A Meditation on Smartphones in Two Stories

STORY 1: REDWOOD FOREST

When I was in college, my parents and I went to Yosemite. We rode a bus out to the Mariposa Grove of giant redwood trees. I had taken a Nature Writing class, so I had read my John Muir. I had some idea of what to anticipate.

I stared out the bus window, examining the trees zipping past, wondering which were the redwoods. That one looks pretty big, I thought. Maybe that was a redwood.

But if you’ve ever seen a giant redwood, you know that when you do see one, you know you’re seeing a giant redwood. They are unmistakably, paradigm-shatteringly huge. So it was that as I stared out the bus window, guessing which tree was which species, I saw my first giant redwood and knew it to be one.

I smacked my head into the bus window at a lightning-speed impulsive reflex to be closer. I immediately started crying, and not because I had bonked my head. It was so amazing. It was so beautiful. It was ancient and magnificent and big. Even as I type this, there’s a tightness in my chest, and I’ve been crying through this whole paragraph. Words are not enough.

People report similar sensations upon beholding the Grand Canyon, or the Nike of Samothrace atop its staircase in the Louvre, or the Northern Lights, or the Great Wall of China, or reading Theoden’s death scene in Return of the King. (No? Just me on that one?… Okay. That’s cool. We’re cool.) But the point is, you can probably relate, even if it’s not about a tree. And you probably really liked that moment.

I’ve been thinking about these things recently because I’ve realized that I spend a ton of time worrying about my appearance, whether it’s because I think I look good or because I think I look bad (I have both days, often right next to each other). And these moments of awe are when my appearance, or anything about me, really, is furthest from my mind. I am happiest during these moments.

These experiences are not valuable just because what we’re seeing is cool. They’re valuable because of what they’re doing to us. The giant redwood trees have a “renovating virtue”¹ because they put my life in the proper perspective: I was as small as I actually was, as I need to be to be happy. I forgot, for a few blissful moments, about myself, my troubles, my social standing, and my appearance.

STORY 2: GERMAN RESTAURANT

One of our favorite date nights is the German restaurant in town. We always order the same meals, and it is always better than we remember.

We had left my phone with the babysitter, because—blessed teenager—she does not have one herself. So when Cap got up to use the restroom, he thoughtfully left his phone behind, thinking I may want to occupy myself with it until he got back.

I reached for it. Then I hesitated. I put my hand back in my lap. I didn’t need that smartphone for the minute and a half he’d be gone.

When the sick feeling—I’m talking a physical feeling of grasping disappointment in my stomach—rose up, I was alarmed. I waited until it passed. Was that how addicts felt when close to their addiction? Nearly sick with desire?

Then it passed, and with it passed the desire to look at the smartphone. It had been a powerful desire. To do what? I’m not exactly sure. Check Facebook? It wasn’t even my phone. Was it just the feeling of holding it that I wanted? Yikes.

From there, my mind opened up, explored other options. I noticed the woodwork on the ceiling, the paintings on the walls (not very good depth of perspective, I thought, snobbishly). I noted what other people in the restaurant were eating, wearing. I heard the family behind me speaking in actual German.

I remembered how, when I had been a teenager and my parents had left me at the table in this very restaurant, I had gleaned story ideas from its architecture, had made a mental note to research when people started building half-timbered houses.

I had gained something from sitting unoccupied, something I couldn’t gain by setting out to gain it—something that could only be gained by sitting there with nothing to do.

I experienced all of that in the time that Cap was gone—and he hadn’t been gone long.

REDWOODS LOOK SMALLER ON A SMARTPHONE SCREEN

Now let me pitch you a different scenario. What if I had a smartphone with me in that glorious moment when I saw my first redwood?

I submit that one of two things would have happened.

  1. I would have fumbled for my phone immediately, trying to take a picture of it and missing out on the full experience. Having lived the full experience, I find this idea tragic.
  2. I would have already been looking at my smartphone. I never would have had the experience at all.

That freedom of self-forgetfulness, of making myself small enough to enjoy the big world, is nigh impossible with a smartphone in my hands. Instead, I am already composing the Facebook post to show others I have had this moment. Instead of “me” being washed away for a blissful moment in beauty, I am separated from it by the barrier of my phone.

That phone is a symbol of my image of myself, and it blocks me from fullness of life. It cramps my view, narrowing it to a tiny screen. It is the equivalence of me standing in front of a redwood and still worrying about how my hair looks (for the Instagram picture, of course).

G. K. Chesterton wrote,

How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it. . . . You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky. . . . How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up.²

Replace “small cosmos” with “smartphone” and you have the prayer of my heart.

Lord, let me feel more often the sick pull of that temptation as I resist the lure of a phone, and let it diminish as I get in the habit. Let my children learn to see the world without worrying about which filter to use for their photos. Let them have experiences like these, sights and culture that help them place themselves more humbly in the universe. And let our grandest experience be the sight of You in Your beauty. Let us smack our heads and throw down our phones for the smallest undistracted glimpse of You.

¹ From Book 12 of Prelude by William Wordsworth, line 210

² From Orthodoxy. Quoted from p. 45 of True Beauty by Carolyn Mahaney and Nicole Whitacre. Crossway, 2014.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Wheaton via Flickr. CC

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