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.

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