The other day my family and I were out to dinner and at the table next to us everyone was on their phone. For the entire meal, eyes were never lifted except to take a bite of food and words were never said except to share something from the phones. I know I struggle with my own smartphone usage, but seeing it in such an extreme situation reminds me of how dangerous that struggle really is. Why do people even get together anymore if they aren’t going to actually spend any time together?
Of course, the group of friends at the restaurant were spending time together — just not necessarily quality time. They could have each gone out to eat by themselves, sat by themselves, and used their phones independently, but for some reason they wanted to do all of that side by side. They still seemed to understand that real, living, breathing, human presence provides a comfort that cannot be found digitally, remotely, or virtually. They still seemed to understand that we need some amount of presence to connect us to the present. Without a connection to the present we become disoriented and lost, unsure of who and what we are and unsure of the reality of our own lives. We know we need something to ground us, a thread to connect us to the present, but we also feel this powerful urge to run from it. Where does that urge come from? Why do so many of us feel the need to escape into that strange world contained within that little four inch screen?
Certainly there’s all sorts of addictions going on, physically and mentally. Peer pressure makes it worse; nobody wants to be the first one to put the phone down. But I think the deepest root is fear. We are afraid of living our lives as they are, right now, in this very moment because we’re afraid of what those lives might really look like. We can be delusional about the past and about the future. We can pretend. We can edit and filter. We can fake. We can lie. We can pick and choose which parts of ourselves to deal with. But the present demands to be dealt with immediately. The present demands our full attention and honesty.
There are all sorts of cliches out there about living in the present, but such a radical concept can’t be summed up in a coffee mug quote. It can’t be acquired simply through a yoga class or a meditation session. Putting down phones at the dinner table isn’t enough, by itself. Living in the present requires consistent courage. By courage, I don’t mean some vague sense of self-empowerment. Courage isn’t Instagrammable. It’s gritty and it’s awkward. Real courage in our modern world is less often about climbing mountains and jumping into oceans and more often about looking straight at the things that make us uncomfortable. It’s about dealing with wounds and insecurities and sins. It’s about allowing enough silence to let them surface. It’s about willing to be bored. Living in the present requires we willingly face existential crisis — that we willingly face the fear that our lives might be inadequate— that our lives might be meaningless.
Of course, it is only in facing such a crisis that we can resolve it. The endless escape doesn’t solve the crisis; it merely diverts our attention away from it. Pasts, recounted and affirmed on social media feeds — and futures, waiting, glamorously, on Tinder and Pinterest — these blurry mirrors of our lives distract us with their sparkle. But they don’t solve the problem, the deep restlessness of heart. The problem can only be solved when we are willing to push through the present that lulls — when we are willing to keep silence when silence is uninspiring, when it doesn’t feel cozy and Zen-like — the problem can only be solved when we push through our fear of littleness and emptiness. It is only then that we’re able to hear the “still, small, voice” — the meaning of life, itself, speaking life into that very emptiness.
Our lives have so much beauty, but we will never see it if we don’t have the courage to actually live those lives. There are plenty of practical ways to live in the present despite our technologically advanced modern world. I am constantly refining and adding to my list (and I intend to post on that list next.) But the goal that unifies that list remains the same. All day long, every day, ask yourself, am I trying to escape my real life right now? You will know the answer. You’ll know it before you even ask. And if the answer is yes, then muster up courage. Put down the phone or turn off the TV or turn down the music or drive home. And then do it again the next time. It gets easier. You may find you actually like your real life anyway. And if you don’t — at least now you have the opportunity to do something to change it.