By Eddie Pipkin

I just wrapped up a backpacking trip in Colorado, and you’ll probably be treated to no less than three blog ideas generated by that little adventure.  It’s spectacular – I recommend it if it’s something you’ve ever thought about doing.  One of the first things I was reminded of as we started hiking into the wilderness of the headwaters of the Rio Grande just west of Creede was that checking one’s phone (and everything that goes with checking one’s phone) was not going to be an option.  For four days I was going to get a technology sabbatical whether I liked it or not.

It’s one thing to make a pledge to shut down the smart phone and close the laptop for a few hours or – heaven help us – an entire day, but it’s a different thing altogether to have no choice in the matter, to be without options for checking in at all.  It’s disorienting.  And, honestly, it’s kind of wonderful.  With no alternative but to be okay with it, the pressure lifts.  No email, no texts, no Facebook or Instagram, and no phone at all, it’s easier to focus on the moment at hand – it’s easier to let one’s mind wander in useful ways and be reflective. There is guilt, of course: the ever-present guilt of whether we should be checking in, reaching out, and responding to the constant barrage of digital stimuli available to us.  But a forced severance is different than a voluntary break.  While in a voluntary time-out from technology, we must wrestle with the impulse to peek (just one quick check to make sure we’re not missing anything critical), placing oneself in a scenario where such lapses are physically impossible eliminates the internal debate about whether to engage.  The dynamic changes.  It shifts from a tension-filled struggle of willpower to an inexorable embrace of a screenless reality.  Might as well learn to be at peace with it.

It’s strange and exotic and has many elements of the withdrawal from any addiction.  You are all, of course, familiar with this sensation.  For some of us, it’s difficult to turn the phone off for the duration of a movie or family dinner or even – gasp! – a worship service.  Yet I am imparting no great, unrevealed wisdom by reminding you that a periodic technology fast is essential to our mental well-being and our spiritual health.  You know how antsy the constant presence of screens makes you.  You’ve seen the countless articles on the damage that always-connectedness does to the mind and the soul.  So, be honest.  How are you doing at taking those technology sabbaticals?

Back when I started taking backpacking trips in the 80s, the lure was the joy of being submersed in nature, along with the physical challenge of the hike itself and the return to simplicity.  I might have added some thoughts of “unplugging” from T.V., abstaining from meetings, and being beyond the reach of the telephone cord (!).  But juxtaposing those days with these days brings into focus the way that our obsession with one, ubiquitous device means meetings and T.V. and a thousand avenues to instant interaction are with us always, incessantly.

My one big insight from the past week is the effectiveness of physically removing oneself from the possibility of cheating on that much-needed technology break.

Some of you are dutifully disciplined people who regularly set that phone to “do not disturb,” place it facedown on the corner of the desk and aren’t even tempted to look at it.  Some of you experience that process as the metaphorical equivalent of having a limb amputated.

There are ways to physically remove the temptation:

  • Get away to a place where signal is nonexistent. That’s what I did in the wilds of Colorado.  You may not have a desire to sleep on the ground, but there are plenty of places to retreat to where there is still no Wi-Fi to be found.  Go visit one.  When you are looking at your next spot for a weekend getaway, intentionally choose one with no connectivity.
  • Leave your phone at home. Whether going for a walk or going away for a day or two, try something really radical and leave your phone at home.  This feels strange when you try it for the first time.  “Why would I leave my phone at home?”  What if . . . what if . . . what if?  It is in dealing with those what ifs that we stretch our spiritual wings.  The phone and the instantaneous connectivity it offers brings a sense of security that is hard to let go of.  But letting go, being at peace with uncertainty, and being patient with waiting (to know or to solve) are essential spiritual exercises.
  • Give your phone to a friend. If you really are completely freaked out by Option A and Option B listed above, experiment with handing off your phone to a trusted friend while you take that sabbatical (for the long walk or the short weekend).  They can scan for important, essential, critical messages or calls – and they will be much better at filtering the wheat from the chaff.  If they identify a legitimate emergency, they can reach you, perhaps physically, or perhaps by your semi-secret backup phone.  It is simple and affordable to pick up a pay-as-you-go flip phone on which you can receive calls and the number for which you have provided only your most trusted intermediary (spouse, close friend, or office administrator).
  • Set the phone on “do not disturb.” This is less of a lockbox solution than physically removing yourself from the phone, but it’s a solid middle ground.  It at least requires you to pass through an obtrusive extra step before you indulge the information cascade.  It’s a great tool to use for blocking your mind off for focused work — setting that “do not disturb” for the three hours you are working on your blog or your sermon or those notes you have been meaning to write — then checking back in every couple of hours to see what you missed, but with no dings, pings, or rings in the meantime.

The argument for safety is more than some people can get past.  Whether out for a walk or a weekend, they feel more at ease knowing they can call for help.  And to be honest, it is one of things that crosses one’s middle-aged mind when huffing up a switchback at 12,000 feet.  But to give up a sense of control is another one of those enlightening spiritual exercises that grows us in our faith.  The short answer for “but what if there is an emergency” is that we are suddenly dependent on the kindness of strangers.  And if that feels too sketchy, the no-frills emergency backup phone is a perfect solution for this dilemma if you are still within cell range (plus, believe it or not, even a satellite phone for temporary use is surprisingly affordable if you want to get off the grid and still have a backup plan for an emergency).

The ultimate goal, of course, is to get to a healthy balance in which we have the phone (and all of the safety and connection it offers) without feeling the urge to consult it constantly.  It’s like having the T.V. and its zillion channels available to us without feeling like we’re missing out if it’s not constantly blaring.  It’s like having a pantry packed with delicious food without needing to constantly be stuffing our faces.  There is a freedom in having access to wonderful things without being corrupted and controlled by that access.  This has always been one of the great challenges of the spiritual life.  It has always been true of the big three: money, power, and sex.  We now have the added layer of technology.  Even the fix I suggest here, the strategy of physically removing the temptation, is only temporary.  At some point in the next few years, Elon Musk will have all of his Starlink satellites in orbit, and there will, quite literally, be no place free from the Internet for those who wish to be eternally connected.

Well, okay, maybe not eternally connected.  But that is, after all, the underlying premise of this and all similarly themed blogs: the idea that constant technological connection can undermine our essential eternal connection.  What are your thoughts on strategies for unplugging?  What do you struggle with the most?  How do you inspire the teams you lead to take their own technology sabbaticals?  Do you model best practices?  Share your insights and stories in the comments section.