The typical student in twenty-first century America does not have adequate contact with concrete experience in the real world—contact with Mother Nature’s earth, air, and water; with the living persons of the various members of a family; or with the physical life of the body. The young have substituted vicarious or secondary experience in place of the primary contact with the real, the tangible, and the concrete. Many students relate to the world around them through mobile devices and social media that lack the actual presence of another person with whom to interact and converse person to person, friend to friend, and heart to heart. Even when people are physically present in the body or in the same room, they may be remote, staring into a screen or preoccupied with some form of electronic device. The presence of another person, however, is not merely a body occupying a space but also a spirit that pervades an atmosphere and enters into another human being’s awareness and consciousness. Just as a sound leaves an echo or a stone in a pool of water creates a movement of concentric circles, a person should leave something behind that makes a difference—a gesture of friendship, a pleasant word, a courteous act, a lively spirit, an engaging smile. Human beings are not designed to be disembodied, inert objects unaware of another people or insensitive to social amenities.
Many who are physically present often do not attend to other persons by initiating conversation, showing interest, or paying attention. They are intent upon receiving messages or texts from afar rather than observing the near or benefiting from the ones who surround them at this time and in this place. A person’s life turns into a central headquarters of communication always receiving and transmitting messages every hour and every minute as every free moment demands checking for news, weather, e-mails, and texts. This stream of communication is never-ending because persons carry these devices everywhere and check them around the clock for the latest communiqué. This ceaseless flow of miscellaneous messages from individuals and organizations soon blurs the distinction between important news and trivial information, between real friends and casual acquaintances, between priorities and secondary matters.
The ability to concentrate and focus on one book, one essay, and one homework assignment dwindles as distractions and diversions always crowd every moment of every day. The life of the mind soon becomes fragmented as it loses its ability to dwell on one important task at a time until it reaches completion or perfection. The mind loses its consciousness of the surroundings, people, and events that are immediately present and wanders away from the important, the essential, and the obligatory. No one wants to have a conversation with a person staring into a screen or preoccupied with typing or texting. This attachment to mobile devices during every lull from an activity or in any moment of leisure even stifles the natural desire to greet persons because they appear absorbed and unavailable. How easily a person also loses touch with his spiritual center, the core of his being where the soul, heart, and conscience speak when he becomes subjected to a flurry of perpetual interruptions– centrifugal forces all directing him to give attention to many voices and endless sources of news and advertisements that waste time and delay the urgent tasks that demand undivided attention.
Family life, academic life, and spiritual life all demand the complete bodily presence of the other person in all his alertness. Conversations never begin when the mind is fixed on a machine or a screen. No one wants to feel he is imposing on a person busy at his task. No one can sense the emotional or mental state of other persons without the leisurely interaction that a person’s relaxed availability encourages. Children need available, attentive parents sensitive to their needs, questions, and thoughts. Spouses need constant communication to be in touch with each other’s lives, emotions, and dispositions. Only the right atmosphere and a state of detachment from media make possible the willingness to discuss serious and delicate matters without interruptions and short attention spans. Conversation, the most human and pleasurable of arts, suffers neglect because of the hyperactivity and restlessness that messaging entails.
Academic life also requires a margin of silence and an atmosphere of quiet conducive to reflection, contemplation, and concentration. The mind cannot think when outside messages inundate it and urge responses. To read a classic, to do a mathematical problem, to translate a Latin passage, to write an essay, or to study for a test all demand a single-mindedness of purpose to allow for depth of comprehension. The attention span of a large percentage of high school students who have ears but do not hear poses a great impediment to serious learning. Although the teacher is bodily present, students lack the acquired habit of listening because of the endlessly interrupted nature of their daily lives with its steady stream of messages urging immediate responses. Every free moment before, during, and after school is spent consulting some device for the latest communications. Teachers who also instruct habitually with computers on the desk or who always check their phones throughout the day only add to the problem because they model the same disconnectedness from people.
Spiritual life also suffers from the fragmentation of the mental and emotional life. Ann Morrow Lindberg writes in Gift from the Sea, “Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone,” and she warns of the dangers that constant distractions pose: “This is not the life of simplicity but the life of multiplicity that the wise men warn us of. It leads not to unification but to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul.” A person must safeguard against “too much”—too much time alone with mobile devices, too much time wasted on frivolous exchanges of unnecessary information, too many distractions and interruptions, too much attachment to gadgetry. She writes that the saint or the child possesses the ability to live in the immediate present with the full awareness of the five senses and all the human sensibilities: “One lives like a child or a saint in the immediacy of here and now.” To be emotionally desensitized by attachment to devices or to be physically disconnected from other persons because of the lack of normal interaction stunts the inner life.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” depicts human beings as persons of depth with an inner life that needs release and expression to act as a channel of grace to others by the way they move, speak, and act—by the way they imitate Christ’s goodness, reflect Christ’s words, and transfigure the world in their coming and going by their interaction and response to others in a visible, concrete, bodily way:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
How can a person “selve” himself, that is, speak from the soul, act with the heart, or offer the best version of himself as a source of graciousness, charity, kindness, or amiability when he spends much of his day disconnected from others, insensitive to his surroundings and the people around him, or uninterested in the life of the family, the life of the mind, or the spiritual life that command total, absolute availability—not occasional interest.