Sermon “Balancing Act”
Copyright Sarah K. Person
Delivered as amended May 18, 2014 to First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro
This morning you are all rebels. By virtue of the fact that you are here, you are all participating in an act of resistance. You have chosen a place, where there are no telephones, no computers and no internet. For one hour there are no tap, tap, taps, no texts, no tweets, Facebook postings, emails, Skype. I will let you in on a secret; some places of worship have taken to jamming those signals altogether for a service. We, of course, prefer to trust you. This morning, you are having a very short Internet Sabbath, a phrase coined by William Powers in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry.
We are all of us immersed in cultural messages that tell us what and who to value and trust. We cannot escape these messages; they are literally all around us and in the air we breathe. In a way, we send these messages and receive them so that we can overcome distance between us – feel more like one another, know where we stand, feel more important. We know we look good when others tell us so. We know we are interesting when others want to hear us. In point of fact, we invented speech and writing and printing and sound-making apparatuses and telecommunication so that we can overcome distance and know each other’s thoughts and figure out how we should behave and what is important and even what is true.
In this day and age, according to Powers, the message that surrounds us and affects us most profoundly is: “it’s good to be connected,” and its corollary “it’s bad to be disconnected.” It is so bad to be disconnected that some of us lose sleep for fear that we will miss a telephone or a text or an email message. It is so bad to be disconnected that failing to respond to others has become a form of desertion.
Years ago, I was in training at a hospital and had to leave my cell phone off while on duty. During a break, one of my sisters called, infuriated when I reminded her that I could only be paged. “What if something happened to mom and I couldn’t reach you?” Now, we both knew mom was in the best place possible, I knew that was not what was bothering my sister. She expected, relied on the fact that for years she could have instant access to me at all times because I had a cell phone. I knew that this was not about my mom. When she could not reach me, my sister felt abandoned.
As usual, when a culture absorbs new technology, it becomes a standard of well-being, a way of thinking, a way of life. Think of everything we’ve invented; think of writing. Writing meant we didn’t have to memorize and relate long passages of poetry or scripture, or speak to our intended audience face to face. Writing changed the way we express ourselves and receive each other’s ideas. We didn’t have to retain each other’s words; they had been retained for us.
Think of how instant messaging and Wikipedia and blogging have changed the way we view each other. The message has become: If we are paying attention to each other, then we are okay. The message has become: the more we know about many things, the more knowledgeable we are. The message has become: the more others know about you, the more valuable you are. We want and are expected to know a little bit about a lot of things rather than a lot about a few things. Instead, we are bombarded by bits of information, and capable of bombarding others.
In fact, the entire experience of being connected is meant to distract you. There is something very attractive, even addictive, about these distractions. They appeal to us on a very basic level. When you think about how our brains normally work, it makes sense. We are at points in our lives wired for distractions. As infants we are programmed to absorb a tremendous amount of information in a very short period of time. We are, as the neuroscientists say, hyperaware of the world around us. We need to be to learn to speak and interact and walk and move things around. We master complex skills in only a couple of years because we are wired to absorb the world around us at an unbelievable rate.
We only learn to focus as we grow older. It is the capacity to tune out distractions that allows us to focus, and that is something that we are programmed to do as we mature. We need to focus, to concentrate, in order to think creatively: to assemble what we have learned into gaining new insights and unique perspectives on life and to solve problems. When we get older, distractions keep us from focusing, from going deeply into things in our own unique way. Although we have the capacity to focus as we grow older, we must choose to do so. Few of us are single-minded enough to naturally ignore everyone and everything else in the pursuit of tasks. In our day-to-day lives, we must choose to be selective or else we will never accomplish anything.
The internet appeals to our youthful state of distractability. It does not encourage us to experience one thing at a time, or to spend time with our own experiences. As a consequence, suggests Powers, we are losing ground in our productivity and accomplishments. We are in a state of information overload, burdened (if we allow ourselves to be) with trivia that keeps us from what is important and fulfilling.
The internet can be a godsend to those of us who are isolated by circumstances and need to connect virtually or not at all. I am glad beyond measure to be able to talk to my daughters and see them at the same time with a video connection, but it doesn’t compare to hugging them or walking down a street with them or vainly trying to punch-buggy them before they punch-buggy me. The internet is no substitute for relationships, for real life, and for our real selves.
Powers and Thoreau claim the barrage of communication affects our ability to think and express ourselves creatively and with originality. They ask, is creativity or connectivity more important. And their answer is that creativity and authenticity are the most important things we have to offer and to aspire to. To be creative and original, we have to disconnect; to create distances at times between ourselves and others – a kind of personal Walden, or internet Sabbath.
Perhaps it is time to give yourself space to challenge connectedness and ask: what would it be like? What do you think? I know, I know, our principles tell us that we are connected to each other and this world and that empathy and understanding is the only thing that makes civilization possible. I suggest that we need to approach this connection with all the wholeness and authenticity we can muster. And that means stepping into the starry void as much as it means reaching out to one another; taking the risk to find what is real about us, and what we bring to each other.
This idea is not new. It has been explored for centuries by philosophers, scientists and writers of speculative fiction. A famous science fiction short story by E.M. Forster envisions what life would be like carrying virtual reality to the extreme and his vision is startlingly prophetic. In “The Machine Stops,” humans live in elaborate hives underground supported by complex machinery. They spend their lives individual cells: personal spaces that meet all their needs. They are isolated from one another except by a video-messaging machine called a speaking apparatus that takes the place of face-to-face contact. Their only occupations are to endlessly rehash second-hand ideas and knowledge. Of course, the machines stop functioning and the purposeless hive dwellers come to a catastrophic end. What is remarkable is that Forster wrote this story in 1909.
A hundred years later, in 2009, a speaker delivering a commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania told graduates, “Turn off your computer. You’re actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us. Nothing beats holding the hand of your grandchild as he walks his first steps.” The speaker was Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google.
So I invite you to carry your rebellion a little bit further. Part of our precious freedom is the freedom to choose how we spend this one wild and remarkable life. The internet is a powerful tool if we use it and do not let it use us. Create some balance in your life, each day and not just on Sundays. It doesn’t matter what you do. It only matters that you let your thoughts run free to find their own purpose and fulfillment; whether it is to God or to all creation.
Rest and reflection are only part of Sabbath. Sowing flowers is Sabbath. Jam sessions in the garage are Sabbath. Making up awful puns at the dinner table is Sabbath. Telling bedtime stories is Sabbath. Letting your mind wander while the minister preaches is Sabbath. Writing a poem to the one you love is Sabbath. Learning to be in love with the world is Sabbath. May it always be so.
 William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Life in the Digital Age. New York : Harper Perennial, © 2010.