Our pastor recently opened one of his homilies with the familiar cliche most of us have already heard before: “Do we use things, or do things use us?” Though the question may seem ubiquitous, I think the pervasive message I have gathered from it is more about the topic of moderation. Moderation is a word I used to hear ad infinitum in our household when I was growing up, mainly as a family maxim that my great-grandmother drilled into everyone’s heads whenever excess became too great of a temptation. As a child, I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of the word, and as an adolescent, I only rolled my eyes in disdain (as I did to nearly everything that exited the mouths of adults), but now as a parent, I see the prudence and truth in the word.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines moderation as someone or something “average in size or amount : neither too much nor too little,” or “avoiding extremes of behavior or expression : observing reasonable limits.” I suppose one could use “mediocrity” as a synonym to moderation, but I like to think that, as an approach to modern-day living, moderation can draw us back to simplicity and serenity, particularly concerning our use of technology.
When I was growing up, hardly anyone I knew used the word “technology.” At the time, Dot Matrix printers, basic word processors and cordless telephones were the extent of modern technology. In fact, I recall that the common use of the internet in the home did not take off until I was well into high school, and the ownership of cell phones was not widely available to the average American until I was a freshman in college. Looking in retrospect, I think often, “What did we do before cell phones and internet?” It is a baffling question, even to me, and I have never been a huge fan of keeping up with the latest and greatest in the technological realm. Fifteen years ago, people communicated on phones mainly to set up appointments, such as meeting for coffee or going on a date, but text messaging would have been considered other-worldly and unnecessary. The only people who typically spent inordinate amounts of time on the telephone back then were teenagers, drug dealers and corporate businessmen and women. Today, it is impossible to leave one’s house without seeing any person ranging from elementary school to the elderly with some sort of device practically glued to their bodies, ranging from mp3 players to tablets to cell phones and all other sorts of electronics.
I’ve noticed that, with the increased frenetic flurry of rapid-paced technology, there has simultaneously occurred a lost sense of self, community, social skills, appreciation for nature and beauty and nostalgia. I’ve heard of families who literally rarely make eye contact from the rising to the setting of the sun each day, and often it is mothers who initially acknowledge this trend in their homes. Naturally, mothers being the heart of nurturing, may long for the days of their youth when dinner was always eaten at the dining room table with every family member present and interacting with one another.
How do we return to a sense of moderation in our use of technology? I think it begins with the opening question: Do we use things, or do things use us? It’s a critical one to ponder for every individual and family, and the answers will differ as widely as families do these days. The point is that we need to take control of our priorities; we need to ask ourselves tough questions about our attitudes, values, and goals. Often, we are too busy to do this, but is all this running around helping us to achieve our goals, or is it just maddening, senseless frenzy?
Here is what I propose as a step forward in putting things, specifically electronic devices and media, in their proper place so that we don’t lose sight of ourselves and so that our children will grow up with confidence, exceptional communication skills and an ability to discern how to use self-control in all aspects of their lives. After noting your priorities and goals, begin by making a list of every electronic that exists in your home: every television set, computer, tablet, phone, camera, etc. Next, sit down as a family (yes, you may have to schedule the dreaded family meeting) and discuss, one by one, how each item is positively and negatively contributing to your individual and family goals. Designate someone to write down notes as everyone brainstorms. Don’t be afraid to part with items that you have multiples of in the home just because they have made your lives more “convenient.” Finally, I suggest setting aside specific dates that you commit as a family to go “off the grid” on a regular basis. You may have to ease into this by starting off with once per month, but it would be beneficial and ideal to work up to eventually having one day per week that you and your family can resolve to stay off of electronics, even if it is only for a few hours per day.
Our family has chosen to minimize both the presence and use of certain electronics in our home based on our noted priorities, values and goals. For instance, it is a family rule that no one brings his/her cell phone to the dinner table. We find it both rude and distracting, also impeding our ability to connect with each other in any meaningful fashion. We also have chosen to have only one television set for the entire family, and yes, we have to share it. We don’t have cable or any other satellite company providing us with thousands of channels. We have a shared desktop computer, and I have a laptop I take with me while traveling. I have an e-reader but don’t have access to the internet, as it is a simple and basic model that only transmits books for me to read. In general, we expect that every family member will uphold these unwritten household mores, although there are occasions when someone (usually me) has to reevaluate his/her behaviors when they have significantly strayed from the category of moderation. This is done on a regular basis and is not always easy, particularly when confronted with others who are quite tech-savvy and/or keeping up with the trends.
However, adhering to what matters most to our family has always been bittersweet, at least for me. While there are moments of loneliness, at a much deeper level I feel great satisfaction, a sense of balance and inner serenity. It goes without saying that using things rather than having objects or material possessions control our lives is more preferable to most people, but it requires a level of commitment, discipline and resolve in order to truly put things in their proper place in our lives and homes. Each person and family must determine what suits them according to their careers, lifestyle, geographical location, values, etc. But once we truly make an effort to determine how electronics positively contribute to our well-being and how we can maintain that level of appropriate use, a sense of confidence and renewed purpose results. What better way to start the mad-dashing of the upcoming holiday season than beginning with a little much-needed perspective?