Okay, it would appear you’re still reading. I may as well keep talking then. Here is something I have known in my guts for quite some time, but I have never actually articulated it like this until now…
The internet makes me better informed, but it is not making me better.
I have just been on holiday to a beautiful village called Betaille, near the Dordogne river in the heart of France. My wife Jen’s uncle bought a tumbledown cottage for practically nothing many years ago. It has since become a staple family pilgrimage for the Grove clan. I am aware how blessed we are to have such an opportunity.
It is a village where everybody knows one another. Everyone buys their bread in the morning from the boulangerie, then purloins their meat from the boucherie. However the shops resolutely close for all of Sunday and half of Monday. Life drives the economics, rather than the economics driving life. (The reasons for that will have to wait until another blog!) Many families grow their own vegetables and keep their own animals.
There is a simple joy to daily living that is infectious. No one bumps into you on the pavement because they are reading their mobile screens. People do this cool thing called ‘talking’ while waiting in queues or standing on the street. One of my favourite moments of the week was just sitting watching some of the men and women of the village play ‘petanque’ (the silver-balled, gravelly version of bowls so loved by the French). The depth of relationship between neighbours was tangible. There is hardly any mobile phone coverage, and precious little broadband in the village. It is hard to imagine a ‘developed’ world context much more different to my world of central London.
Of course the internet has brought huge benefits to millions of people, so this is not a ‘down with the internet’ piece. That would be pointless. What I am having a go at is my tendency to become hard-wired to said internet. The question for me is: ‘at what point did I decide that I needed to be permanently connected?’ How many times a day do I check my emails? How many times a day do I flick to Twitter, Facebook or whichever social app is taking hold? Am I able to just experience anything without tweeting it, or sharing a photograph of it on Facebook? Until I do that, has it really ‘happened’? Until I do that, is it really worth anything? Do I subliminally base my social status on how many ‘friends’ I have?
Can I remember when I used to pray in shop queues, rather than check cricket scores? Can I remember when I used to stop and be still, before there was so much to read about politics? Can I remember when I used to worship, before Youtube provided so many opportunities for endless browsing? Can I remember when I used to read books that took me deeper, rather than gleaning more shallow information from an endlessly wide range?
Have we stopped drawing on deeper, older wisdom in favour of what is happening now? The news is breaking, therefore it must be important. The tweet or Facebook post has just arrived, so it is more important than the conversation we are having with a real person. We know more, yet we understand less. We are bang up-to-date, but unsure why. The regularity with which we check in with the internet is strangely reminiscent of the ‘practising the presence of God’ that spiritual giants like Brother Lawrence undertook. Their encouragement was to find regular actions to remind us to think on God, enabling a constant state of communion.
Our ‘practising the present’ bars us from ‘practising the presence’.
Have you considered having a digital Sabbath – being fully offline one day a week? Have you considered only checking social media once a day? (But I need to see those cute baby pictures now!)
The people of Betaille know much less about the world than I do, but I think they understand more about life. They are digging into one place, building something tangible, rather than spreading themselves over a vast area, never putting down roots. Only now have I realised that there is a reason it’s called ‘surfing’ the net. You just skim the shallows of the seas of life. Let’s get down deep.