Monday, January 2, 2012


…I have been made free
by the tide’s pendulum truth
that the heart that is low now
will be at the full tomorrow.
                                     ~R.S. Thomas

All of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
                                                                                          ~Blaise Pascal

In the movie Topsy-Turvy – a depiction of the Victorian-era partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan –  there is a scene in which Gilbert has just had a recently-invented telephone installed in his home. His elderly father objects to it as an intrusion, complaining, “Why should I have a gadget that allows a stranger to set off a bell in my home whenever he feels like it!” I can’t think of a better summary introduction to the world of noise that ensued. With the invention of the radio at approximately the same time, our grandparents’, parents’, and now our generation have not only been present at the creation, but have observed the steady marginalization of quiet and solitude over the last hundred years. Quietness has, almost literally, been pushed to the edges of our existence.

Although the increasing number of noisy gadgets in our lives (including mine) should perhaps give us pause, my intention here is not to rail against them, but to offer a modest proposal for how to live with them in such a way that we experience a life of balance, benefiting from both the technology that we have come to require and the solitude that we, actually, need.

The proposal I have in mind is the Sabbath, or, more exactly, the idea of the Sabbath. While I am a proponent of the biblical Sabbath pattern of six days of work and one of rest, I am speaking here more of the micro- and macro-Sabbaths that flow from this principle.  (The Sabbath principle is one of those things about which it can be said, “It’s not true because it’s in the Bible; it’s in the Bible because it’s true.”) Sabbath means a number of things, but at its heart it primarily means “rhythm” and “rest.” It is “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It is why workaholism should be confessed and treated, not bragged about. It is why, when the boss bragged, “I don’t need a vacation,” one of his employees whispered, “He doesn’t think he needs a vacation but everyone else thinks he needs a vacation!” It is why Jesus said to the exhausted disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a quiet place.”

And it is why we need quiet after the noise of TV and cellphones, and darkness after the screenlight of iPads and Androids. It is rhythm, Sabbath rhythm. And it is rest – not, in this case, idle snoozing (although studies have shown that the afternoon nap is more productive, even in a business sense, than the afternoon coffee break), but the break from routine. Putting away the pale-lit device and talking across the table to a friend. Walking around the block. Sitting in church without texting.

If the irritating jingly bell represented the new intrusion of technology for W.S. Gilbert’s father, I suppose the icon for our current distractions is the familiar scene of two people talking, at least one of them bobbing his head nervously up and down, constantly checking the tiny screen that can’t be turned off – ever.

The always-on screen is a good modern representation of what the Bible calls the sin of failing to enter into one’s Sabbath rest. The non-sabbatical, always-on life – whether that of work or technology – is, like all sin, “not just bad – it’s bad for you.”*

The noise of devices and the glare of screens affects our brains, our relationships, and our attention. (Brain development needs down-time.) Everybody gets nervous if they see a driver heading toward them with a cell phone in hand, but the same everybody thinks that they are the exception who can handle it themselves. It is not just that the seventeen-year-old pickup truck driver – who killed a grandmother, mother, and daughter because he was texting – needed a sabbatical break from the screen; his victims needed him to take one, too. So much for the libertarian freedom of the cell phone.

The original sin was the sin of self-centeredness. (“I don’t need God, I can be God!”) It is still what all sin is. Our devices become like Eden’s talking snake, enticing us, “You can do it – and that, too, and that, too…, whatever you want…, these iThings are extensions of you! Why would you turn them off?”  And, to switch literary references, a picture of the Queen dancing in her iron shoes comes to mind. Dancing to death.

I am a user of these devices. Whenever I switch them off and sit quietly in a room or stare out a window or walk iPhone-free, the first thought I have is how good it feels. The second is how rarely I do this.

I was going to say that the margins to which quiet has been pushed are out in the woods – in the mountains – and that you can seek solitude in a backpacker's tent or a remote cabin. But that’s not really true, is it? If you approach all but the remotest cabin in the darkness you will see the soft blue glow of an iPad emanating from the picturesque windows. The real Sabbath – and the real Sabbath rhythm – is produced by an on-off switch (wherever you are), and by the solitude or conversation that follows.

When we read the most profound of the Bible’s many creation accounts – the one in the first chapter of Genesis – we see that the Crown of Creation is not humankind. It is not even God. It is the Sabbath.

This New York Times essay by Pico Iyer (the source of the Blaise Pascal quote, above) is a very insightful and even inspiring treatment of this topic.

*"Sin" is kind of a loaded word for some; think "brokenness," or anything that works agains the fullness of life.


Anonymous said...

Great subject, excellent writing and opinion! Thank you, Richard. I see some other downsides to all this noise/input. No downtime means less reflection, less journaling, less space for new ideas. That probably means less time for reading the Bible, too, and therefore less time to find that God's ways are not one's own. Big trouble for all.

My grandfather's journals from the early 1900s are a source of wonder to me. Too bad our progeny won't have the same from us (speaking as a nation).

I recall a visit by a young man from NYC to my mountain home some years back. He was absolutely terrified by the silence and dark. We have to ask what that means about that human life.

Personally I find that text receptions to my wife's phone are the most disruptive. They come much more frequently than phone calls or cute replies on Facebook that just "have to" be shared. Then they "hang there" in the air until retrieved. Very annoying to conversation in process.

Sabbath, yes. More than ever. Bill Gable

Richard Jorgensen said...

Thanks, Bill. Always glad to hear from you.