What the smartphone can’t do


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It came out of nowhere, as so many of my kids’ questions seem to do.  I was standing at the kitchen sink, adding new water to a vase of flowers and stripping off the rotting leaves that had been sitting below the waterline, when my seven-year-old called out to me.

“Mom, what’s the meaning of life?”

A range of thoughts flashed through my mind: momentary panic; flattery at being asked; excitement at the fact that he was even asking the question, indicating a future career as a philosopher or mystic or maybe even a writer.

I got this, I thought as I kept stripping slimy leaves off of the flower stalks

“Well,” I said, “It’s about finding what gives you joy and doing it.  And it’s about helping other people.  But mostly, it’s about being loving.”  Not bad for an off-the-cuff answer, I thought to myself.  I waited for a thoughtful “Okay,” in response.

“Can we ask the phone?” he said.

Nothing like motherhood to keep you humble.

Honestly, though, this little exchange got me thinking.  It certainly shows how much my child trusts technology.  That little rectangle that you plug in every night can tell you how many people there are on earth, or whether it will rain tomorrow.  With our help, Matthew has already found those answers that way.

He  doesn’t yet know that some questions can’t be answered by the phone.  They can only be answered by living, by praying, by gathering information from people like your parents and other elders, by thinking and sifting and growing.

But it also makes me wonder if I’m really so different from my child.  Don’t I also turn to technology for things it can’t give me?

Yes, I do.  I do it often, and I’m not alone. It’s so seductive, this Internet thing, and it’s easy:  easier to play a video game alone rather than play a board game with the kids,  easier to surf Ebay rather than sitting in silence and surfing the waves of prayer,  easier to turn to Facebook  instead of turning to the face of the person sitting right next to us.

I’ve never done a social media or Internet fast for Lent, but I think it’s a good idea.  I love blogging and connecting with others online,  but having any kind of online presence can demand a lot of attention, and I don’t like that.  There’s a tendency to let it take too much of my time, to pull my focus from the things that require more effort but bring greater rewards.  When all is said and done, I don’t want to be measuring  my life in blog hits.  I want to measure it in books read, in hugs from my kids, in laughs my husband and I share, in dinners out, in ideas pondered, in flowers arranged and enjoyed, in time with friends, in all of that real, tangible, three-dimensional stuff, the stuff that takes more effort perhaps but that ends up being so much more satisfying than anything you can get from a screen.

I didn’t say all this to my son, of course.  I simply told him that the phone can’t answer his question, and suggested that he ask Daddy for his perspective.  I’m not sure he believed me, but he’ll understand someday.

And I filed the conversation away as a reminder for myself, too: A reminder to look for answers and meaning in the right places.

6 responses to “What the smartphone can’t do

  1. Whether it’s my laptop or phone, if David sees it, he wants to grab it and put it in his mouth. I know no matter what limits we impose at home, he will be exposed to technology tools and toys wherever he goes. Even though he is still so very little, I often catch myself thinking, “what must David think that I’m scrolling through blog posts while he’s breastfeeding.” He is definitely starting to notice and it’s been a huge incentive to put the phone down and get myself back in the moment – because those blog posts will be there anytime but he won’t always be so little or so dependent his mother. Considering the amount of questions I google, he will also quickly learn to do the same…what a great reminder to be present to our kids so that they come to us first for questions (whether it’s the meaning of life or anything else), before going to google.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Viki. You make a good point about how much little kids notice how present we are (or aren’t) to them.

    It is always jarring to see all the parents at the park totally absorbed in their phones while their kids play (I should admit that I’m occasionally guilty of the same thing, though I try hard not to as a general rule). Bottom line is that I don’t want to be on my deathbed thinking “Gee, I wish I hadn’t spent so much time on my phone.”

  3. After reading this, I had to go google, “the meaning of life.” Hee hee….

  4. Haha! I’ll have to do the same, Therese. I’m kind of curious as to what I’ll find.

  5. Your off-the-cuff answer to the “meaning of life” was superb! And what a great question, too! Even as one who spent a whole career developing technology, here, in Silicon Valley, California, I maintain that technology is a dual-edged sword that cuts both ways. Use it judiciously, and it is a powerful tool. Rely on it excessively, and much of life’s value and meaning will be lost. I know that Matthew will figure that out soon enough!

  6. I appreciate your perspective, Dad. You always blend science and thought so well. Thanks.