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Off the Grid

I have returned from my week away—a week away from home and a week away from the day-to-day. On July 9th we bundled ourselves into the van and drove 1100 kilometers pretty much due south. That took us to a state park in Virginia—a state park far from civilization, one that is accessible only by back roads. There we met up with all of my family along with some of Aileen’s. And there we stayed for a week, living in some surprisingly nice cabins.

We spent the week doing family stuff, vacation stuff. We went to the beach, went for walks, talked, played, read and saw some of the sights. We drove to Appomattox and saw the home where the Civil War essentially came to an end. We drove to nearby small towns and looked (mostly unsuccessfully) for something interesting to see or do. But mostly we just stayed pretty much static, in or around the cabins. It was a genuinely relaxing vacation, a time of real rest. It was a time I needed in a bad way.

I kept my week entirely free of electronic media (not counting the GPS that was affixed to my windshield). I had no phone, no text messages, no email, no blogs, no Twitter, no Facebook, no television. I had prepared myself to find this difficult, to deal with wanting to fight the guidelines I had put in place, with wanting to “cheat” and steal a few glances at email. But what surprised me most about my media fast was how much I enjoyed it. There was not a single moment of regret and not a single moment of wanting to find a wifi signal to check in with the world. I fell of the grid and was very content to be there.

To be honest, I found this apathy a little bit disappointing. I had expected to come back with tales of woe, to have realized how great a grip technology has on me that I can barely stand to be without it for a week. And yet I came back dreading email more than anticipating it. Once I got back to my desk I tweeted once or twice, but more out of habit than any real desire or enthusiasm. I walked away from all of these great digital technologies and found that I was very glad to do so.

And I suppose that must be the message I needed to hear. I use Twitter and Facebook and other technologies more out of habit than desire, more out of perceived necessity than any real enjoyment. I use Twitter because I feel like I need to if I’m to be a successful blogger. I am on Facebook largely for the same reason. I use them because I don’t want to be left behind; people say I need to use them, and so I use them. But I have no real love for them and learned from my time away that in some ways they just add noise to my life. I spend a lot of time in life communicating through all of these social media channels, and yet very little of it has any real significance. I saw when I was away that much of the time I spend on the Net is time I do not need to spend there. Yes, I missed having instant access to a world of information and on a few isolated occasions I know I would otherwise have Googled something—what is a farrier? why is New York the Empire State?—but I have managed to live just fine without knowing these things.

What I found is that much of my use of media is simply habit. As soon as I got back into my normal context I went right back to them. I immediately started Googling to find the answer to any question that crossed my mind. I got distracted by Twitter and Facebook and other things that I was so happy to be without for my week away. I started filling my mind with utterly useless information that does not do me any good at all. I immediately had less time for things that are beneficial to me because my time was being taken up by all of this puff, all of this waste.

The only thing I really did miss from my time away was people. I didn’t miss my family because they were all there with me, but I did miss friends and, in particular, the men and women of my church. On a few occasions I wanted to get updates from them—how did church go on Sunday? How did everyone receive the sermon? Are there any notable people issues I should be thinking about or praying for? So if I did miss email and other digital technologies, this was the reason—I wanted to keep up with those whom I love. I wanted to keep up with all of you as we discuss the things I write here. It was people that I missed, not information.

At this point I’m not prepared to make any great changes to my life based on my time away. But if I’ve learned lessons about the futility and the sheer unimportance of many of the technologies I use, then maybe I ought to think more and be prepared to change my life a little bit. I sit here in front of my computer today, email open in one window, my cell phone sitting on the desk beside me, prepared to soon feel overwhelmed by all of these things.

One more little bit of miscellania:

It seemed logical that while I was in Virginia I would spend time reading about a Virginian and so I spent the week (the whole week—the book comes in at around 400,000 words) reading Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend by James Robertson. It is an absolutely fantastic biography, undoubtedly one of the best I’ve ever read. Robertson truly understands his subject and, by the end of the book, I felt that I did too. Too often those who focus on Jackson provide a one-dimensional view of the man—either he’s a great soldier or a great Christian. In this biography Robertson manages to capture and unite both components of this complex individual. There aren’t many biographies I’d recommend ahead of this one. Though the sample size is probably too small to draw great conclusions, I did find that compared to my usual experience of reading, I was able to focus on this book and to understand it. I think removing myself from all of the usual electronic stimulus and distraction allowed me to have greater powers of concentration.