The day after Christmas I made a dreadful decision. I agreed to take my kids to a mall here in Denver so that they could go to the Lego store to buy something with the money that they got for Christmas from relatives. Big mistake. As I was driving the fifteen minutes it takes to get from my house to the mall, I reached down to grab my iPhone from my pocket for some tunes for the ride, and it wasn’t there. After double checking my jacket pockets, it was confirmed that I had forgotten my phone at home. I was already about ten minutes from home, and the thought crossed my mind to turn around and go get my phone. But I decided that was silly. I would be spending the day unplugged.
When we got to the mall my worst fears were realized. It was a complete madhouse. I have never seen that many people at a mall in my life. Seriously. Every road was jammed. Every parking spot was full. Every parking-lot aisle was backed up three to four cars deep as people were “trolling” for parking spots. I reached for my phone to call the store where we were heading to find out if they even had the item we came after. Oh yeah, no phone today.
After circling the parking lot without success for thirty minutes I heard the words from our back seat that every parent dreads in situations like this: “Daddy, I have to go potty.” It was Andrew, my four-year-old. “Okay, just hold it for a few minutes. Daddy will get a parking spot soon.” Fifteen minutes later Andrew was crying, and we still hadn’t found a parking place. I made a split-second decision. Passing the main entrance to the mall (in bumper-to-bumper traffic) I opened the door and instructed my seven-year-old son, Ethan, to take his brother inside to the bathroom and told him exactly where to wait for me inside. I headed straight for the valet parking line. At this point seven dollars seemed like a small price to pay to retrieve my two boys who were somewhere in the middle of the mall madness. As I dropped off my car, I began praying that the boys made it to the bathroom okay, that they weren’t scared, and that they’d be right where I told them to be. I was speed walking to where I told Ethan to meet me, and as I walked my hand slipped to my pocket. Oh yeah, no phone today. I continued to pray. I opened the door to the mall and immediately saw my boys, exactly where I told them to wait. I prayed again, thanking God for this small but oh-so-important answered prayer.
The mall was as insane inside as it was outside. Every seat in the food court was full, and people huddled in corners to eat. Madness, total madness. We made it to our destination, the Lego store, to find that, sure enough, they did not have the one thing we came after. After finding a suitable substitute (what four-year old is willing to wait?) we headed out. I had promised the boys lunch at Chick-Fil-A, but the food court was still packed so I decided we’d just head to a different location as far away from this mall as we could get. As we walked out through the food court, I reached down to snap a pic with Instagram and tweet it. Oh yeah, no phone today.
We finally made it out of the mall parking lot (another prayer of thanks was offered) and headed to Chick-Fil-A. We finished lunch, and the boys headed to the play area. This is a familiar ritual for me with my boys – fast food lunch followed by play time for them and some time to read, browse the web, and surf social networks for me. I reached for my pocket. Oh yeah, no phone today. For the first time in a while, I had a chance to just sit. And to think.
As I thought about my day, I noticed that more than my phone was missing from the day. A lot of my usual anxiousness and frustration was gone. I was more patient with my boys than I usually am. Given the unusually stressful nature of my day that was surprising. As I thought about it, I thanked God for that extra measure of grace, but I also began to wonder what else was different. I realized that I was fully present in every moment of that day without any distractions or diversions.
As a person who has spent much of his life working with technology (both as a vocation and an avocation), I spend a lot of time “plugged in.” But as a pastor, I’ve also thought a lot about how technology influences us. I am grateful in this regard to a pastor from Michigan named Shane Hipps. Shane wrote a great book a few years back that I highly recommend entitled Flickering Pixels which is an excellent exploration of the unintended consequences of media and technology. If reading a book on the topic seems too large a task and you’d prefer something shorter (which is true for most of us…technology, the internet specifically, did that to us) there’s a great article on Shane’s blog that should get you thinking.
I love technology, but I realize that using it as frequently as I do has unintended consequences. The best way that I’ve found to combat these consequences is to unplug – to fast from technology. It’s been a while since I’ve done this, and my experience at the mall made me realize it’s time to do it again. So I’m going to spend the first week of 2012 “unplugged.” No Twitter. No Facebook. No web surfing. No non-work-related email. I’ll probably still carry my phone in order to be available in my role as a pastor, but I intend to use it as little as possible. I want to create some silence and thought margin, some room to listen.
I’ll be back in a week – hopefully with more to say than if I hadn’t taken this break.