Rhythms of absence and presence

The problem with reading lots of books at once is that sometimes you can have a great thought and you know it came from someone but you cannot for the life of you remember which particular author it was this time.  That is my problem today.

The thought relates to how we receive telephone calls which interrupt our daily routine.  The writer suggested that we receive them not with the irritation of someone interrupted in their busyness and taken away from their task, but rather as an opportunity to exercise the spiritual discipline of offering hospitality.

The discipline of hospitality calls me to be fully and willingly present to the other.  To be fully present in my listening and caring, not with half a mind on the frustration of a task interrupted.

And I suppose that means taking the unexpected call rather than ignoring it.  Taking it not with bad grace but with a heart ready to listen and serve.  Prioritising people over task.

Now I know that I am bad at the latter.  Try though I might, I still measure the success of my day in terms of impact on tasks, not on people.

But I happened to have conversations related to this question with two different and discerning friends last week.  They are extroverts, real ‘people’ people.  Yet both, in their individual ways, were expressing frustration at the impact of mobile and e-mail technology on their lives.  One confessed to hating her phone.  The other, only a few hours earlier, had confessed to feeling chained to her laptop.

And in each conversation, as I talked with them, it became apparent that we felt technology had made us too available to others.  That it interrupts us with demands.  That eventually we resent not only the work phone calls, texts and e-mails which can come at any time but also – and perhaps more concerningly – even communications from friends can feel intrusive.  Their texts and calls and voice messages and e-mails seem to demand an instant response.  And there is the knowledge that if you reply immediately to text or e-mail you are likely to get another response to which you then feel you should reply.

As I listened to these harried-sounding words, I experienced the tension between the call to solitude and the call to offer hospitality to all who pass by.  In order to offer the hospitality of being fully present to another, I know that I must also have times when I am fully present to God and thus, by default, fully absent to others.

I know that even as the three of us recognise the call to offer hospitality through a listening ear and friendly response, we also each need to learn how to have times of being absent to others in order to be fully present to God.  For it is time in the still quiet place with God, that place where the phone and laptop are off, the place where ‘the other’ cannot intrude –  that time restores us for life in community, restores our strength for the hospitality of picking up the phone to listen or responding to the text or e-mail.

So what does this mean practically for my friends and me?

It’s difficult because in each case our phone is both a work and personal number.  But one of my friends has just spent four days on a silent retreat and didn’t touch her phone or e-mails all week.  It seems that her experience has galvanised her to take control of her mobile more, to block the automated update alerts from networking sites and to disconnect her e-mail from her mobile.

For me, I have set my phone so that on my day off it does not download my e-mail and I have also turned off the text notifications.  And, as a general practice, when texts come through which need a reply, I prepare an empty text and save it to drafts.  That means I don’t miss the need to reply but also that I can take control over when I will reply.

They are small things.  But perhaps that is enough for now.  We are, after all, blazing a new trail.  In all my studies, I have found no ‘spirituality of a mobile phone’, no advice on how to tread this narrow path of presence and absence.  And yet it seems that how this generation handles this challenge to life in God will determine what we can offer to those who will follow us.

So why not respond here with some ideas?  In a world where we seem to get more texts and e-mails, facebook updates and tweets per day than ever before, how can we learn the lifegiving rhythm that begins with full presence to God and then, from that, offers full presence to the other?

And, for fun, why not read this BBC link which talks about the impact of what the writer calls ‘hyper-connectivity’?  


One thought on “Rhythms of absence and presence

  1. Helpful post, thanks. I’m far too addicted to my phone, so I’m speaking as one who has a long way to go, but a couple of things have helped me. Firstly, I unsubscribed from blogs that frankly I’m not really interested in. I enjoyed Twitter for a while but was convicted in homegroup one night that it was taking up too much time, and few people post solely to Twitter anyway. I also decided that with internet access on my phone it shouldn’t be an issue to refrain from switching on the computer once getting back home from work. This hasn’t worked much, but on occasion it can be helpful. I also put my phone on silent for evenings so I don’t feel the need to reply instantly. Other suggestions welcome!

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