Surviving Forty Days & Forty Nights

Surviving Forty Days & Forty Nights

Starting My Fast

On Ash Wednesday this year, I impulsively vowed to forego certain needless exposure to online media for the duration of Lent. The experience shocked me. Yes, I’ve read all the right books on the subject, and I was still unprepared for the results, because I thought I was already in control of my digital life.

The insights I gained are telling me right now that writing a post-mortem is perpetuating the problem. In order for everyone to waste less time online, everyone needs to decrease the deluge of posting. Who can stop listening if nobody stops talking?

I can.

The Rules of the Game

If you didn’t read my blog post where I started out, here’s a review of my experiment. I work in the IT industry, so going digital cold turkey wasn’t an option. But I decided to deny myself at least this much:

  • No online news whatsoever–no newsletters, no emailed digests of websites or forums
  • No social media. Zip. Nada. Nix. Not even group messaging chats
  • No consumption of YouTube media, or similar content not directly needed in my work
  • No blogs or online reading unrelated to direct tasks in my work
  • No aimless shopping on Amazon, eBay, Marketplace, etc.

The fast was easier than I imagined, at least after the first week, at least after I purposely removed some buttons. I deleted my browser bookmarks to the time-sucker sites, so they wouldn’t be sitting there winking at me winsomely on my browser home pages. Muscle memory is a feature of addiction, you know. You open your phone mechanically, you hit the same app icons in the same places, whether you have conscious intent or not.

I also made sure there were no social media apps on my phone. That’s supposed to sound profoundly self-denying and laudable, but I’m not really such a Mother Teresa. I didn’t have any social media apps on my phone before I started. The reason is obvious to anyone with two active brain cells. As long as you carry the dope in your pocket, you’re not serious about your addiction.

The Results

From day one, I noticed that my focus improved. I was more productive in a day of work. I could complete a task all the way to the end without veering off to read pointless, incoming data. It helped to turn off mail notifications and screen notification popups. In the evenings I walked or worked outside with my family more, and I definitely had more hours to read serious books. I went to bed earlier.

There were a few moments when I cringed a little at overhearing others all referring to some significant event—like the bridge collapse in Baltimore—and I felt like a caveman amazed at big things happening far away. If friends said, “Did you see etc., etc.”, I would meekly say, “Nope, didn’t notice that…” If a co-worker sent me a link (hey, check this out), I would either reply with non-committal emojis or else effusive thanks.

To a very few pushy types, I was forced to reveal my vow. “Sorry, I’ll read that later. I’m on a digital fast for Lent.”


“For what?”

“Lent.”

“What’s that? The Catholic fish fry thing?”

“No. Lent is the time of the year when—well, it started around the fourth century—never mind, I’m doing a screentime fast.”

So then Easter came, and I was a free to binge again. But oddly, I was hardly aware of the appetite to go back to the feeder. After the fast, what am I hungry for? I ventured tentatively onto CNN and Fox News to see how each side was lying about the other, and deceiving the world in general. The pages seemed even more crass and shamelessly filled with click-bait than before. The headlines are rarely objective. Every article dials up the outrage and sensationalism to three times the level warranted by the story. (“Police Make Gruesome Discovery in Pastor’s Garage”) Only humanoids would click on this stuff more than once. Apparently network news articles are written by and for sixth graders with ADHD. Very depressing.

I checked LinkedIn and some other old haunts of self-promotion. Yawn. Everybody is so impressive; so comically serious in their navel-gazing. All the earnest testimonies of how employees’ lives were transformed by some selfless boss who apparently made his millions through unbridled altruism. All the bullet-point wisdom that totally changed the way you look at your job. The bright plastic fakeness of it all hit me like a wave and I feel panicky to close the page and get my breath again.

I peeked at the YouTube home page to see what insightful reporting I missed. The reality is past description. For every video that could benefit the world, there are a thousand videos that wreak a net attrition on the intelligence of the human race. There will doubtless be a future dystopian state which will break strong men and women by forcing them to watch YouTube Shorts and TikTok dance videos until they are reduced to submissive blobs of protoplasm.

I realized with a jolt that I hadn’t really been fasting at all. Fasting is when you forego needful nutrition for the sake of some physical or spiritual cleansing. Apparently, I had just been reducing my toxic intake for forty days. There goes all my holy smugness about my virtuous self-discipline. Here I set out to live on bread and water and all I managed was to survive on less meth. Amazing.

What did I definitely miss out on? Forty days’ worth of geriatric gaffes from Trump/Biden, forty days’ worth of breathless updates about which celebrity is cheating on whom, forty days’ worth of doomsday climate hype reports, forty days’ worth of gas station shootings, forty days’ worth of Musk antics, forty days’ worth of advertisers using sex to sell everything. Forty days of fake photos and videos, forty days of insecure adults begging for attention with mind-numbing adolescent banalities.

That’s what I missed.

How Then Shall We Live?

If the benefits were so great, why wouldn’t I make this digital fast my new way of life? I could go improve on the game. Buy a dumb phone, cut my fiber service, and get a job in construction. Well, I could very profitably do all those things, and enjoy an arguably higher plane of life well lived. But I don’t know where I’d stop. Modernity is a pesky critter. It brought us internal combustion engines and mobility. It brought us Ibuprofen and penicillin. Where would be the optimal spot to roll back to?

I wonder if I’m a dinosaur to be able to cut off my connections for forty days without apparent damage? Probably not, because I’m the generation who spent the first half of my life without all this media anyway. I traveled just fine without Google Maps and the Southwest Airlines app. I navigated courtship and marriage just fine with only a wall phone in my parents’ kitchen and the good old United States Postal Service.

So yes, it’s likely easier for me to turn it off. I still have some standby life skills left over from the 1980s. I have never used Facebook for anything more than the classifieds in Marketplace. I made a user account for X one time, in order to read something my brother-in-law posted, but I don’t log in and don’t have the app, because I can’t imagine how I could endure that shouting match and stay out of the madhouse. I have no Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Pinterest, or Reddit accounts. I don’t follow sports, and I don’t watch movies. I deleted my WhatsApp account several years ago after Zuckerberg & Co. flexed their invasion of privacy one time too many.

If this sort of life sounds like a digital dinosaur, I’m fine with the label. What is not obvious to the iPhone generation is what humanity traded for non-stop connectivity. Every “gain” in modernity has a consequential price tag.

“How then shall we live?” asked Francis Schaeffer well before Google was invented. Been wondering the same thing.

But now I know what I didn’t know before Ash Wednesday:

Until you take a break from this digital feeder, you will never comprehend the magnitude of your bondage.

How About You?

Are you in bondage to your phone?

If you are, the time to do something about it is NOW.

We have a community on Digital Dayz that might be helpful, but the most important thing is that you find help somewhere.

Share your struggles with someone who can help, use the built-in features of your phone, and make yourself accountable to someone for your screen time.

Life is too wonderful to spend it on unproductive or harmful screen time or what James Martin calls “mind-numbing adolescent banalities.”

Reach out for the help you need TODAY!

Digital Dayz – Community.

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