I walked into the conference late, during a lunch session. A rabbi was speaking to an audience about his human rights work and how he disseminates it via blogging. The crowd, Jewish newspaper and magazine types, were someplace else, however.
Yes, they were in the room. But all of them were engaged in some other activity. Heads down, they were checking emails on BlackBerries, writing on laptops, texting on their iPhones.
So what did I do?
I sat down and joined them, whipping out my Macbook, so I could check my email — both home and work, of course.
You had to feel sorry for the speaker. I suppose he collected a fee either way. But no one was listening to his message, because none of us were present. He could have been the most thoughtful, enlightening, engaging man on the planet but not one of us there would have had a clue. And to top it off, we’d all paid to be there.
If I go to lunch, whomever I’m with is more intent on who might be buzzing through on that piece of technology resting on the table than in me. And I am probably just as bad. My kids say a lot of “uh huhs” to me in the car, to the tune of a clicking phone keypad, as they text their friends in multiple, simultaneous conversations. When I engage in a phone conversation with my husband, I can always tell when his eyes and mind have wandered away from the conversation at hand to the emails on the computer screen beckoning from his desk.
Nobody today is present anymore in their own lives. Not you, not I. We have forgotten how to pay attention to the things right in front of us that are immediate and necessary and are drawn, addictively, to the electronic signals that buzz, chirp, ring and sing in our pockets and purses.
Why that is, I’m not completely sure, but it’s the same impulse that guides a shop clerk to answer the phone before dealing with the real live customer buying something right in front of her. The insistence of the ring, the thought that something better might be at hand, the allure of being wanted, all probably weigh into the notion that whatever is coming through that device of yours is oh-so-much-better than whatever you’ve got going on right now.
When we pray, we are supposed to do so with kavanah, which is usually translated to mean “intent” or “mindfulness.” Certainly rote prayer has value. It’s a way of learning the order of the service, of grasping the prayers themselves. And for some, there’s probably a sense of comfort that comes from doing a task that is repetitive and known by heart. But it is your intent that gives prayer meaning.
I wonder how much kavanah do we bring to our prayers if we cannot bring intent or mindfulness to our daily lives? If prayer that has no focus behind it is not really prayer at all, then what is distracted living?
When God calls out to Abraham, our forefather, to assign him what would appear to be the ultimate test of faith — the job of sacrificing his son, Isaac — Abraham answers “Hineni” or “Here I am.” Whatever you may think of Abraham and his willingness to accept a job most of us would flee from performing, he’s right there, in the moment. He doesn’t say, “Not now HaShem, I’ve got an important text from Lot to deal with.” Okay, so technology wasn’t quite so whiz-bang wow some 5,000-plus years ago. But Abraham just dropped what he was doing and accepted the job.
It is a life-altering moment that ends up defining who we are as a people. Without the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, we stay in a world that accepts human sacrifice. By taking the job, Abraham ends up in a world where we embrace a deity who says that that very act is wrong (never mind that he took a particularly cruel path toward getting us there).
Judaism asks that we be engaged, in our prayer, in the turning of the seasons, in what we consume. We have intricate laws that force us to pay attention to the way the week plays out, to the passing of time, in the very act of making a grocery list with ingredients that are kosher. So how does paying attention to the minutia of our daily lives mesh with the mashed up culture we now live in, in which our work email forwards to our home email and our voice mail beckons that we call it. Where our children text us from downstairs because coming upstairs is so lame. Where everyone in my house can be on a separate laptop and engaged in Facebook chat — with each other.
All I can say is don’t expect it to get better anytime soon. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently released a nationwide study of 2,000 eight- 20-year-olds and how they use media. Five years ago, most young people didn’t possess a cell phone, but today 85 percent of 15-18-year-olds do. And it probably doesn’t even come as surprising that 21 percent of eight-10-year-olds now have them.
How they use them differs from adults. They spend an average of 33 minutes talking on them, but an hour and 35 minutes texting each day. Those in the 15-18-year-old bracket text nearly two hours daily. But what the study found most striking was the other uses teens had for their cell phones, spending 17 minutes a day listening to music, another 17 minutes playing games, 15 minutes daily watching television. Teens, the survey reports, are now cramming 11 hours of media content (not just cell phone use, but television, music, Internet, DVDs and more) into a seven hour period.
In a recent story, The New York Times reported on a Pew Research Center survey that this has led to “mini-generation gaps” where those born in the 1980s still use phone and email as a dominant tool of communication, whereas those born in the 1990s and after text like there’s no tomorrow. They also spend more time using chat and instant messaging formats.
I really don’t’ need a survey to tell me this. My day is stratified around technology differences. I prefer email to phone, probably because I prefer writing to talking. My husband, the email junkie, also does and we spend a lot of time camped out on different corners of the couch toggling between work and home email and Facebook. But a trip to my basement reveals my son having a party with several other kids on iChat while he watches CNN. And on a week night no less. My daughter is in her bedroom texting on her phone, watching a show she missed on the computer service, Hulu, where almost any television program you missed is available, and chatting with other friends on iChat.
Welcome to the brave new world. The tools we use have changed so quickly that I found myself touching the computer screen at an airport not so long ago, wondering why the stupid thing would not work. Turns out it wasn’t a touch screen, there were those silly old-fashioned thing called buttons that I needed to press to get the transaction to move forward.
These are tools, like any other. They can aid us in accomplishing much or they can clutter our world. They can teach us something about the way we live, as we multi-task our way into the future. They allow us to do much, fracturing our attention into ever smaller and smaller slices.
But what they cannot do is make us present in that all-engrossing way that announces, truly, like Abraham, “I am here.”