My community group from church met online last night. Though we’re all within a couple miles of one another, own vehicles, and are healthy, we were unable to meet in person. Like nearly everyone else in America right now, our city is witnessing an outbreak of the novel virus COVID-19, and we have been ordered to stay home.
Zoom provided us the connection to check in on one another. From a dining room, bedroom, front yard and home office, we all shared a common experience — bewilderment at what to do and how to live in this unique moment. Like you, we’re all young, and agreed that this is the first crisis that we have faced where we cannot ask our parents or mentors what to do. They haven’t experienced this before, either.
Coming together, apart
In most crises we come together, but in the coronavirus pandemic we have to stay apart. The COVID-19 virus is rapidly changing our society, perhaps in some ways that will be permanent. One of the most significant challenges that the virus has already presented is the necessity for social distancing.
I want us to think about how to wisely approach this situation in two specific areas — relationships and time. Both are uniquely at risk while we practice social distancing; a loss of relational contact and daily structure can lead to anxiety, sinful indulgence and time wasting. But while each area holds a unique challenge, each also presents a unique opportunity.
Maintaining relationships: wisely engaging digital media
Since the advent of social media, and particularly app-driven smartphones, we have been increasingly willing to minimize our interactions with others. We have unwittingly been practicing social distancing; Facebook has long been training us for the real thing.
Embodied conversations are often awkward and difficult. We experience the full presence of the other person, a presence that is often uncomfortable or overwhelming. Our eyes catch the micro-expressions in their face and body language. Our ears receive more information about the conversation than the words being spoken, for they also pick up on tone, emotion, rate of speech and so on.
Social media told us that we could skip all these inconveniences while at the same time “connecting” with far more people than we ever could before. The result is that our actual presence has been robbed from everyday life. Millions of people are physically present but mentally absent in nearly every daily situation. In grocery stores, coffee shops and dinner tables, what is everyone doing? When we could have been doing all the activities that we desire to do now that we’re practicing social distancing — being with friends or family, going to church, etc. — we were disengaged in the superficial entertainment or “community” of social media.
Bringing bodies back to a digital world
The good news is, the COVID-19 situation heightens our awareness of the fact that media cannot replace embodied life. This principle is important to note for two reasons. First, because we have been living under a form of digital slavery. Social media is like the salesman who smooth-talked his way into your living room and then refused to leave. We’ve been trapped into a self-centered version of half-present, half-absent living. Now is a perfect opportunity to awaken to the situation and make a change.
Second, we’re quickly realizing that media cannot replace embodied life because there are certain facets of community that we lose during social distancing. Even the best video call software cannot deliver the same experience as being in the presence of another human being.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote “Understanding Media.” He explained that every form of media is an “extension of man.” He wanted the world to recognize that media extends the capacities of humanity just like any other technology. As the vehicle extends our ability to cover distances, the radio extends one’s voice. However, as philosopher Doug Groothuis has warned, “Every technology both extends and contracts human communication.” For example, text messaging allows you to efficiently communicate with more people, but while it might provide you the informational content of a conversation, it loses all of the relational content.
Understanding that media cannot be a replacement for our embodied lives and relationships, we acknowledge that it can provide us with a temporary compromise for when face-to-face interaction is not an option. During this pandemic, we are expected to practice social distancing, and in an effort to love our neighbor, Christians should cheerfully comply. The ability to stay in touch with one another through media right now is a gift from God, and we should embrace it. However, we should do so with the awareness that online church and virtual groups are only acceptable in unique circumstances and, ideally, for brief periods of time.
Cut out digital “junk food”
Therefore, COVID-19 presents us with an opportune time to embrace digital minimalism. Digital minimalism doesn’t mean that you simply delete your apps and cancel Netflix — though it might. Digital minimalism is about adopting a wise philosophy of technology use for your life. You determine what technologies, media and apps are essential vs. non-essential, what actually benefits your life and relationships vs. what is a waste of time.
