Tune In, Turn Off, Drop By

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“I’m completely slammed at work,” said Mike. “Plus, it’s important to me to be a good dad, and these days with my kids there’s a ton of homework, they need to be shuttled to games – and I even coach some of them! On top of all of this, my wife feels as though we are missing some connect…”

He was interrupted by his phone, the ringtone the theme from “Mad Men,” and after looking at me with widened eyes, silently mouthed, “Sorry!” before putting the phone to his ear and looking off into space, where something of a serious nature was occurring.

Mike is my Wednesday 6 p.m. client who rushes to get to our appointments on time, and always makes it. He is earnest in his goal to create a happier atmosphere in his home. In love with the woman he married, he describes her as his best friend, and is worried that she might be right about their missing some closer ways of relating.

Unless you’ve been far away, exploring the Mariana Trench, you have read about the debate regarding how technology affects us psychologically. Questions are researched and debated about whether we are more connected to others, thanks to all the “tech-onection” available to us. Or do our amazing devices push us in the direction of becoming more separate, each of us turning to our phones and their offer of that warm fuzzy feeling that comes when someone is listening?

Frustratingly, the answers coming from a slew of studies show that both are true. We spend more time in communication with others, but also show signs of not being deeply connected with them.

All parents know that giving a child a “time out” is one way to deter little ones from misbehaving, and also provides them with a slot of time to be alone. As adults, we too need to give ourselves a “time out” to gather our thoughts and experience precious moments of solitude – to live for some moments in an inner world where we are only with self.

By communicating about and revealing aspects of ourselves to many more people, via social networks, the time left to have solitary thought and contemplation is gobbled up. We offer up photos and blurbs that project the self we want others to see, while opportunities for someone to see us as we really are become fewer.

How does being always-on affect us in ways we can tangibly see? Earlier this month, at UC Irvine, scientists released a study in which they tried to measure the effects of having to use e-mail at work. The study authors measured the effects of an e-mail “holiday” on the workers, by dividing them into two groups – one group continued to use e-mail as usual; the other group had an enforced break from e-mail.

It’s not at all surprising that the scientists found that people were less stressed when they didn’t have e-mail. Those people who were detached from e-mail showed increases in movement – they walked to other workers’ desks, getting some physical relief and a chance to interact “the old fashioned way.” The researchers believe that a swollen inbox is a tangible reminder of not having done a good enough job, and suggest batching or sending e-mails only twice per day.

My patient and his wife have a hard enough time making time for each other – but if one or both of them is connected to someone else somewhere else, that feeling of attachment gets lost.

Here are some radical ideas they are trying: Nominate some spaces of the home to be “device free” sacred spaces (the kitchen, the dining room … the bedroom?). Have specific and agreed-upon times of the day when no one is connected to devices. A day when all apparatus is shelved. Consider what old/new-fashioned etiquette we can teach our kids, such as “ask permission before taking a call or texting when we are together.”

Look at one another. Have a great conversation!

Sr. Ruth Wimsatt lives and practices in Newport Beach. She can be reached at [email protected] or 949-222-3285.

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