Sunday, December 27, 2015

Family, Proximity, And The Smartphone Plague: A Sunday Rumination

     Today Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family, wherein Christ was nurtured and prepared for His three years of ministry among men. It’s often made an occasion for the Mass celebrant to lecture the congregation about what families are and ought to do. Such lectures are frequently the reverse of constructive...especially when they incorporate bits of the priest’s own politics.

     However, the celebrant at Mass this morning, among the several banalities in his homily, did manage to punch one of my hot buttons: the increasing tendency for persons of all ages never, ever, to put down their BLEEP!ing smartphones.

     I have a serious problem with smartphone addicts. To put it in as few words as possible, they’re not “here.” That is, their attention is fixed on something other than the people and things around them – in many cases, fixed with such fanatic commitment that to deflect them from whatever their phones are doing to / with them would be treated as an insult.

     How long ago was it that to willfully ignore those in one’s presence was considered an insult – nay, the supreme insult, in the old lexicon the Cut Direct? Indeed, how long ago was it deemed a near-fatal breach of propriety to leave the dinner table to answer a ringing phone? And that’s to say nothing of the complementary rudeness of calling someone at an hour when he’s likely to be having dinner with his family. It’s not just telemarketers who cheerfully and relentlessly do that today. The ones who don’t have auto-calling devices, that is.

     Oh, pardon me: I forgot. We don’t have family dinners any more, do we? Our schedules aren’t sufficiently compatible for that. There’s work, and school, and after-school clubs and sports, and the six o’clock news for him and yoga for her and for the kids...probably their smartphones, replete with the text messages and mindless games that really matter. So each of us grabs whatever’s on offer and totes it to his personal redoubt where that awful, intrusive, demanding family can’t interfere with what really matters to him.

     That’s not a family. That’s a group of emotionally disconnected persons, possibly related by blood or marriage, that just happen to share a roof. Their true loyalties are far distant from those around them, modulated by a digital electronic device small enough to fit in a breast pocket, that no doubt coincidentally has swollen to absorb their entire lives...including their souls.

     And the sociologists, the behavior therapists, and the “helping professions” maunder over what’s happened to the American family and how we might redress it. It is to laugh.


     In one of his most insightful moments, Adam Smith wrote that an individual will regard a cut on his finger as of greater moment than a famine in a faraway place. Moreover, he did so approvingly. That which is near should matter more than that which is far away, even when other things are not nearly equal. What’s near has the greatest potential for affecting you, whether positively or negatively. It should command the greater part of your attention.

     Attention. There’s a word to ponder, Gentle Reader. What is attention? What does it mean to “attend” to something? The Latin root tangere means “to touch” or “to hold.” You cannot touch or hold what’s distant, only what’s near. And if someone is near enough to you to touch – near enough to caress or strike you – ought you not to give him your attention?

     One of a parent’s most important duties is teaching his children to pay attention – and not solely to him. What’s around you is the most important source of all things good or bad. Indeed, the great majority of persons and things are potentially good or bad, or both – and what you fail to attend to can turn bad, perhaps lethal, in the blink of those eyes you can’t detach from your smartphone.

     There’s nothing that transforms proximity to hostility and contempt as surely or efficiently as being ignored. Yet what American parent of our time would “deny” his spratling the “benefits” of a smartphone? Heaven forbid! Don’t we want the little tyke to feel connected? Doesn’t he need to feel a part of that great, big, happenin’ world out there? Surely he needs to know what’s hot and what’s not, who’s in and who’s out, what fads to follow and what celebrities to celebrate! I mean, he can’t stay perched in front of the television all the time. That would be unhealthful!

     Amen I say unto you, ‘twere better that a millstone be fastened around such a parent’s neck ere we cast him into the sea. Trust me, his kids will never notice.


     The present generation of American parents commits innumerable sins against its children. Many of them are sins of omission. We fail to teach them about right and wrong, and how to know them. We fail to talk with them about values: where they originate, why they matter, and what one must do to preserve and defend them. We don’t bother to explain the seven virtues – for those who were poorly reared: faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude – and why they’re good, or the seven capital sins – lust, vanity, gluttony, envy, wrath, greed, and sloth – and why they’re terribly dangerous. We retreat from discussions about the natures of mass appeal, popularity, peer pressure, obsession, and the worship of persons and things. Don’t bother us now, Junior; we have to respond to these important text messages, right after we finish our game of Bejeweled.

     As bad as all that is, it can easily be made worse. Just give Junior a smartphone. Initiate him into the mysteries of “absent presence,” and what makes it so much more comfortable than attending to the persons and things around him. Especially the most annoying of those persons, the ones clustered most closely around him, the ones who constrain him from moment to moment, whom he can’t wait to disown: his family.

     “But the deed is done!” I hear you cry. “I’ve already given him a smartphone! What now?” Excuse me? Are you a man or a mouse? Take it back. (At least cancel his “data plan.”) Explain to him that you’ve realized that you made a terrible error, amounting to a neglect of your duties toward him, and you’re going to correct it out of love and a parent’s obligation to his child. Endure the screaming and the tears; they will cease, possibly sooner than you expect. Then set an example for him by always turning off your phone when you’re at home with those you claim to love.

     We want our children to have cell phones. It provides them with a way to reach us, or failing us, at least “help,” should a need arise. Very well: let them have cell phones. Not smartphones. Stop enabling their flight from their families and all else around them. When that’s out of the way, schedule a family dinner, make it mandatory, and converse with them – and not about your job. Be a parent rather than merely a source of funding.

     May God bless and keep you all!

3 comments:

  1. All very, sadly, true, Fran. I'm sure you've heard by now of the guy out west who walked off a cliff while engrossed in the all important electronics in his paw. There's a gruesome video making the rounds on Bookface of people, many of them kids, walking right into traffic and getting whacked whilst engrossed in the dingus in their hands.
    We have phones that make 'telephone calls' (well, and take pictures), for necessary communications. Walking around in condition white is a good way to get hurt; when you are more attentive to the gizmo than your surroundings, that's where you are.
    OTOH, without our electronic friends, there's a lot in the world we would miss. My wife and I will be discussing the world over supper, and one of us will mention, "did you see what Fran had to say today?", and we know what the other is talking about.
    Brave new world, and all that...
    Merry (belated) Christmas to you and yours.

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  2. It isn't simply the cell phone. More properly (I always look for the root causes) the demon is the internet itself. Before the ability to connect with others, a computer was used as a tool. Now it is used as a sensory organ.

    If children had the web while in the womb, they wouldn't bother to be born. Is this a good or a bad thing? One could have a very long-ranging debate, here. Is it the proximity to others that is important? Or is it the connection quality? Is a "family" that which you stumble over when you go to the bathroom at night, or is it the people, where-ever they are, who most stimulate your mind and best help you to develop?

    I'm playing Devil's Advocate, if it isn't obvious. Truthfully, the capacity to be a neuron in a huge global mind is a very powerful ability. It will change humanity beyond recognition. Those who care about humanity (Christians?) should be doing some deep and heavy thinking about this subject. Who is to say this isn't bringing people closer to God?

    Oh, and taking away the smart phone isn't going to change this tidal wave. There is likely a connected computer in the kid's bedroom. And a connected X-box in the living room. A connected car in the driveway. A neighbor kid with a spare phone to share. And, coming soon to a kitchen near you, a refrigerator you can buddy-surf with while you peruse the poor, deprived food held captive and unconnected inside.

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  3. Could you repeat that? I was texting my girl.

    *bzzzt* *bzzzt*

    (looks down again. resumes texting)

    ReplyDelete

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