According to Cal Newport’s research in Digital Minimalism, when the brain is not in a task-focused state, it defaults to a mode of personal social analysis. The human person has evolved complex methods of relational navigation (i.e. unconsciously interpreting body language, social positions, voice intonations, and cultural cues) amounting to a large degree of one’s normal cognitive activity when not otherwise distracted. With the rise of the smart phone and social media (including gaming and streaming) there has been a correlating rise in cases of anxiety, among young people especially. This is now thought to be a result of intentional corporate strategy designed to stimulate lower brain reward circuits via electronic devices and the internet. Basically, these apps and programs are designed to be addictive, and thereby, indirectly degenerative to a healthy and holy life. Smart technology has been training young people’s minds to give up live-conversation and intentional-communication for consumptive relational behaviors, such as the dopamine hits of having a post ‘liked’, or low grade achievements such as looking good in a picture. The same is true of information gathering, as people now look to quick guides and popup-news in place of academic level research techniques. Newport’s solution to these problems requires a reordering of one’s priorities to minimize digital technology use, new boundaries for timed and purposeful use of tech, and replacing the time saved with real world interactions (analog crafts and face-to-face relationships). Chief among these necessary, though often neglected, activities is being alone and undistracted with one’s own thoughts, regularly.
In my adult life, I have held to a principle of approaching Christian friendship as if I were becoming a part of someone else’s family and they a member of mine. All other relationships I relegate to a sphere of courteous superficiality, such that they make no demands on me and I expect nothing from them. I call these acquaintances. Many people are comfortable in-between those categories, and even seem to enjoy staying in a place of low-commitment and lower-brain emotional connection. I can’t help but blame social media for this. Personally, I have had a great deal of difficulty with superficial relationships; because nothing distresses my traumatized heart more than those moments of realization that someone does not want to be a part of my family. Every attempt at a meaningful Christian relationship must first pass through this phase. Not many have survived, and my soul takes these hits hard. So I don’t risk myself often. Usually, God has to setup the circumstances in such a way that I feel compelled to take the chance. It is like going on a mission for me, because I know if it doesn’t pan out that I’m going to suffer greatly. But I don’t protect myself once I’m committed to trying, that’s my rule. If I’m going to do it, I’m going all in. Such is my understanding of the dignity due to the other person. The same is true about my avoidance of pretend relationships. It’s degrading to both of us. People are ends in themselves. They deserve the best gift of myself I can make. They even deserve my death, if it comes to that. This, I believe, is the love that seeks not its own, that sets Christians apart and converts the world by its example. I used to think that if someone was a good Catholic, for that reason alone, it would be a safe bet to invest myself in their lives. It seemed a safe place to grow and encounter God. The reality is that most Catholics today are more a product of American culture than they are children of The Church.
So, I ask myself and I ask God, how do I create community? Not just any community, but one which cultivates those features of relationship that are eroding so rapidly today. The best friendships I ever created were in my family and in my fraternity at college. I keep coming back to that model. It was a religious community. My answer is the school of life that I have been developing here and in my personal life for years. A place a friendship, education, liturgy, evangelization, and craftsmanship. I constantly pray that this dream comes to fruition. Lord knows my heart is there. But the process has become so roundabout that I frequently get lost on how to proceed. I forget that the vision is God’s first and that I need to let Him lead so I don’t mess it up. I can’t do it alone either. These online courses I’m working on will build an intellectual framework for the ground based version when the hour arrives. Step one, I thought, would be to have a partner to engage in this holy practice with. In the meantime, I am growing immensely in my relationship with the Holy Spirit, more so than I could have known was possible without the gift of my wounds. What survives the fire is the Lord's work in me.