After starting 2023 with a commitment to avoid buying books for the whole year, I’ve selected something new to give up for each successive month.
Have I lost your attention yet? Why would I do such a thing?
Maybe giving up things for a month at a time sounds drastic and self-destructive. Maybe it sounds pointless and overly negative.
Is this just some kind of excessive legalism or ancient asceticism?
Why not focus on doing positive things?
The answer to that is simple – sometimes, good things get crowded out of our lives, and we need to make space for them to regain ground. That’s why Christian spiritual disciplines involve both stillness and initiative,
as gardening involves both plowing and sowing, both pruning and planting.
Marva J. Dawn, in her book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, argues from her own personal experience that Sabbath includes activities of ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting. And these turn out to work as a sort of process: when one removes certain activities from a day and regains a measure of freedom and energy, he or she is able to take initiative in new areas and enjoy the blessings already present in his or her life.
This is why I have viewed Sabbath as a foundational spiritual discipline – it creates time and space for other spiritual practices to flourish. These include things that we do on Sundays together in fellowship, as well as things we’ve been waiting all week to do on our own.
And there are other forms of ceasing. The Bible speaks plenty about fasting from food as a way to focus more, spiritually, or to express earnest desire. For me, fasting from other life habits on a monthly basis has served as a way to keep certain activities in check, avoiding excess while creating opportunities to replace them with more worthwhile activities.
After doing so with buying books, listening to audiobooks, and drinking coffee, I decided to try cutting the use of my smartphone in the month of April.
To some, this may sound impossible – we’ve become so reliant on what smartphones offer. To others, this may sound foolish – why make life difficult for myself? Perhaps others have not yet let smartphones become an integral part of their lives – they may wonder, what’s the big deal?
I didn’t have a cellphone until I was 22, and teaching English in St. Petersburg Russia for a year. Realizing that my Russian was a little sub-par, I needed a way to contact help when I needed it. Back then, we texted by repeatedly pushing numbers until they gave you the right letter. Sometimes, the technology of “predictive texting” expedited the process.
Now, I find my smartphone quite essential to my daily life – it has rendered street maps obsolete, it has replaced the morning newspaper, the sports channel on t.v., visits to the local bank, my calendar, my notepad, my camera – and it has streamlined a lot of communication. There’s an app for everything. So what would life be like without my smartphone? I thought I’d try to find out.
For emailing and messaging, the smartphone had made this available all of the time – even by voice texting (hands-free) in the car. But confining emails to certain times and places (in front of my computer) created space in my life for other things – to think, to pray, to rest my mind.
For checking news and sports scores, it was similar – while a smartphone makes these available all of the time, I found it a helpful relief to compartmentalize and localize that practice to my computer desk. I could more easily pick an appropriate time for it, and then walk away when I was finished.
With a smartphone, it’s so easy and tempting to pick it up at any spare moment – and so it is those spare moments that I gained back.
For google maps and google calendar, I actually missed these quite a bit. While it is possible to plan your route ahead of time, or write appointments in an agenda book, the ability to receive directions in real-time (on the crazy roads of Victoria) and to instantly synchronize your calendar with your wife – these have proven invaluable for me. Maybe if I still lived in a city whose streets followed a numerical grid (Metro Vancouver), I wouldn’t need Google Maps. Maybe if I worked a 9-5 desk job or trade, I wouldn’t need google calendar – but I’m thankful for these functions!
I could go on and on – there are other phone functions that can’t easily be replaced – it was hard to see any advantage in ceasing to cash my paycheque online, and without Whatsapp, it would be a lot harder to keep in touch with distant family. However, there were certain functions that I quickly saw the value in cutting completely. As much as I value Twitter/X as a source of breaking news and interesting facts, I greatly benefited from cutting its use from my phone. While I made exceptions for other things, this was the one discipline I stuck to.
Overall, the great gain from restricting my smartphone use came in the form of spare moments. By removing this constant distraction of my attention, I was more able to focus on things, and to be present to each and every moment – open to what God may show and tell me. Without such discipline over our attention, it’s hard to imagine following the advice of this Psalm: