Finding the Lonely Places in an Overly-Connected World

Cell PhoneDing.

I hate that noise. No matter how hard I try, it’s impossible to keep my brain from honing in on the source with laser-like accuracy.

Ding. Facebook. Ding. Email. Ding. Text message. Ding. Google Hangouts. Ding. Some app I don’t even remember installing. Ding. Facebook again. Ding. Ding. Ding.

A single ding is all it takes to derail my train of thought and send it careening into the great abyss where, presumably, it explodes into a million pieces of shrapnel before vaporizing into total oblivion.

I can’t say for sure. At that point I’m usually too busy scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, so it’s anyone’s guess. I just know that, wherever my train of thought goes during those dings, it never seems to find its way back.

Dopamine is the culprit, from what I understand. Dopamine is a chemical produced by your brain to give you a mental high-five for accomplishing something. “You did it! Great job! Here’s some dopamine, you go-getter, you!” And then you feel good for a bit, because you are the Accomplisher of Things, the Completer of Tasks, the Mayor of Git-R-Done-Ville, population you. It’s a great feeling, but it doesn’t last forever—so when it wears off, it’s time to go conquer a different mountain and get another high-five.

This is all gross simplification, but dopamine is essentially a mechanism God set up to keep us from staring at the wall all day and starving to death because we just don’t care enough to eat. It’s dopamine that lets your brain say, “Pouring yourself a bowl of cereal, eh? High five for not dying, you roguishly handsome, breakfast-eating stud muffin!”

It’s a great system. You do stuff and your brain rewards you for not gazing into nothingness and composing poems about ennui. The problem is, it’s a system we can (and often do) short-circuit. Dopamine reinforces behavior, just not necessarily good behavior. The promise of dopamine is what makes addictions so hard to break. In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek explains how excessive reliance on short-term, dopamine-powered rewards has poisoned corporate culture and how every ding or buzz from our cell phones prompts our brain to give us a shot of that addictive chemical. It’s hard to focus on anything else when your brain is shouting, “HEY CONGRATULATIONS YOU GOT A THING GO CHECK IT OUT RIGHT NOW.”

It’s not going to get better any time soon. One of the big buzzwords in the world of software development right now is “the Internet of Things,” or “IoT.” The IoT is an environment where everything—yes, everything—can be given a unique IP address and then connected with everything else. According to WhatIs.com, “A thing, in the Internet of Things, can be a person with a heart monitor implant, a farm animal with a biochip transponder, an automobile that has built-in sensors to alert the driver when tire pressure is low—or any other natural or man-made object that can be assigned an IP address and provided with the ability to transfer data over a network.”

If that seems unrealistic, consider the fact that our current IPv6 protocol allows for 340 undecillion IP addresses. I don’t even know what that number means—but some basic math reveals that “we could assign an IPV6 address to EVERY ATOM ON THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH, and still have enough addresses left to do another 100+ earths.”

You think life is hectic now? Just wait till you start getting notifications from your toaster.

Ding. Your toast is ready. Ding. Your flowers need watering. Ding. You’re running low on peanut butter. Ding. The dishwasher is ready to be unloaded. Ding. Your coffee is finished brewing. Ding. Time for a new water filter. Ding. Ding. Dingdingdingdingdingdingding.

We can’t slow it down, either. In a lot of ways, it’s already here. Smart TVs? Internet of Things. WiFi lightbulbs? Internet of Things. Smart watches? Internet of Things. Personal voice assistants? Internet of Things. Automated homes? Internet of Things.

The technophile in me is overjoyed; the Christian in me is terrified. Daniel was told that, at the time of the end, “many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase” (Daniel 12:4). I don’t believe we know what the word “hectic” even means. Not yet. All these “time-saving” technologies, they’re speeding us up, not slowing us down. We’re already moving at such a breakneck speed, but the technologies on the horizon are promising to get us moving even faster.

How much more can we handle?

How much longer until we realize that “faster” and “more connected” don’t always mean “better”?

We can’t redline forever. The human mind has its limits, and we’re already pushing them. Being notified of everything makes it hard to pay attention to anything. Meanwhile, in the midst of all the dinging, all the speed, all the chaos and beeping and chirping and buzzing, the thing that most needs your attention has been making the least noise.

How’s your relationship with God?

Your Facebook account and your toaster might ding at you for your attention, but God doesn’t work that way. Quite the contrary, the Bible tells us that when the world around us gets loud, God tends to be the one speaking with a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). God isn’t going to out-shout your Twitter feed. The onus is on us to silence the competing noise and make time for Him.

That’s what Christ had to do, too. The fame of the Man who could cure diseases and raise the dead spread like wildfire through the first-century world, and “great multitudes came together to hear, and to be healed by Him of their infirmities” (Luke 5:15). Jesus may not have had to contend with emails and text messages, but He did have to deal with the constant ding of those who sought His time and attention. How did He make time for God? According to the very next verse, “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Other versions translate wilderness as “desolate” or “lonely places.” Whatever the translation, the point’s the same:

He withdrew. He got away from the noise, away from the dings, away from every distraction, and He spent time with God. If Jesus Christ—if the very Son of God Himself needed to cut Himself off from the low-tech distractions of 2,000 years ago, how much more do we, in our twenty-first-century world, need to do the same?

Now, I’m guessing you’re not fortunate enough to have easy access to a wilderness for prayer. I know I don’t. But it’s okay—because as fancy as our technology is today, it still runs on power. Your Internet router has a plug. Your smartphone has an on/off button. Your computer has a hibernate setting.

When Jesus gave us the model prayer, He told us to “go into your room, and … shut your door” (Matthew 6:6) before talking to God. Find a place where the distractions can’t reach you, even if that means unplugging a few gadgets for a while.

Hit the power button. Silence the notifications. Open your Bible; start reading; start praying. The Lord of the universe wants to have a conversation with you, but that can’t happen in a world full of dings.

Power down and listen up.

Until next time,
Jeremy

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