As many Christians know, we’re already 10 days into the season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter when the Christian focus is sacrifice and penitence.
While much emphasis traditionally is focused on food restrictions (meat on Fridays, for example), I would like to suggest something else to restrict: screens.
That may seem like an odd Lenten suggestion to many of my readers, but I ask for some patience while I explain. I suggest that fasting from screens would be lead to a more spiritual life, which may be the most important purpose of Lent.
Screens, for me, have a wide definition, including screens on televisions, personal computers, laptops, iPads and cellphones. Already, I can sense many people thinking, “If I restrict my use of screens, I’ll be cutting deep into the fabric of my life.” That is precisely correct, and that is why I’m recommending screen-fasting.
I’m not crazy enough to recommend that a person not use any screens for the remaining five weeks of Lent. Rather, I have a modest proposal: Simply reduce screen time or set aside chunks of time where there’s a purposeful attempt to avoid them altogether.
For example, try to go a whole morning, afternoon or evening without watching one screen. Impossible, some might say. I pose the hypothesis, however, that not only is it possible; it’s highly beneficial.
I realize I’m proposing something countercultural. But religion is often countercultural. Jesus of Nazareth, for example, went against much of the religious culture of his day when he ate and drank with tax collectors, prostitutes and other outcasts.
Going against the screen culture is hard. It was hard when I was younger and the main screen was the television. And that was primarily for entertainment.
Today, fasting from screens is much more difficult because screens are a part of most people’s work schedule, as well as leisure life. Many people have to sit in front of a computer screen for long hours a day on the job, and others also have to take a screen home with them, on a laptop or iPad, to keep up with the demands of work.
In the past 10 years, our screen life has increased exponentially with the ubiquity of the smartphone. We check that screen for help, when we need directions and maps; for information, when we need to satisfy our mental curiosity, and for diversion, when we want to escape from whatever reality is in front of us.
In some cases, we are looking at more than one screen at a time, checking our smartphone while watching TV. I’ve even found myself, when I’m on a work deadline, watching TV, checking my phone and typing on my iPad simultaneously.
To attempt during Lent to fast completely from screens is unrealistic. Instead, what I’m suggesting is to create a Lenten resolution simply to reduce or restrict screen time.
Try, for example, to leave your smartphone at home when you’re out of the house on errands or, better yet, on a long walk. Try resolving not to check your email after 6 p.m. when you’re at home. Try not to check your cellphone during dinner (very hard for teenagers). Try not to tweet for a day (some politicians would have an especially hard time with this).
Some readers might be asking, “How does all of this relate to Lent? I thought Lent was a time for spiritual things like penance and prayer.”
Screen-fasting is indeed a penitential sacrifice. If food is hard to give up between meals (the traditional Lenten fast), giving up screens, I propose, is a much harder sacrifice for most of us.
Screen-fasting also creates more time for quiet and solitude, part of the Lenten tradition that goes back centuries to monasteries early in the church history. Being alone with your thoughts and with your God, hard as that may often be, can do wonders for the soul.
And screen-fasting creates more community, a synonym for church. Spending more time with others – making eye contact with them and actively listening to them – is a charitable gift not only to them but to yourself.
So, dear reader, you have 37 days left before Easter. If you’re still looking for a Lenten resolution, try screen-fasting. I think you’ll arrive at Easter healthier in body, mind and spirit.
Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a California Newspaper Publishers Association first-place award recipient for 2014, are encouraged, and can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.