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The Wired Soul
Finding Spiritual Balance in a Hyperconnected Age
By Tricia McCary Rhodes
NavPressCopyright © 2016 Tricia McCary Rhodes
All rights reserved.
WIRED SOULS IN A DIGITAL WORLD
The midday sun cast a golden glow across the meadow where I played with my brothers and sisters, our squeals and laughter peppering the air amidst a chorus of raucous birdsong. It was Saturday afternoon. My father, a nightshift oil refinery worker, had a rare day off, so we'd set out — seven of us packed like sardines into our two-door Ford Coupe — to waste time driving about the countryside. With no destination in mind, no schedule to keep, we just drove right out of our suburban neighborhood and kept going past the outskirts of town until my folks felt like stopping. When Dad pulled the car off the road, we sprinted off in different directions — some to climb trees, some to catch critters, some to play hide-and-seek in the tall grasses, some to quietly explore foot-worn paths.
Those carefree escapades, some of my favorite childhood memories, seem like artifacts of another era. In a digital universe, unplugged spontaneity seems rarely sanctioned, if ever. It is sobering (to say the least) to consider that I am a part of a generation that has ushered in one of the most stunning paradigm shifts humanity has ever known.
I have lived in both worlds. My childhood days were untethered — no Internet, no smartphones, no persistent pinging of e-mails and texts, and no social media beyond our rotary dial phone. Television itself was a special event, served up sparingly and always fit for the entire family. My adult children, dubbed digital natives, bridge the gap — I am the before and their children will be the after — the ones who will play out this saga of a change so capacious that we cannot find its edges, pulled along as we are by technology's relentless pace.
About 2,500 years ago a sage named Heraclitus offered the familiar maxim: The only thing that is constant is change. The aging Greek philosopher was alerting us that the only thing we can know with certainty will never change is that things are going to change. In hindsight, his wisdom seems understated, for surely in his wildest dreams Heraclitus could not have imagined the stunning rapidity with which the world to which you and I awaken each morning seems to be altering its course. As journalist Douglas Rushkoff suggests in his book Present Shock, "Change is no longer an event that happens, but a steady state of existence."
The nagging sense that nothing about our lives is secure, that change is the new normal, is fueled by our ubiquitous presence online. Wherever we go and whatever we do, we are connected — from our cars to our bedrooms, from our desks to our coffee shops, from our churches to our kitchens. Amidst the ever-pinging text messages, the beeping backlog of e-mails, the plethora of posts, pokes, and pics on social media, as well as the expectation that we must be instantly available to everyone — friend or foe — who might contact us, we feel permanently tethered to our devices, as if they are some sort of technological umbilical cord connecting us to the universe.
I am not personally prone to panic attacks, but these days there are moments when I find myself out of sorts, almost as if I can't quite catch my breath. I don't think I'm alone in this. People of all ages seem terminally distracted, perpetually hurried, and often harried. It is rare for an answer to the question "how are you?" not to include the word busy and elicit some degree of angst. Collectively it feels as if we are losing something important in the name of progress, as if life itself is slipping through our fingers.
Yet if this is true, why do we not question the rhythms and patterns that govern our lives? What is it that makes us move mindlessly through our days, caught in the swift-moving current of a digital culture that waits for no one? Perhaps more importantly, what is all of this doing to the state of our souls? If the Spirit of God wanted to capture our undivided attention, what might he ever so gently whisper? And could we hear him amidst the cacophony of cyber-static that surrounds us?
As someone who is passionate about spiritual formation, these questions have arrested my heart and mind. I have studied and read and prayed and pondered, and to be honest, it feels as if I've opened a Pandora's Box with contents worse than I expected. There's little question that dangers lurk in this digital sea in which we swim day in and day out, and while these have serious spiritual implications for Christ followers, the church seems largely silent on the issue. Instead, the voices of educators, neuroscientists, humanitarians, medical doctors, politicians, executives, psychologists, and social scientists alike resound in an increasingly loud chorus of caution concerning the long-term negative effects that technology may be having on culture and individuals, particularly those digital natives whose entire life experience has been one of a 24/7 connection.
My Love–Hate Relationship with Technology
Saturday night, circa 1959. Baths finished and pajamas donned, my four siblings and I were curled up on the living room floor watching hopefully while dad fiddled with the foil-wrapped rabbit ears that sat atop our small television. We were the first family on the block to get a color TV, an event that imbued us with almost-instant celebrity status in the neighborhood. There wasn't much content to choose from in those days, but if we were lucky and the weather cooperated, Ben Cartwright and his boys would soon appear astride their horses as the Bonanza theme thundered its clip-clop tune and the credits emerged from the midst of a fire burning to the edges of the screen.
Fast-forward almost three decades to 1987. That particularly difficult winter, my vocal cords had been damaged from back-to-back throat infections, and the doctor forbade me to speak for a month. As a mother of two boys, this was an excruciating dilemma — until a good friend hauled over their Apple II computer. Now I could communicate by typing on a keyboard and watching my words magically appear on the screen. We were all in awe. Never mind that the computer was a cumbersome eyesore, taking up half of my kitchen table, where I had to remain in case I needed to talk to my family members — who, I might add, were far more enamored of that technological wonder than sympathetic to my plight.
These stories date me as a digital immigrant. I share them because they frame my perspective in writing this book. I have watched the ushering in of the technological revolution firsthand, and if I sound unduly alarmist at times, this is probably why. But truth be told, I love technology and can as easily become fixated on the next best thing as anyone else. I work from a computer with two monitors, and I have a two-in-one for travel, an Internet media center, an e-reader, and a smartphone. I use many of them continually, even in my morning devotionals, where a variety of apps enhances my spiritual quests. I am keenly aware not only that our hyperconnectivity is not going away but that the future will be increasingly difficult to navigate without a hefty level of technological acumen. Be assured, then, that this book is not a plea to return to the past, nor will it champion an unplugged life.
Yet, at the same time, I am disturbed at the spiritual losses that seem to be piling up, not only for individuals and families, but for the church at large, as a result of our wholesale and uninformed immersion into this digital universe. God has imbued our souls with certain capacities that are essential for knowing him and making his presence known in the world — things like reflection and meditation, communion and compassion, contemplation and listening, awareness and even prayerfulness. These and others are at risk, in part because of the frenetic nature of our lives, but more importantly because of the impact technology is having on our brains. Simply put, the neurological activity between our ears, which is greatly affected by our digital habits, has a direct link to our formation into Christlikeness. I believe the time has come for us to grapple seriously with this.
An Honest Assessment
Are there moments when you sense that your life is out of balance, that somewhere along the line you've lost control of how you manage your time and energy? Let me ask this another way: Can you say with confidence that technology is a servant to your needs rather than a silent taskmaster over you? Perhaps you've not really thought about it, but consider this: Do you ever
go online to read or watch something or check social media, and end up spending an hour or more lost in hyperlinks, while feeling like you have nothing to show for it?
feel compelled to check immediately when you hear a ping for a text, e-mail, or phone call, regardless of who you are with or what you are doing?
sit down to read a book and find yourself impossibly distracted, or realize after five or ten minutes that you can't remember a thing you've just read?
set aside a time for quiet prayer but feel so antsy you can't get anything out of it?
ignore the people who are right there with you as you play games online or engage in social media?
find yourself waking up in the morning already on overload, feeling as if you will never tie up all the loose ends in your life?
If you found yourself answering yes — as most probably would — you are living out some of the negative consequences of a hyperconnected life. But here's the thing: Have you ever taken the time or invested the energy to consider what impact this is having on your walk with God? Do you ever honestly assess how your engagement with technology may be forming (or malforming) you as a spiritual being? My desire is that this book will challenge you to do just that. But at the same time, and equally importantly, I want to show you that there is a way out — that you do not have to be an unwitting victim of digitization. The truth is that God has given us all we need to recapture the capacities we need for our souls' well-being and to bring spiritual balance to our lives.
How? Surprisingly, the answers begin with the exploding study of the human brain called neuroscience, which has not only discovered the ways that technology may be reshaping our brains, but also offers great hope for turning things around.
This Is Your Brain on Technology
When I was in third grade, Miss Small — a stout, gray-haired, no-nonsense Sunday school teacher who showed up every week in the same charcoal suit and white silk blouse — stunned our entire class by cracking a raw egg into a glass of beer, soberly warning us that the egg represented our brains.
The lesson itself, if there was one to be had, was lost on us. We squirmed and snickered in awkward awe at that can of Pabst Blue Ribbon sitting there on a Sunday morning in our Southern Baptist church. Truth be told, there wasn't an eight-year-old among us who had ever been in such close proximity to a can of beer, much less breathed in its yeasty aroma as it bubbled and frothed its way to the top of the glass.
Turns out Alice Small may have been ahead of her time, at least in likening a brain to an egg. In the mid-1980s the Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched an ad cam- paign with a close-up video of an egg dropping into a frying pan, while a voice in the background uttered the well-known phrase "This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?"
Aside from the fact that the texture of a brain is more like a bowl of Jell-O than the contents of an eggshell, these examples rightfully allude to a more recent, astounding scientific discovery: Our brains have the property of plasticity. This means that rather than being hardwired in the womb, as was once assumed, our brains are always changing, even into adulthood, making constant adjustments over the course of our lives based on our everyday actions and experiences.
