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The Jesuit smartphone

BRENDAN McMANUS ::

Getting untangled from technology

If Ignatius was alive today he would be one of the biggest mobile phone users, keeping in touch with Jesuits worldwide, developing prayer and reflection apps, keeping abreast of world events and blogging his thoughts. He would probably have a special Jesuit phone commissioned, in black of course with an IHS logo, with a ‘pilgrim’ setting’: a twice a day Examen reminder, a total silence mode and 30-day retreat alarm! He would be mad into it, except for one thing – he would use it in a discerning way.

We know that the things of the world, including technology, are good in themselves. It’s how we use them, for good or bad, that is key. Often called the first psychologist, Ignatius was a master of the emotions especially looking back over experiences and reflecting on the after effects. Being able to read the emotions or moods that arise within us is a key Ignatian skill about figuring out where God and where the good is. So for example using my phone to message a friend who is down with a supportive text has a good vibe to it that lasts. Alternatively, if we misuse technology, for example to rant or flame, we feel the unpleasant effects of it. Even if we get an initial superficial kick out of it, it normally doesn’t last and we still have to live with ourselves. It’s the after ‘taste’ or effects that are important. For example, it can superficially seem great at the time to surf for hours, soak up lots of content, indulge in dodgy sites, etc., but afterwards it’s not a great feeling if we are honest. Social media sometimes does not always make us feel more social and overdoing gaming ends up not being much fun; often there are limits or cut off points where the good starts to drain away despite our good intentions. Often, the Internet, which can be enormously helpful, doesn’t solve loneliness or virtual friends can’t substitute for a real world relationship which is what we often really want.

And yet aspects of smart phone technology and connectivity are so life-giving and have contributed a lot to our lives. Think of connecting with friends on the other side of the world, video calls which were science fiction up until recently, instant messaging with a soul friend, pictures from exotic places, seeing a new born baby just delivered, and the possibilities of enormous data at our fingertips. The possibilities and potentials are literally endless. Unfortunately what is promised is sometimes not delivered; our powerful smartphones are reduced to providing empty entertainment and many features are left unused.

Ignatius, himself a man of extremes initially, came later to see the wisdom of balance, knowing when to switch off or change gear. Unfortunately humans have many addictive tendencies and we can get trapped in a good thing that takes us over and enslaves us. Ignatius championed the idea of inner freedom or detachment (free to take it or leave it), knowing how to read our moods and deciding how far to use things or not. Therefore, when I am not free, i.e. too attached or addicted to something, God reminds me I’m going the wrong way by internal signs of unease and emptiness. We can choose to ignore them but we can’t deny their existence. In our use of technology then, things are good up to a point and then it tends to go downhill. At its worst I can easily become a slave to it, an addict in the sense of being blinded to the reality. We are all familiar with ‘wired’ individuals and techie ‘addicts’ where conversation is stunted and people are totally engrossed in technology to the detriment of others or themselves. Others, however, seem to be able to it effortlessly and to great effect in their lives. We need to get the balance right, know how to get all the benefits and avoid the pitfalls, but how to we do it?

The answers are inside ourselves, in your own experience. A little bit of awareness, noticing what I am feeling as I scroll the pages, read content and tap the keys. There is a space between what I am doing and how I feel, it is small as a sliver, hardly noticeable but important nonetheless. Even reading this article now, notice how you are feeling, maybe curious, irritated, bored, anxious etc., the important thing is that this information is always available to you. It can be challenging as we have often been taught to ignore our emotions or to bury difficult feelings especially if they don’t fit in with our wants. They are a very valuable friend though and they always tell the truth about what’s going on inside.

The human heart is a stormy place, things seem to be in constant flux and there can seem little logic to it. Ignatius would ask us to recognise different kinds of desires or motivations. In relation to using a smart phone there can be a desire for approval and comforting feelings, how many likes we get on Facebook for example. Alternatively, we also recognise in us the desire to help someone in trouble, to say a comforting word. Some things are easy to do and say on social media, like jumping on the bandwagon slagging others, while some take courage to stand up to someone or take a stand on an issue. How to know what the right thing to do is? Ignatius would say: take some time to respond, don’t rush into things. Decisions taken in haste and reacting to people are often not good; unfortunately social media tends to be reactive and instant. Often, we need to build in a time delay, take some time about our feelings and plan a response. For example, asking ourselves the simple questions: Is this good?, Will it help the world?, Will it connect me to others?

Ignatius used a simple reflection technique in his own life that works well today. Take a step back from what you are doing for a moment. Notice how you are feeling about what you are doing. Ask yourself what this feeling means, if it signals something good or bad. For example, if you have spent hours on your phone just surfing, there can be an unsatisfied, yucky feeling of having wasted time even though it was initially exciting. Alternatively, being there for a friend who is going through a difficult time on a video chat can be tiring but very uplifting. The amazing thing is that God can be communicating with us through these feelings, bringing us away from deadening, empty experiences and towards more life-giving ones. Taking time to reflect, look back on the experience, helps to spot these differences. Talking it over with someone or writing it down also helps as it gives us more perspective.

Research shows that people get anxious and stressed when separated from their phones, and it can easily become a kind of addiction. Apparently, feel good neurotransmitters are released when we check messages and updates and it makes us feel better about ourselves briefly. In the absence of other stronger desires these relatively minor desires can take over. St Ignatius would say that this is over attachment or unfreedom when we can’t do without something, we become slaves and our lives are smaller as a result. Getting free is an inside job too, acknowledging how enslaved I am and asking God for help, realising that I need a higher power to release me for a higher calling.

In summary:

  1. Practice silence; use the phone creatively as a timer in ‘airplane mode’
  2. Disconnect from the grid – prove you are free by turning off for several hours
  3. Tune in to yourself and what you feel; take time to practice noticing your feelings
  4. Go for a walk without the phone and without taking photos, just observe and be present.
  5. Practice an ‘offline’ art e.g. Write a letter, play a song, bake a cake, daydream looking out a window
  6. Pay attention to what your feelings may be telling you about your life, your choices, your friends; sometimes there can be a ‘wake-up’ message there to alert us to something and changes are needed
  7. Spend time with people and be totally present to them, no phone in the pocket set to vibrate, no checking FB under the table! Then enjoy fully your screen time.
  8. Perform an act of random kindness (ARK) and watch the effects that it has in the ‘real’ world
  9. Reflect for 10 mins at the end of the day about what were the lovely moments in the day, notice whether technology featured in these or not
  10. Finally, remember that your smartphone is a gift from God and that it is a tool for great good, used in the right way (Ignatius would want you to use it well ;-))

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