Finding Digital Balance

During a reunion this summer, members of my father’s side of the family sorted through dozens of boxes and sleeves of slides taken by my grandfather. While we didn’t want most of them — and in some slides didn’t know any of the people pictured — it was hard to throw away these tangible reminders of members of older generations who are no longer physically with us.

How can we use digital technology without it becoming an obstacle in our relationships with God and with each other?

I took some of the slides with me, planning to digitize them so that our family can share and enjoy the photos without keeping the physical objects. That seemed much easier than getting rid of the slides once and for all. Yet as I considered how and when to create the digital files, I pondered whether converting items such as photos into electronic form is merely a different way of accumulating stuff.

There are key differences, to be sure. Keeping digital files occupies little space. Disposing of them does not require trips to the thrift store or space in landfills.

Yet, it takes time to sort through digital files as surely as it does with physical ones. Creating and sharing more files can also distract from the people and places around us. We can be so busy preserving what is happening or communicating with others who are not present that we forget to fully pay attention to what our senses and emotions are telling us.

Digging into the issues of clutter and true frugality, Katie Funk Wiebe, a Mennonite Brethren author, wrote that discipleship means “releasing ourselves from our love affair with the clutter in our lives that keeps us from serving God wholeheartedly. The frugal Christian is one whose outward lifestyle is built on the inner reality of being a child of the kingdom.”

How can we use digital technology without it becoming an obstacle in our relationships with God and with each other?

There’s a period with any new development in which we are getting used to its presence in our lives. We can see this in people leaving their cell phone ringers on while in meetings, and picking up calls to say they can’t talk instead of turning their phones off at that point. Others look at devices instead of engaging in conversation. Dangerously, some talk or text while driving. Many of us have been guilty of these on at least a few occasions.

Yet most of us can likely also think of a time when these forms of technology were a source of joy. I recall the amazement of hearing my parents’ voices across an ocean and a continent in a call on Easter while doing a study-service term in Nazareth, Ethiopia.

More recently, it was a treasure to have Skype — through which it’s possible to talk with video over the Internet, for free — to say goodbye and “I love you” face-to-face with a friend who was dying.

We can find balance when we use technology to build and deepen relationships and preserve precious memories rather than as a way to avoid connection.

There are times when there is no substitute for having all senses in an encounter — as with nuzzling a new baby’s head or embracing a loved one after a separation.

As digital communication technology continues to advance, the basic quandary will remain of how to use it wisely.

We seek God’s kingdom first in our interactions by putting God’s creation above human inventions. We do this when we fully engage each other, God’s beloved creatures whom God has pronounced good.

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This article originally appeared in the Mennonite Weekly Review.