One of my first goals for the year 2018 is to take a screen fast, perhaps to sprinkle several throughout the year. The first will be one week long, and will begin Monday.
My poor husband often has to deal with the “resolution” side of my unbalanced personality. He often (gently or not-so-gently) has to point out to me that, rather than solving some problem of intemperance, I am simply swinging from one extreme to another. The fall out, he reminds me, is going to be yet another cycle of overindulgence followed by abstinence. I should instead aim for a temperate use of the good thing (food, drink, housecleaning schedule, whatever it is) instead of trying to set up the One Rule to Rule Them All.
In other words, the law is never going to set you free (Romans 7:5-6). Not even God’s law can do that—so how could I expect my own self-imposed laws to do it?
I say this on the front end, partially to head off my husband’s objections (heh heh), and partially to make it clear that I should not hang grand, unrealistic hopes on the screen fast. It is not going to rewire my brain, like those two-week diet plans that are supposed to rewire your body for fat burning (contra to a lifetime of genetic and habitual obstacles). It’s not going to generate a structure for me, so that I no longer struggle with excess and misuse.
No, I don’t have a lot of expectations; I just feel that longing in my soul to remove myself. I feel that craning in my neck, that distraction in my spirit, and that feeling of being spread too thin. The screen is taking too much of my time and too much of my attention. I need that time and attention to be returned fully to me for one week.
There will be plenty of time for “One Plan to Rule Them All” later.*
Rest for the weary eye
So without any promise of eternal transformation, what could be the purpose of a screen fast? I offer three basic reasons to try one, all (hopefully) motivated more by joyful longing for intimacy and quiet than by guilt or a need for a “solution” to the “problem” of evil screens.
1. Take a screen fast for the sake of your brain.
I don’t wish to over-spiritualize the screen fast. In fact, I’m not primarily thinking of it as a spiritual exercise so much as a physical one.
We are flesh and blood. We can’t escape the makeup of our brains, nor can we deny the effect that the screen has on us the longer we stare at it. Our phones, our laptops, our televisions, our iPads, these dancing interactive lights change our brains and call to us in every free moment.
Here’s some anecdotal evidence: I’ve noticed that when I’m trying to read a book, I am regularly distracted by the presence of my phone just because it’s in the same room, sitting on a table yards away from me. The words swim before my eyes until I recognize what’s happening and remove the phone from sight.
My brain wants more, always more.
I read recently that we check our smart phones about 81,500 times a year, or once every 4.3 minutes of our waking lives. If this seems like an extreme national average that you can’t possibly be contributing to, ask yourself honestly to count up your own average. It may surprise you. In the moment, your mind never registers the amount of time you’re actually spending. That’s the nature of the screen—you will “accidentally” lose time to it in a way you don’t “accidentally” lose time to a book, task, or conversation.
That’s the brain/screen relationship. You’re not going to be the one to change it. All you can do is be aware of what your brain wants and plan accordingly. And a brief screen fast may help you to rest, renew, and assess.
2. Take a screen fast as an act of worship.
I don’t consider a screen fast as spiritual exercise in the same category as a food fast. I don’t think it will accomplish the same things.
“…fasting is mainly an expression of the soul’s hunger for God,” writes John Piper in his book A Hunger For God. “It is not a contrived means to make us love God. We love him and long for him. And then fasting rises up as a way of saying earnestly with our whole body what our hearts feel…” (90).
I don’t think that abstaining from the screen is going to give our bodies the same full physical expression of hunger for God that abstaining from food can give us. We won’t be weak. We won’t be reminded all day long of our hunger for Christ’s return by growling in our stomachs and appointed meal times coming and going.
But I do think a screen fast can accomplish something else.
Piper continues, “We are less sensitive to spiritual appetites when we are in the bondage of physical ones. This means that fasting is a way of awakening us to latent spiritual appetites by pushing the domination of physical forces from the center of our lives.”
If the screen can be described with any word, surely “dominating” is one. Cutting it off is a way of allowing the spiritual appetites room to breathe. It’s a way of clearing the air of our minds for a while so that our need—our greatest, our starved need—for Christ can be felt again, can be tended and cultivated without steady interruption from Twitter.
Opening up space in our hearts by pulling the information IV out of our arms is an act of worship, a gesture of need for the one source of water that satisfies.
3. Take a screen fast for the sake of the people who live in your house.
Here we come face to face with our humanity again. As much as we might like to think that we can do several things at once, we know from experience that something always suffers when our attention gets hogged.
More anecdotal evidence: I’ve noticed that there’s only one thing that really keeps me from answering my two-year-old daughter when she talks to me. If I’m cooking, I politely answer and calmly command. If I’m reading, I politely answer and calmly command. If I’m feeding a baby, I politely answer and calmly command. If I’m texting? I completely ignore her.
I’m less able to keep the peaceful, productive climate of my home when I am the one who is frazzled, distracted, dissatisfied, and nursing a sore neck from bending over a device. My husband gets less of my full attention when I’m pausing our conversations to go “answer an email” or “look up that recipe before I forget.”
The thing is, no human being can really think about several things at once, and if the screen is good for anything, it’s good for taking up the full space of our attention. Nothing can compete with it.
It also provides great fall-back activity when I’m between things to do and don’t feel like getting creative. This is where boredom, embraced, can be a virtue—as I argued in this piece a few months ago. A fast from the screen isn’t going to solve your problem if you don’t know how to set about putting boundaries in place for the long term. But at least it will get you back in touch with what life could be like if your human attention was devoted to the people standing in the same room with you.
I invite anyone reading to join me in a screen fast. I’d love to hear from you if you plan on doing one too—email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (before Monday). I’d also love to compile some comments from you after you’ve completed a screen fast, outlining your experience and what the fast accomplished for you.
*Curious about the basic parameters for my own screen fast?
Here’s the plan: leave off of Facebook (nothing really urgent happens there), leave off phone apps, abstain from beginning any texting conversations (and reply to urgent texts only), check email every two days for a maximum of five minutes (nothing needful takes longer than five minutes; I understand that many people have real workload emails but I’m not in that position right now), leave off of browsing, blog-reading, and watching. If I need to get in touch with someone, call them.