This weekend I spoke at a youth retreat in Northern Michigan. I won’t get more specific than that because, well, I can’t. I followed some vans full of teenagers from Flint and stopped where they stopped, about an hour and a half north. We settled in at this rather nice little Christian camp in what appeared to be 175 acres situated right in the middle of nowhere. It was an ideal spot for a retreat.
Almost ideal, actually. The camp was not far enough away from civilization that cell phone reception disappeared. It was weak, but it was present. And that was enough, I fear, that a lot of students were not able to retreat at all. Before we left, the youth leader asked the students if they would consider going without their phones for as much of the day as they could stand. He did not want to legislate that they had to leave their phones at home, but he did ask that they consider trying to untie themselves for at least a short while.
I must be old because I tend to use my phone as a phone (Imagine that!). Anything else I can do with it is merely supplemental; a handy bonus for desperate times. I almost never send or receive text messages and really don’t understand why I’d want to. Only on the rarest of occasions will I use it to browse the web since the access it offers is slow, tiny and restrictive. I usually just prefer to wait until I’m in front of something that can do it better. I do make the occasional exception (like the other day when Aileen and I were out and wanted to check show times at the nearby theater) but my phone is pretty much just a phone to me.
I can see, though, that for teenagers a phone is so much more. A cell phone really becomes an extension of who they are; it becomes a part of them. It is a bridge to their friends through texting or even calling, it is a bridge to the internet and a bridge to the world of social media. They can hardly separate their identity, their self-understanding, from it. And this makes me realize that for them to retreat (i.e. to go away on a youth retreat) must mean leaving the phone behind. I don’t know that today’s teens can retreat at all when the phone comes with them. After all, the whole purpose of a retreat is to get away—to get far away. When an army signals the retreat, the soldiers drop anything that holds them back, anything that weighs them down. They run for their lives. When we retreat for the good of our souls, we should be just as willing to unencumber ourselves, to leave behind whatever will weigh down our hearts and souls. A personal or youth group retreat is an opportunity to remove oneself from the usual situations, the usual contexts, and to spend time focusing on the soul. It is a time to lose some of one’s self-identity whether vocationally or as a student or in any of one’s other roles. It is almost impossible to do this, I think, when the outside world keeps beeping and buzzing and beckoning, announcing its presence. Its pull is too strong; its grip too firm.
While my cell phone does not grip me this way, I do know that other things do. One other thing does, at any rate. This weekend was not a retreat for me (or for any of the leaders up there). There was too much to do with preparing to speak six times, with trying to get to know the kids, with trying to be available to them, and so on. But if this had been a retreat for me, I can see that I would have had to leave technology behind as well. Maybe I could take my phone since it is merely a tool for me. But my computer, or at least its access to the Internet, would have to stay behind. I couldn’t properly retreat and bring the internet with me. It would be no retreat at all. My internet identity is a part of my self-identity that I’d have to leave behind if I wanted to retreat.
It is always amazing to me just how pervasive technology has become. But I’ve usually seen this by way of quantity more than quality. I’ve been amazed that I can go just about anywhere and find reception for my cell phone (and thus access to the internet) so that I almost never need to be completely unavailable to my wife should she need me (or my blog, should it need me). But rarely have I paused to consider that the pervasiveness of technology goes far deeper. It goes to my very identity so that I am something less without access the Internet. When I disconnect, a piece of me, a piece of who I am, disconnects as well. If this is true of me, who had the digital world grow up around me and who has known life without it, how much more is it true of those digital natives, the teens and kids of today who have never known anything but the digital world?