We need oxygen to live, not a phone. Some think it’s both.
Paula and I were having dinner in Lower Manhattan when we were reminded of this.
At one table near us was a young family — a mother, father and two toddler children. During the meal, both parents were focused on their children, not their phones. And their children were looking around the dining room or reading their word books, not at their parents’ phones. The entire meal was about engagement with each other and the children. No device was babysitting, handed off to break the children’s boredom. And not once from salad to dessert did the mom or dad read a text or check a score. We watched, careful not to be visual stalkers.
At another table near us was a circle of seven college-agers. Six talked. One could not lift his head from his phone. The whole meal he thumbed through his apps and messages, fully disengaged from the other six.
There in that city, it was a tale of two tables.
One of the fading virtues in our culture today and on college campuses is the virtue of boredom. I don’t mean the negative connotation of sloth or laziness. By boredom I mean creating uninterrupted space without “connectivity” to nurture relationships with ourselves, with others, with God.
We stay connected at all times for fear of missing something. In college as in all of life, it is far better to focus on personal conversation than digital connectivity. Conversation is life-giving and soul-restoring because it facilitates relationship. It’s a wandering dialogue with no agenda except the person or people we are with, even if the only person we’re with is ourselves.
So it’s no surprise that over the past few decades, empathy has declined 40% among college students, mostly within the past 10 years. Conversation builds empathy. Connectivity breaks empathy.
At Biola, we are working to be an antidote to freneticism. We are working to create space for students to ponder. Through our Institute for Spiritual Formation, we not only provide three master’s-level degrees but also spiritual direction for students and courses for seminarians. This is one dimension of Biola’s dedication to deepening the life of prayer and openness of the heart to God, for students to know themselves honestly, cultivate intimacy and obedience to Christ and care for their souls through the loving power of the Holy Spirit. Our chapel programs — required of all undergraduate students — include not only traditional worship and biblical teaching, but also midday chapels for guided prayer and reflection, which in the midst of the day grounds our identities in Christ.
So much of what we want in our students is for them to nurture healthy relationships, but relationships are complex. We can’t go deep on relationships if we don’t minimize the distractors.
This is why David tells us in his poem, Psalm 23, to slow down, lie down and quiet ourselves by still waters. The shepherd David wrote that poem imagining he was one of God’s sheep, not one of his own sheep. The Good Shepherd wanted David to lie down in green pastures and calm down by still waters to restore the young man’s soul and strengthen him from the inside out.
I want all of us in the Biola community to allow boredom in its most virtuous dimension to be a part of our life together. It’s a good thing. It helps us linger with ideas about what we’re reading or writing. Boredom helps us see what we’re missing and ponder what we’re hearing. I’ve been trying this paraphrase of the timeless Psalm 23.
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He asks me to lie down in green pastures with my phone turned off. He leads me beside quiet waters uninterrupted by text chimes and Instagram notices. He refreshes my soul because I have embraced the virtue of boredom.
Why do we need to do this? The late Dallas Willard, former professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California and former Biola trustee, understood the why. He wrote, “The human heart is the spiritual place within us from which outlook, choices and actions come.” And if that spiritual place — our heart — is not refreshed and restored, our outlook, our choices and actions will suffer.
Habits of the heart form character in college, and these habits are cultivated by times of quietness and entering distraction-free zones. And it’s true with prayer. We cannot pray deeply unless we are creating space. We cannot have true communion with God with a phone vibrating beside us.