On Digital Minimalism, Coons, and Lent

‘As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.’ David Brooks

Lent began on Wednesday, and I am in the habit of letting go of something that distracts me from more important things, and primarily—just distracts me from the quiet of my own heart. This year, Lent happened to fall right as I finished a book by Cal Newport called “Digital Minimalism.” Dr. Newport has a great little Ted Talk that you can watch if you want to start to understand the main points of the book.

The main premise is that all of the online information and connection has become a source of distraction from the things that we really value. These “drips” of connection cannot substitute for real face to face conversation which is one of the most important things that makes us human. I read a lot of self-help books, and there are always so many that restate the obvious and I either abandon the book, or come away wondering why I spent my time reading all of those words. Dr. Newport’s book is not like this. Though much of what he says really is common sense, he has a way of framing our digital use that is truly eye-opening. He also gives you all of the tools you need to make a real change in your digital life.

By the time I finished reading it, I was eager to try the “digital declutter” that he goes into detail about. I had just decluttered my physical space, but there has still been so much noise in my head and heart. Even though I’ve already made a conscious effort to not be on my phone in front of my daughter, this complete reset is different. He’s careful to distinguish it from a digital detox in which one just gives up digital use for a certain number of days and then goes back to it. In this case, you use the 30 days away from digital life to reevaluate what matters to you, and spend time investing in and developing high-quality leisure activities that you may not have had time for before when you were endlessly scrolling.

As soon as I started the declutter, I noticed how many people were on their phones no matter where they were. I noticed how uneasy I felt and how I wanted to go to something to distract me from my more existential thoughts like I usually do. Without my computer or phone to go to, other emotions I’ve numbed have come to the surface. That’s OK.

There’s a lot more I can say about this digital declutter, but I will leave you with a few of my favorite quotes:

” “Minimalists don’t mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good.”

“…the cumulative cost of the noncrucial things we clutter our lives with can far outweigh the small benefits each individual piece of clutter promises.”

The “simple action of sweeping away this detritus and starting from scratch in crafting their digital life felt like lifting a psychological weight they didn’t realize had been dragging them down.”

“The state I’m helping you escape is one in which passive interaction with your screens is your primary leisure. I want you to replace this with a state where your leisure time is now filled with better pursuits, many of which will exist primarily in the physical world. ”

and one of my favorites, which if I’m remembering correctly was a quote from someone else, ” “I don’t think we’re meant to keep in touch with so many people.” I agree.

I have had a very hard time letting go of this habit. Feeling “connected” was crucial to me in the wake of my late husband’s death. His friends “friended” me, and it was a way for me to feel plugged in when the reality is life as a single mother is quite isolating. But after a while, I knew that was more of a survival mechanism and had become a maladaptive habit and outgrown its usefulness to me. It was contributing to my anxiety and feeding my brain with too much useless information. If I was a cartoon, there would’ve been smoke coming out of my ears.

I don’t know what you need to let go of, but whatever it is, I want to leave you with one final image from a novel Audrey and I read last summer, “Where the Red Fern Grows.” It’s the story of a young boy and his coon hounds and their adventures trying to trap raccoons. (Full disclosure- we both got really bored with it and never finished it!) But there was one section that really spoke to me. In the beginning the boy’s grandfather is telling him how he can create a trap for the raccoons, and capture them even without a hound. He basically tells him to hollow a log and put a piece of shiny tin inside the hole. Then put two nails going inwards through the log on either side of the hole. The raccoon would be attracted to the tin and close his fist around it, but with his fist closed, he wouldn’t be able to get his hand out of the hole and would be trapped. If he tried to get his hand out with his fist still closed, the nails would jab into his flesh.

After the grandfather explains the trap to the boy, the boy feels like his grandfather is playing a joke on him because he realizes all the coon has to do to get free is drop the tin. The grandfather replies telling him about the coon he observed as a child which gave him the idea for the trap: “One of the most peculiar things about that coon,” he said, “was his front feet. Once he wrapped those little paws around something, he would never let go.”

Sure enough, the trap works.

How many things could we be free from if we would just let go of what we’re holding onto in our own little fists? And yet it is so hard. Just like the raccoons, shiny objects get our attention and once we latch onto them, it’s a scary thought to think of letting go. I think it helps to have something else in mind already to grab onto once you’ve let go. On the surface that new something might not be as shiny, but it will have weight and value and richness that the shinier things do not. Open fists mean vulnerability, emptiness, and fear, but they also mean freedom and possibility. During Lent, we look for God to fill the emptiness. He does not disappoint.

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