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Missing Out: a response to “Look Up” and the argument that my iPhone is evil

So this post is a bit different from what I usually write here, but I’m feeling the need to get on a soapbox about something I’m seeing a lot of these days. It’s probably not what you might think. It’s about attitudes about our use of technology, and people’s fear of it turning us all into zombies at worst, or poor wretched souls with no life who will one day die alone, at best.

(Disclaimer: I’m feeling more sarcastic than usual.)

There’s a video called “Look Up” going around. Its point is that we’re too absorbed in our screens and we’re missing out on life going on around us. That “social media” is making us antisocial. Sound familiar? The more ubiquitous Facebook and smartphones become, the more I keep seeing videos, tweets, and blog posts telling us to sign out of Facebook and Twitter, turn off our phones, and live life. (Also a little ironic.) But the more I hear this message, the less I agree with it.

The sentiment is valid. It’s entirely true that we can spend too much time looking at our screens. There’s the classic scenario of a group of people sitting around a dinner table, all looking at their phones and not talking to each other. And yes, this happens—probably more often than it should. But I don’t think that makes our phones bad. Or social media. Or the internet. I think it’s healthy to keep our use of these things in check. I’ve taken steps to do that myself. But I think these videos, and this one in particular, can take the message too far.

The fact is, you can have too much of anything good. The fact that gluttony and the obesity caused by it are rampant, especially in the developed world, doesn’t make food evil. It’s entirely necessary to life itself. The other half of the world is suffering and dying from a lack of it. (Another huge issue that I’m not about to tackle in this post.)

Now, I can’t make the case that technology is necessary to life. It’s not on the same level as food, anyways. But technology is enabling so much life. It’s bordering miraculous what we are able to do these days because of technology and the internet. If we traveled to a couple decades ago with an iPad, it would blow people’s minds. (The time traveling probably would, too.) If people from a few hundred years ago saw us with our iPhones, they would think we were sorcerers. And lives are being saved every day by technology.

The human race, contrary to what these videos are saying, is more connected than ever. And the entire sum of mankind’s knowledge is available to us literally at our fingertips, almost anywhere on the planet—even to people orbiting it. And startups from Silicon Valley to Germany to India are coming up with apps and devices every day to solve problems and make life better for lots of people.

My friends and family are scattered across the globe. But because of Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, and iMessage, I can stay in touch with them in a way no generation has been able to, ever. Gone are the days where you send a letter to another continent by ship and get a reply months later. Now, if we coordinate time zones (technology hasn’t quite fixed everything yet) I can see a friend in the mountains of Asia face to face, and talk to them in real time.

The video goes on to make a distinction between being alone reading a book, painting, or doing something else “productive”, and being alone on the internet. Saying that reading a book is enriching and constructive and surfing the web is not. Because there’s nothing at all worth reading on the internet (including this post), and no mindless trash has ever been published in the form of a book, ever. (That was sarcasm, by the way.) And how are kids learning to code at a young age, learning the critical thinking and problem solving skills needed for it, and creating their own apps, not being constructive? Or children with autism who, given iPads, are able to express themselves and show creativity in a way they never could before? (True examples. Google them. The information’s at your fingertips, remember?)

The second half of that video tells the story of a chance encounter, where a guy asks a girl for directions, and they end up going on a date, and then getting married, and all about them becoming parents and then grandparents, and blah blah blah. But the guy would’ve missed all that if he’d been using his iPhone for directions. Come on, really? Keep that in mind next time you ask someone for directions. You might end up marrying them.

I’m tired of being told that all this technology is making me more disconnected from the people I care about, when I know for a fact that the opposite is true. I’m tired of being told I’m going to miss out on life because I have an iPhone and use it. Not only have I made lots of memories hanging out with friends, but technology has made it easier than ever to plan those times, coordinate meeting up, and capture those moments to remember them. I’m tired of being told that technology is bad when the world is so much better off because of it. Going back to the developing world—if the right technology could be made accessible and affordable in developing nations it could have a huge impact. I’m not talking about everyone being able to watch cat videos. I’m talking about being able to solve real problems.