Here's a brief overview of how this works. Incredibly, your brain hosts 100 billion neurons (nerve cells), roughly as many as the number of stars in the Milky Way. Any single one of these neurons can have up to ten thousand thread-like branches, which continually send or receive signals from other neurons — a bit like friends talking on the telephone. Between these branches are minuscule spaces called synapses, which is where these signals — your thoughts, perceptions, and memories — shuttle along like race cars at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. When you go to sleep at night, this activity continues as your brain sets about the task of pruning. Neurons grow new branches and lose old ones, and neural pathways may be strengthened, shrunk, created, or destroyed based on what you did during your waking hours.
All of this relates to an important principle regarding the brain's plasticity, reflected in the increasingly popular phrase "Cells that fire together, wire together." In short, the more you engage in any one thought process or behavior, the more regularly specific brain cells fire together, and thus the more deeply entrenched those supportive neural pathways become. This is how you establish habits and form mental models that end up determining, in large part, your way of being in this world.
What are the spiritual implications of this? Our ever-increasing engagement with technology is deepening neural pathways that make it difficult to maintain practices that are essential for soul care. For example:
Our habit of continually switching from one thing to another on our devices trains our brains to seek constant stimulation, and this makes it hard to spend focused time connecting with God.
The way we skim when we are on the Internet trains our brains for shallow thinking, so we struggle to take in transcendent truths that reveal the profound beauty of Christ.
Compulsive texting, playing video games, and engaging in social media train our brains to neglect the person in front of us, robbing us of the awareness we need to be salt and light or to love our neighbors as ourselves.
These are just a few of the ways that our hyperconnected lives may be imperiling our walk with God.
Finding Our Way Out
I hope you can see here that the stakes are too high for us to ignore. Yet because our brains have this marvelous capacity to adapt, we have hope: We really can take control of technology and make it work to our advantage. In fact, if you were to peruse a score of the latest books on technology and the brain, you would discover recommendations for a number of activities that promise to do just that.
Most of these recommendations are based on secular research. Studies indicate, for example, that reflection contributes to a well-rounded mind and an ability to "thrive in a complex, ever-shifting new world." Meditation strengthens your brain and is a "stepping stone to becoming more compassionate, calm, and joyful." Prayer can lower your propensity to anger and increase empathy. Contemplation can actually cause your brain to grow.
It is a stunning fact that these practices and others were all laid out in Scripture thousands of years ago. In this book, I offer fresh ways to engage with many of these ancient spiritual practices. They can help you become a better steward of your digital life as you rewire your brain. To that end, we will explore four categories of our spiritual journeys, each one symbolized by a component from a discipline called lectio divina ("sacred reading"), which I use as a metaphor to frame the conversation. Here is a short synopsis of what you can expect:
Lectio — to read. This section will examine why we struggle with focus and how our waning capacity to do so is affecting our ability to think deeply. It includes simple practices such as deep reading and memory enhancement that can help us regain clarity and improve our ability to concentrate.
Meditatio — to meditate. This section looks at the various ways technology breeds distraction and, as a result, a shallow spirituality. It includes practices such as God-focused deep breathing and biblical meditation, designed to settle our minds and hearts and to enable us to deepen our grasp of God's ways, works, and Word.
Oratio — to pray. Here I explore how we have unwittingly yielded control over our thoughts and behavior to others, as well as the deficits we face relationally as a result of digital idolatry. This section includes practices designed to restore personal balance and foster authentic community through greater consecration.
Contemplatio — to contemplate. This section considers how we lack awareness of God and his heart, both in times alone and as we move about in the world, because of the pace we feel pressured to maintain. It includes practices that foster a vision of God's love that both infuses us and informs our way of being in the world.
Excerpted from The Wired Soul by Tricia McCary Rhodes. Copyright © 2016 Tricia McCary Rhodes. Excerpted by permission of NavPress.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Wired Souls in a Digital World 1
Part 1 Lectio
2 Slow Reading and Deep Thinking 17
Practice: Slow Reading 35
3 Eat This Book m
Practice: Receptive Reading 63
Practice: Retentive reading 67
Part 2 Meditatio
4 May I Have Your Attention, Please? 73
Practice: God-Focused Deep Breathing 87
5 Meditation-the Laboratory of the Soul 93
Practice: Biblical Meditation 109
Part 3 Oratio
6 Praying the Texts of Our Digital Lives 119
Practice: Examen Regarding Corrupted Desire 133
7 Alone… Together 139
Practice: A Brief and Prayerful Assessment 157
Practice: Table-Talk Connections 161
Part 4 Contemplatio
8 The Contemplative Life 167
Practice: Contemplation in Solitude 187
Practice: Contemplation in Action 193
A Final Word 197