Afew weeks into the Oregon governor’s stay-at- home orders, my family decided to institute its own decree about the use of cell phones: Every evening, we would take two hours to put our phones aside and be present to each other. To be honest, the decree was mostly mine. My two teenage sons and husband acquiesced (at first grudgingly) to this daily hiatus from our hand-held devices.
Because of my sons’ work schedules, our nightly break from phone use has mostly ended, but the two months we spent in this practice were remarkably successful in drawing our family together, just before my kids —both high school seniors — spring the nest for their next adventures. We played board games together for the first time in years, deliberated over which television series we could agree to watch, even sat in the living room having deep conversations, something we rarely if ever did in our scattered pre-COVID lives.
Given my own recent success in disconnecting my family from their cellphones, I was especially interested in Ed Cyzewski’s Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction. Cyzewski provides a compelling argument that our reliance on hand-held devices and social media has made us depressed and disconnected, drawing us away from right relationships with each other and with God.
Reconnect calls readers to the spiritual practice of disconnecting from our data plans and Wi-Fi, arguing that this untethering is a crucial spiritual discipline, allowing us to more fully connect with our Creator and our communities.
Cyzewski bases much of his book on solid reporting that outlines the many ways our digital devices can harm us. The opening chapters of Reconnect trace the development of social media platforms, revealing that they are far more than benign places to connect with friends and families. Instead, Cyzewski shows that companies like Facebook and Instagram have created products that are addictive, setting their algorithms and continuous feeds to keep us constantly scrolling.
According to Cyzewski, digital companies are also engineering our emotional response to the world — a manipulation that increases our desire to stay on the platforms, interacting with others. He reports that in 2014, Facebook went so far as to change the news feeds for 693,000 users to gauge — and alter — their moods, without users’ consent.
And because so much of social media is fueled by division, the platforms themselves prize divisive rhetoric: the more inflammatory a post, the more interactions that post will receive, the more successful a platform will be. As Cyzewski notes, our digital devices are separating us even more from others with whom we disagree, creating little space for constructive dialogue that might allow us to see the humanity lingering behind our likes and our anger emojis.
I appreciate especially Cyzewski’s clear sense that social media has the potential to make us more scattered in our thinking and less focused on other aspects in our day-to-day lives, as well as increasingly aware of our perceived inadequacies and isolation.
Like Cyzewski, I’ve removed Facebook from my phone for this very reason: because I was turning to the platform when I was bored or lonely or trying to avoid other tasks (like grading essays for my work as a college professor). Instead of finding space for more centering experiences, social media often makes us less grounded and more fragmented. Even when we recognize this harm, giving up social media can be difficult, as we worry about what we might miss.
And yet, Cyzewski suggests, what we might gain in disconnecting from our devices is well worth any presumed losses. Part of Reconnect focuses on the spiritual formation that can be nurtured in the absence of digital devices. Cyzewski — an expert in contemplative prayer — calls readers to turn from the distraction of hand-held electronics and to the grounded (and grounding) gift that cannot be nurtured when we demand distraction.
Cyzewski writes: “Considering that digital formation either fills our minds with thoughts or prevents us from facing our thoughts in silence, spiritual formation frees us from the constant chatter of our thoughts and trains us to let go of them.” In letting go of these barriers to God, our relationship to God — and to others, and to ourselves — can be allowed to flourish.
Perhaps what I liked best about Reconnect is its practical applications. Each chapter ends with an “invitation to reconnect,” queries that might help readers disconnect from their digital worlds by questioning the role their devices, social media, and internet chatter might play in their daily lives.
Cyzewski refrains from using the shaming language that’s so common in discussions about social media addictions. Instead, he addresses his readers with grace and mercy, acknowledging that the challenges of living in a digital age are significant. Those who struggle with an addiction to their devices are not immoral but merely human.
I wondered what Cyzewski might say about this particular moment in history, when COVID-19 has kept most of us at home, reliant on digital connections more than ever before. In the last four months, we have celebrated milestones like birthdays and graduations virtually; we have had more Zoom meetings than we ever thought possible; our churches have moved online as well, changing the shape of corporate worship. How do we navigate this kind of digital distraction that reconnects us to each other, in our isolation?
I reached out to Cyzewski to ask this question, and he pointed me back to his book, and to the idea that technology’s limitation is in its anonymity, not in the ways it can connect us person to person, like a Zoom church service or meeting can, if done personally and with intention.
He also suggested that the pandemic has laid bare for so many (including me!) the need for real-life connection. Now more than ever, we recognize that face-to-face interaction is crucial to our flourishing.
Having floundered with six weeks of online teaching — while also missing my church family and in-person worship immensely — I concur with Cyzewski’s conclusions. I am grateful for the challenge Reconnect offers. I’ll keep reminding myself to put down my cellphone and reconnect with my Creator and God’s creation.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.