So yes, don’t be a jerk to your friends and spend the whole evening playing with your phone. But if you do, that’s your problem, not your phone’s. What I don’t want us to miss out on or take for granted is the huge potential in those phones, and the way they—and all the technology we have available to us—are making the world a better place.

Checkmate

Tuesday is my fullest day of the week this semester, followed closely by Thursday. Both days I have back-to-back classes from 8 to 4:45, except for a break between 10:45 and 12:30. On Tuesdays I go straight to work at 5, and don’t get off until after 9.

At the beginning of the semester, I decided that break between classes would be a good time to read the Bible and pray. For the most part, that has worked out well. But in recent weeks, I’ve been finding myself using that time for homework more and more.

This Tuesday started the same way. My 9:30 class got out at 10, so I had extra time. I started out by making my equation sheet for my steel test the next day. I was going to get started on one of my two assignments due today, but for both of them I needed books I’d left at home. So then I started to work on the recording from the message on Sunday. Most of the time I can do all the processing, editing, and exporting on my iPad. But some weeks, like this week, there is a lot of noise in the recording. To clean that up, I would need my laptop, which I didn’t have with me.

It was as if God had cornered me. So I prayed, “Alright, God, checkmate…what do you want to say to me?”

I was fully expecting something about my lack of discipline, about how I needed to be better about spending time with him, about how much I’ve been drifting away and not really living for him most of the time. Or something along those lines.

Instead, he said, “I love you.”

That was it.

It started to sink in. On the one hand, I’ve been more and more distracted lately by so many things, and I haven’t been focused on God much at all. In some things, I feel like I’ve just been going through the motions, and in others, I’ve been letting them slide almost completely. On the other hand, as I’ve been realizing this recently, I’ve been beating myself up over it, and telling myself I need to do better. To the point where that’s what I expected God to say to me when I took the time to listen.

But he didn’t. He just said, “I love you.”

I realized in that moment that I’d reduced him to a religion – one that I couldn’t even keep.

He doesn’t care about how much I’m following the rules if it’s just for the sake of following the rules. He doesn’t want me to begrudgingly give him time out of my day just to check it off my list. He doesn’t want me to serve at church and be a leader and all that if it’s not an outpouring of love for him. And he doesn’t want me to strive to do better in all those areas if I’m doing it on my own strength and because it’s what I “should” do. He loves me, and he just wants me to choose to love him. Everything else flows out of that.

It’s so simple, but so easy to forget. But in spite of that, he relentlessly pursues me. Until I finally listen.

In my mind I heard the lyrics from “One Thing Remains”:

Your love never fails
It never gives up
It never runs out on me
Your love

And it’s higher than the mountains that I face
And it’s stronger than the power of the grave
And constant in the trial and the change
This one thing remains

And on and on and on and on it goes
Yes, it overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever have to be afraid
This one thing remains

In death, in life
I’m confident and covered by the power of your great love
My debt is paid
There’s nothing that can separate my heart from your great love

No matter what I’m going through, no matter what I do, no matter what happens, he will never stop loving me. And he just asks me to love him back. And sometimes he needs to break through all my distractions and checkmate me to remind me of that.

Two Months

Remember how I wrote that I was going to blog every week…almost two weeks ago? Oops.

Last week was spring break, and I spent most of it writing – working on my staff application for NLCF. And now I’m back, for the final stretch.

It’s ridiculous how close I am to the end of school. My graduation is May 16 and 17. So two months from now I will have graduated and will probably be on my way out of town. As I was driving back to Blacksburg on Sunday, I was remembering the last time I was riding up a winding mountain road at the end of my final spring break, with my impending graduation two months away. That was four years ago, and I was on the other side of the world then, still not even sure what the four years after that graduation would hold. I didn’t know what school I would be going to, or what it would be like when I got there. I knew I had nine short weeks left at the boarding school that had been my home for the past four and a half years. And I thought time was flying then.

