National Day of Unplugging: Should we ever stop fasting from that which numbs or dulls us to life?
Today marks the National Day of Unplugging where, from sundown March 6th to sundown March 7th, people are encouraged to adapt our ancestors’ sabbath ritual of carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones.
Every religion in the world has a form of fasting—seasons set apart to better see and hear the Spirit whom they follow. Ramadan. Lent. Navratri. Yom Kippur. These are times for abstaining from the things that disconnect us from the divine, from the true, from the things which give us life. In every culture, distractions and vices are set aside for a time to reach a higher good such as health, clarity in prayer, or intimacy with others.
In a reflection in the New York Times, Catholic María de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda reflects on the current season of Lent, a 40-day fast leading up to the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus in Christian traditions: “The question for me is not whether there’s a point to giving things up during Lent, but whether I should ever stop fasting from all that numbs, dulls and deadens me to life, all of life, as it is today—the good and the bad. Fasting makes me willing to try.”
People fast for different reasons, but the fruit of the labour is universal: we are awoken—to our hunger, to our appetites, and to the gaps in our lives.
Fasting is something I advocate for in my book, The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World.
My own desire to give up the Internet for a time originated from a growing restlessness and distractedness I recognized in my own life. I felt frustrated by the roundabout modes of communication that were developing in my closest relationships. A text from my mom: Did you get my email? An email from me: Call me. I felt like I was wasting reams of time, that most of my relationships had become a patchwork of online check-ins. I was motivated by the desire to discover the person and parent I could and would be off-line.
Why was I in such a hurry? What was I gaining through my online check-ins? Why was I turning down in-person get-togethers? These were some of the questions I set out to explore during my 31-day sabbatical from the Internet.
I was tired of Facebook mediating my relationships and discontented with my compulsion to constantly check-in online. I knew the Internet was allowing me to emotionally disengage from myself and my loved ones. I was living in a constant state of information overload and a vacuum of joy. I had too much information and not enough wonder.
In a March 2014 article in The New Yorker titled “The Pointlessness of Unplugging,” Casey Cep argues that “the unplugging movement, which encourages us to disconnect from technology, is unsustainable and misguided.” Let us consider another proposition: The Internet addiction movement, which encourages us to connect online at all times in all places, is unsustainable and misguided. Which is more accurate?
There are no simple answers here, to be sure. The terms “disconnecting,” “unplugging,” and “digital detox,” are limiting because they suggest that offline/online worlds are separate when, increasingly, they are not. But these terms are a starting point as we personally and collectively navigate uncharted waters. Some people have a better time finding balance in their lives when it comes to using digital technologies, but others of us have a harder time striking a balance. Taking a break, carving out space without a screen, helps us lift our eyes, to engage in different ways that, for many, is life-giving.
Washington University psychiatrist C. Robert Cloninger says: “You’re going to be confronted with many stimuli designed to grab your attention and addict you, so you should be very careful about what you expose yourself and your children to. Everyone needs time for quiet, reflection and reverie. You have to achieve an equilibrium between those deep human needs and other stimuli, or you’ll have problems.”
Suggesting that to unplug for a few days is pointless because people plan to return to the digital world is misguided. By that logic, we should also rid ourselves of weekends, summer vacations, fasting for religious or health purposes, and giving up drugs.
The truth is, the whole world fasts.
When we deprive ourselves of something with the intention of making room for quiet reflection and stillness, we help develop self-discipline and fortitude, fostering a greater openness to God or whatever is sacred.
The National Day of Unplugging is important because if we remain fixed to our screens, we rarely dive deeper, push ourselves to swim out farther than the familiar routes we travel online. Even ideas that strike us profoundly online rarely illicit more than a “like” or “share.” If we want all of this knowledge to go further, our engagements to go deeper, then we need to take them offline. That’s what good friends and good conversation do. They let us step out of our algorithm.
The Internet is an unprecedented tool, yet we expect it to give at all times in all places, even things it cannot give. When we draw away and then return to the Web, we see it again for the purposes it serves.
National Day of Unplugging may be the beginning we need.