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Mixed media on my table this morning
As part of the homework for a spiritual formation course I am facilitating, I took a two-day media break this week. Since I was working and still needed to attend to necessary correspondence and research, I didn't forgo the internet entirely, but what I did do was stay off Facebook, not take any pictures, not post anything anywhere, not watch television, not listen to music, not read emails that didn't need a response, and not research anything that wasn't directly related to my work. Two days is a relatively short period of time, and not all that stringent of a media break, but I found it quite instructive.

The first thing I noticed was that I had to deal with a compulsion to regularly check all my usual haunts (Facebook, email, Instagram, Words with friends, etc.).  I also had to resist the urge to instantly look up something I was curious about and fight against the habit of passing the time on the bus by fiddling with my iPhone. Things that we do on a regular basis become like second nature, so to change a habit requires a bit of effort.  I had to say no a lot and I am happy to report that my no feature works fine! This is probably one of the most beneficial aspects of any kind of fast or period of denial: giving the no muscle a workout.  It was most encouraging to experience not being at the whim of my desires and impulses and realising that I can direct my thoughts and actions in the way I want them to go. I have the ability to say no to temptation. I am not implying that this is easy, it is not. It is always simpler just to keep doing what we are accustomed to doing, but like the trainer on my DVD workout says: transformation is not a future event, it is an everyday activity. And saying no to compulsion is part of transformation.  Whenever I had the urge to check on something (and there were several times where I pulled out my iPhone and was poised to type in something that I thought I needed to know about right away, but I resisted), I reminded myself that the only thing I want to be compelled by is love (2 Cor. 5:14). One of the happy side effects of saying no to compulsion is that we avoid distractions and going down tangential bunny trails. It meant that I had two of the most productive days of work ever!

Part of the problem with being so attached to media input is that we lose the sense of immediacy. The word "medium" indicates that there is always something or someone in the middle, an intermediary, an interpreter, an intervening agency that distances us from the source. This is one of the reasons that the Old Testament forbid consulting mediums or spiritists (Deut. 18). God invites people to address him directly, to meet with him, to be in a close relationship. But we are prone to use a medium because it allows us to keep people (and God) at a safe distance (see Exodus 20). The media do most of our work for us, interpreting the news, only giving us what is deemed important or noteworthy, and serving up endless information for our consumption and amusement with relatively little effort or commitment on our part. On the other hand, real relationships take a lot of work: more attention must be given than posting a status on Facebook, writing a short tweet, or liking someone's photo. In real relationships we can't just show our best side and we can't edit what people see and hear. Real, one-on-one, face-to-face relationships require a lot more courage and dedication than media interactions.

Last night I got off the bus and turned around to see a most spectacular sunset happening. There were pinks and greys and blues; there were variegated clouds in intricate patterns extending across most of the sky. My first impulse was to whip out my iPhone, take a picture, and post it. But I said no. Instead I stopped, stood silently for a few minutes, and just took it in with my eyes. No camera between me and the sky. And it was one of the most satisfying moments of my day. Like letting a chocolate dissolve in your mouth instead of chewing it quickly.

Staying away from media for a few days was also a good reminder that the world keeps on turning whether I update my Facebook status or not, whether I post a photo of that great view or not, whether I blog or not. The false sense of urgency fades. For anyone who is trying to build a network or gain traction on social media (some writers and artists depend on these platforms to earn their living, so I understand the necessity of consistent good work) it can be tricky not to feel pressured to put something interesting and amazing out there every day in order to keep your audience coming back for more. But I never want to make writing and creative decisions based on how many people follow me or how many hits I get on my blog. Again, I only want to be compelled by love, so I often repeat the following mantra to myself: if I don't have a genuine gift to give to others, there is no need to post something. There is no need to fill up space.

This week I came across something that really resonated with my exercise in saying no.  It challenges our contemporary definition of freedom as "the right to choose." In truth, this idea has more to do with consumerism than with real freedom.  Thankfully, freedom has not always been this cheaply defined.  

"...for philosophers such as Aristotle, freedom was not an end in itself; we became free only as we acquired the moral capability to guide our lives. To lack such capability was to be subject to the undisciplined desires and choices of the immature. Thus freedom did not reside in making choices but in being the kind of person for whom certain options simply were not open. Freedom was not a status but a skill." (Stanley Hauerwas. The Peaceable Kingdom. University of Notre Dame, 1991, p. 8) 

Let us develop the skill of freedom not only by our yes but also by our no


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