At the beginning of the break my family and I had spent a few days at a retreat with a bunch of other families who were going to be leaving the country. I remember one session where we talked about transition. Then we all went off by ourselves and asked ourselves questions about the upcoming transition, and thought about what we hoped to see in the years following it. Like I said, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know where I would be going to school yet. I just wanted God to use me, wherever I was, to make a difference in the lives of those around me.

The rest of that break I’d been at home, and I’d spent a lot of it thinking about the youth group back at school, that I was a leader of (one of maybe a dozen or so), and small groups in particular (which we led in pairs.) I had been feeling like the way small groups were being handled wasn’t as effective as it could be. I wanted them to be more closely-knit and consistent from year to year, and also to be more autonomous and less one-size-fits-all. I spent a good bit of time thinking and praying about it and drew up a rough plan for how I thought we should reorganize youth group to meet these goals. When I pitched it to the other youth group leaders after break, they didn’t really jump on it. My co-leader was completely on board, as he’d had the same concerns as me. A couple others liked the idea. But most didn’t see anything wrong with the way small groups were going. To be fair, our group was pretty different from the others just because of how the two of us led and who was in it. That’s part of why I was pushing for more autonomy, so we could have more freedom to lead our group better. The other groups didn’t really need this as much. The other leaders agreed to give it a shot though, for a few weeks, and see how it went. Unfortunately, it was so close to the end of the year, and so much was going on, that we only had youth group a few times before grad, and my plan never really got off the ground. I don’t know what happened to it after I left, but my guess is when they came back the next fall to start again, with me gone, they defaulted to the way things had always been done. Interestingly though, the Engage Groups we have at NLCF are similar in a lot of ways to my vision of small groups in high school.

Fast forward to this break. It’s been a lot of looking back and looking forward. I spent the first couple days backpacking with a group from NLCF. It was cold, but fun. Last time I was on a backpacking trip was in high school, so doing it again brought back those memories. We shared testimonies around the campfire, and I talked about my boarding school and my spiritual growth there. Of course it came up that I’d lived overseas, so then I went through that whole explanation to everyone who didn’t already know that. And looking ahead, another guy who was on the trip is applying to go on staff, so the two of us talked a lot about the application and about training and support raising, which are just around the corner after grad.

The rest of break I was with my parents, and I spent most of my free time working on the application. Parts of it were writing about my past – my journey to faith, experiences and individuals that influenced my life and spiritual growth, my calling to ministry. Most of these answers were from my boarding school years, at least in part. The other side of it was a lot of looking forward, thinking a lot about support raising and finances, and beyond that, to my expectations of my role as staff.

So all of this was swirling around in my head as I drove back to Blacksburg, Unlike four years ago, I was the one driving, and I was alone with my thoughts for a good seven hours. And my thoughts turned a lot to the nine weeks I have left. I still remember when I first noticed this phenomenon of each year going faster than the one before it. That was back in seventh grade. Since I’ve been in college, I’ve discovered that it isn’t a linear increase. The rate of acceleration is actually increasing. By the time I got to my senior year…man. I don’t even know what happened to the first half of this semester. The second half will be over in the blink of an eye. In the fall, all I could think about was graduating. But now it’s a little overwhelming how fast it’s coming, and maybe I’m not quite ready to leave just yet. I mean, yes, I can’t wait to be out of school. And I won’t exactly miss selling pizza. And the sooner I start raising support, the sooner I can come back to Blacksburg. But the reality is sinking in that I will still have to leave for a while, even if I am coming back. I’ll have to leave my Engage Group and my NLCF family. And I have friends who will be graduating or moving and won’t be here when I get back. And I will miss the pizza. This will be more bittersweet than I thought it would be.

So I’m praying for these less-than-nine weeks left. Sixty days, actually. Praying that I won’t miss them. That God would give me wisdom as I choose how to spend what little time I have left. That my time left with my Engage Group is good, and that God would continue to prepare them to carry on under new leadership. And that God would be preparing me to step – more like launch – into the next chapter of my life.

(I was going to make this short. I couldn’t do it.)