someone is particularly gifted for those jobs.

"It's okay if you can't sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong."

“It’s okay if you can’t sing. We usually just move our lips while the tech guys play something from Hillsong.”

Unfortunately, that’s no way to find fulfillment as a church member. To be a disciple of Jesus means to surrender our lives in worship and service of our Savior. But it does not mean we are supposed to conform to one particular way of living out our devotion. God designed you in a unique way, with a compilation of emotions, inclinations, abilities, and interests that are all your own. Why would he want you to neglect this design plan in your relationship with him? If you want to be unhappy in your church, serve on a committee or in a ministry that does not utilize your gifts or jive with your personality.

The same is true for your method of quiet time with God.

When people come to me for advice because they feel dissatisfied or frustrated with their walk with Christ, the first question I ask is, “Are you attempting anything that isn’t you?”

"Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you've never even traveled outside of Indiana."

“Well, Jim, for starters, it says here this translation is in the Transylvanian Saxon dialect of Romania, and you’ve never even traveled outside of Indiana.”

It took a long time for me to accept this as truth, but after years of discontent with the traditional quiet time formula handed down to me by my Sunday School teachers and youth camp counselors, I finally realized that what bothered me most was that the method didn’t stimulate my heart and mind according to the unique way God made me.

We’re all wired in a one-of-a-kind way. Sure, there are common practices and activities that the majority of us enjoy, and there are also common disciplines every Christian is expected to engage, but God is well aware that no two people are exactly alike. He designed us that way. We have differing personalities, our minds develop differently and at a variety of paces and speeds, and some things that interest you will never fascinate me. Moreover, we also grasp concepts in diverse ways, according to different stimuli, and a particular truth might not resonate with me at the same time or in the same way that it does with you, based on the variety of emotions, passions, and experiences we bring to the table.

Now, let’s take the truth about individuality to its logical conclusion. If it is true that God uniquely creates each person, then it is also true that every relationship between two people is also unique.

Checkmate.

Checkmate.

Anybody who has read a book on relationships can tell you that while some advice might have been helpful to his or her own relationship, not everything in the book was applicable. That’s because there is no perfect formula to a successful relationship. A relationship is not a binding contract; it’s a decision of intimacy between two individuals who, whether they are aware of it or not, bring their own ideas, ambitions, ideals and temptations into play. A healthy, successful relationship is an intentional and careful commitment to interact with each other’s idiosyncrasies, rather than denying their influence.

For example, my wife and I have a relationship that is unique to us. One of the things we’re still learning but know is important is not to force one another to speak or act in a way that is contrary to our designs. This doesn’t mean we don’t strive to connect with one another, nor does it mean I don’t adopt certain behaviors that support my wife and give her pleasure. However, pretending to be someone I am not is no good for Leigh, and vice versa.

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn't my spiritual gift?

How many times do I have to tell her that doing the dishes isn’t my spiritual gift?

Now, if a quiet time is what a Christian does in order to experience a vibrant, intimate, and healthy relationship with God, then it stands to reason that conforming to a certain way of thinking, reading, and praying might not be the most beneficial way to deepen or strengthen that relationship. Just because God is a constant in the equation doesn’t mean each Christian must commune with him the exact same way. One of the most well-known statements of the late Brennan Manning’s is, “God loves you as you are, not as you should be, for no one is as they should be.” If I believe this, then the last thing I would want to do is pretend to be someone I am not in my relationship with God.

I love the looks on people’s faces when I suggest that, given their individual passions and interests, they might consider a solitary hike in the woods to be their quiet time, or gardening, writing poetry, even preparing a meal. Sure, the reading of Scripture is important and should not be neglected, but God is able to move in a million more ways than the standard methods so many of us so often conform to. Rather than slog through a formula that squelches your individuality, why not seek out the methods that stimulate your own peculiar composition?

As we continue in this series, I will cover the biggest dangers of conforming to a formula rather than creating one that works with a person’s God-given uniqueness. Above all, we should always remember that a quiet time should awake one’s soul, not burden it.