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Missing the Mockingbird’s Dive

July 10, 2019


About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.

—Annie Dillard

I have to say that, for me, one of the bitterest curses of the smartphone is its power to distract from the beauty, surprises, and annoyances of the real world. As we look down at our glowing screens, mediating a self-selected (or ad-driven) reality, we will miss the unruly, unpredictable epiphanies of earth, sea, sky, or faces around us. And as we are repeatedly immersed in streaming Xfinity megabits per second, our minds dull, become impatient to the unhurried and un-swiped pace of life.

I try hard not to hate on smartphones. They offer immense advantages, obviously, and they are a staple of life now. My problems with them are my problems, and I know some virtuous users. But it becomes harder and harder for me to not grieve their negative effects. It’s been almost two years since I re-adopted a flip phone, after I realized in the smartphone I had met my match. I had been seduced by the allure of voice-to-text, seized by that low buzz itch to check news alerts, social media updates, search articles, look something up, listen to YouTube or Spotify—oh, and back to more voice-to-text.

I disliked who I had become. But there I was. Though I’d won the rationalization battle, I’d lost too much of my inner freedom.

That is, until the day my ninety-two-year-old, God-inhabited mom, who had been trying to tell me something while I was screen-gazing, accosted me in a rare moment of impatience: “I’m glad I was born when I was. We didn’t have those things. We talked.”

I looked up and woke up.

A few beneficial side effects of a flip phone: My five senses reawakened to the world around me. My geographical imagination (without a phone GPS) rekindled and I rediscovered the wonder of getting lost and asking for directions. My attention span refocused and expanded. I’ve been reminded of the arduousness of meaningful communication. I’ve gloried more readily in fleeting moments that escape recording, and labor to have them inhabit my soul.

I really believe a new “Christian distinctive” should look something like this: We are the new radicals noted for strolling on a beach, sitting on a porch, walking in a mall, swinging in a park, waiting at a bus stop, standing in line at a checkout, exercising on a treadmill, eating in a restaurant, sitting alone at home, or (gasp!) driving a car . . . without once looking at our phone.

Yes, we are the Masters, and these are our phone-servants.

Tertullian wrote in the third century, “See, [the pagans say of Christians], how they love one another . . .” Maybe a new Tertullian will write in twenty years of Christians:

The pagans marvel about us, saying, “See how they love one another! At extreme length they dwell together without a device in hand or in ear. They live in the world with such serenity and attentiveness, even in silence and boredom. Have they gone mad?”

And among our number, maybe a new St. Francis can again arise, per Pope Francis’ vision:

Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever St. Francis would gaze at the sun, the moon, or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.

His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister.’”

Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.

By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.

Stop, and try to see a Mockingbird dive…