A Digital Sacrifice for Ash Wednesday

A Digital Sacrifice for Ash Wednesday

–James S Martin

What are you giving up for Lent this year?

It’s an annual ritual between me and my brother-in-law. Neither of us are Catholics. He’s Anglican Mission and I’m Mennonite, but we both appreciate Christian traditions that have come down through the centuries.

Lent is observed as forty days of penitence and self-denial ahead of Easter. Loosely based on Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness, it looks forward to the celebration of Easter at the end of the fast.

Observers of Lent customarily elect to forego certain pleasures for the period. I’m a sporadic practitioner of this pre-Easter self-discipline. It’s what the hoary language of the KJV might call “mortifying the flesh”, and the Lord knows I don’t need to pass up those opportunities.

So every year as Ash Wednesday approaches, the question triggers a rueful inventory of my habits, my splurging, and my guilty pleasures. No apple fritters with my morning coffee? No snoozing on the couch by the wood stove? No lattes?

It’s all a sham inquiry. I know—in a micro-second after asking the question—where to look for the culprits. As a full-time worker in the tech sector, I know what selfish, non-essential habits are eating up my time and attention. It’s all digital. Ding. Ding. Ding. The posts and pics and messages and emails and news bulletins pop up on my screens and buzz on my devices. Doom-scrolling my way through the endless banalities of the internet.

Time Wasted on Tech

It’s no surprise then, that taking a Lenten stab at social media is a common choice for the conscientious. After all, who doesn’t feel guilty about the time wasted on pointless news and the whole cycle of trending internet fads and memes that drives the viewership on YouTube and Facebook and X?

I’m not into movies, fantasy sports, or the pop music scene. I don’t have any social media apps on my phone. I don’t understand exactly what TikTok is for. I scrolled through some TikTok videos one time and assumed I had accidentally stumbled on some kind of therapy sessions from a rehab ward. I don’t even have an Instagram account, for goodness’ sake!

And yet…There are still an infinite variety of time-suckers on my screens that steal precious minutes from reading good books, or from spending time with my family, or from physical exercise. Hey, I need to expand my network by trawling LinkedIn. I need to stay relevant and informed in my industry by devouring the headlines in Ars Technica and TechCrunch. I need to scan the morning news to be prepared for Putin’s next move or the riots in Portland. I need to show I care by scrolling through all fifty blogs from my “friends.”

But fifteen years ago, I lived a good life without any of these daily mental inputs. That’s an astounding reality check. If I sit very still, and ask myself frankly how the tradeoff in time and mental attention has repaid me in quality of life, I hear a disturbing answer.

For many years I have kept a Book Diary. Each time I finish a book, I note the title, the author, and the date I finished reading it. As I scan back through the years and count the books per year, I can see—without a shadow of uncertainty—the year I bought my first smart phone. (Yeah, I’m in that age bracket.)

I can argue that I read more online now. I can protest with Dylan that “the times, they are a-changing” and books are a fading technology. I can imagine that my online access to all the knowledge of the human family is turbo-charging my personal growth.

Sacrificing for Lent – A Moment of Truth

But when I power down the screens and sit alone gazing across the green hillside meadow below my house, I know in my heart it’s not true.

There’s only one reason I no longer read as many books: Some very smart people have designed irresistible ways to keep me mesmerized with glowing pixels.

Well take this, Big Tech. You’re going to lose views and attention dollars for the next forty days. The wisdom of the medieval church still speaks in the age of Reddit.

This year for Lent, I will replace my blog-reading, my news habits, my social media scrolling, and my unimportant messaging with non-digital activities. And like a true digital trooper, I start by spilling this navel-gazing blog to a world who should be out jogging.

James Martin lives with his wife Keri & five children on a Missouri hillside with a beautiful view of cows, a chapel, and a cemetery. He works in Internet security, which requires frequent breaks to reflect on cows, chapels, and cemeteries.

Read More:

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