I suggest you drastically limit the amount of time that you allow yourself on social media. The “relational” connections on social platforms are not authentic and do not truly satisfy our need for community. As I often explain to people, social media is the junk food of relationships. It cannot sustain you. Moreover, the more time you spend on it, the more difficult you will find it is to invest in real relationships; much like being filled on junk food ruins your appetite for healthy, nutritious meals.
Here are two practical suggestions:
- Identify one to five people every day and give them a phone call. Invest some time in having an actual conversation with a person. If you can, have the conversation over a video chat like FaceTime or Skype. Seeing the face and hearing the voice of the person you’re talking to is far more satisfying than messaging.
- Start a weekly discussion group. Gather a couple of friends on Skype or Zoom for a weekly chat about whatever you want. Read through a book or book of the Bible and share what you’re learning. Watch a movie, then have a fun, critical discussion on it. Do the same workout, then share how it went. Anything can be the topic for a long conversation that brings you together while remaining apart.
Maintaining productivity: wisely redeeming the time
I have found that when the normal routines of life are interrupted, it becomes incredibly difficult to maintain productivity.
Many of you are experiencing that right now. Your life was once structured, most likely by someone else, around work, classes, social activities and so on. With that loss of structure, you will find it very difficult to not waste inordinate amounts of time. I’ll share several practical tips on how to wisely use your time while self-distancing.
We tend to separate the “spiritual” from the “practical.” But Scripture makes no such bifurcation. Paul wrote that the key to “making the most of the time” is to pay attention to your walk and to resist disobedience (Ephesians 5:6-21). Likewise, Jesus said that it will benefit a man nothing to gain the world and yet lose his soul (Matthew 16:26). Taking care of your soul is the most practical thing in the world.
My good friend, a well-experienced pastor, wrote on Facebook recently that the two greatest temptations during crises are disobedience and irresponsibility. You need to identify what will be your greatest temptations to disobedience and irresponsibility while you’re practicing social distancing. For many, you will experience a profound temptation to watch pornography. Others will fill the loneliness with overeating or bingeing on Netflix and mindless entertainment.
Identify your temptations clearly so that you might prepare to resist them. Be willing to get rid of tech devices, throw away the junk food, or have daily check-ins with an accountability partner.
Embrace the slower pace
I’ve found that many young adults are surprised by how refreshing it has been to slow down. We are going through life at such a frantic pace that it took a global pandemic to make us stop. This might be counterintuitive, but I believe that a key to making the most of the time is to embrace this slower pace. Try to “hurry” or over-produce these days and you’ll be unnecessarily anxious. Anxiety will lead to burnout, and you will lose out on an opportunity to get some rest.
Give your day structure
Try to insert some structure into your day. If you are attempting to work or complete your semester from home, this step is crucial. The more you can maintain your regular rhythms, the more likely you are to not waste time. Giving your day structure means:
- Waking up at your normal time; avoid sleeping in
- Follow your normal routine. Shower and dress, read your Bible, exercise, etc.
- Start the day with a set of 3-5 goals to accomplish
- Write a flexible schedule for working on these goals and adding some rest/recreation
Pursue “analog” activities
Restrict your entertainment consumption to avoid bingeing TV or being on social media all day. Instead, fill the time with analog activities that will be far more satisfying. These include doing projects around your house or apartment, doing (or finding) a hobby, or exercising. In fact, according to some experts, one of the best practices during social distancing is “open air” therapy. Go for a walk.
We’re living through a chaotic time. However, even though we are isolated, we can come together in wisdom to support each other through the crisis. Do not give in to fear, but cast “all your cares on [God], because he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).
Editor’s note: Want some guidance and support as you strive to structure your days in the coming weeks? Join our Boundless Quarantine Challenge! A couple times a week, we’ll give a suggestion of something stretching, meaningful and lifegiving to do while you live life in whatever version of isolation you’re in. It’s more fun as we all do the challenges together!
Copyright 2020 Aaron Shamp. All rights reserved.