Across the country (indeed across the world) people are encountering something powerful in larger quantities than they have perhaps experienced in a long time.
In the coming weeks, a number of us will likely find ourselves quarantined in our homes. In my region of the world (Eastern United States), public schools have been closed down for the next two weeks (and likely will remain closed for the rest of the semester), institutions of higher education have closed their campuses and moved online, and many businesses are telling employees to remain home if they even suspect that they are sick.
Indeed, it is likely that as COVID-19 continues to spread many of us will find ourselves strictly quarantined at home for two weeks. However, the powerful substance I am referring to is not COVID-19, but one of its results: free time.
Free time is one of the most powerful elements of our lives because of its ability to both shape and reveal who we are. Employers direct our time at work, teachers direct it at school, but we direct our free time.
How we spend our free time reveals who we are because it is self-directed time. We decide whether to go for a walk, watch the latest show, read a book, call a friend, play a video game, scroll on Instagram, etc. When we are given time to spend as we wish it, it reveals our wants, desire, aspirations, and (despite ourselves) faults.
But it does more than that, it also shapes who we are. Not only does self-direction grant added revelatory weight to free time, but it also grants it a particularly powerful formative influence. What we do when we could do anything has a particularly strong impact on who we are as people. Our hobbies shape our desires, tastes, preferences, hopes, and fears. Just as continued use of hammer will form calluses on the hand or consistent exercise will build strong muscles, so the way we spend our free time spent will shape our soul.
What do you do if you find yourself quarantined at home for fourteen days? How will you spend your time? Will you nap? Will you Netflix and chill? Will you scroll social media? Will you practice an instrument? Will you exercise? Will you learn to cook? The possibilities are vast.
For some of us the prospect of fourteen days off is exciting (we’ll finally be able to get everything done we’ve been planning to do), for others it is daunting (we have no idea how to fill those fourteen empty voids). For all of us that time will be spent, one way or another, the only question is – will it be wasted or invested?
Here is my plea to you: Do not waste your quarantine. Fight at all costs the enemy Distraction who would have you constantly clicking, constantly scrolling, constantly watching. Do not be a-mused (literally, unthinking).
We live at a time and place in which it would be easy to fill fourteen days with only a few shows on Netflix or spend them scrolling in the endless shallows of social media. We live in what Neil Postman termed the “Peek-a-Boo” world, a world in which we are bombarded with endless factoids and images, all hoping to capture our eyes and information for just a moment before we shoot off down another trivial pursuit.
As a digital native, I know that it is easy to take the state constant distraction as a given, neither good nor bad. However, as Alan Noble has noticed, “The constant distraction of our culture shields us from the kind of deep, honest reflection to ask why we exist and what is true.” (Disruptive Witness, p. 3).
Blaise Pascal noted nearly four hundred years ago the happiness of kings consists in their ability to be constantly distracted so that they are prevented from ever engaging in introspection! In that sense, we are all kings now.
But there is a way to fight back. The most powerful weapon against distraction is attention. Attention is what allows us to ignore the endless barrage with which this digital age fights for our eyeballs and information and instead allows us to cultivate habits of virtue. Attention is the prerequisite for knowledge, wisdom, and love. Without the ability to ignore and attend, we are like magpies – always flirting to the shiniest object that catches our eye.
So in the coming quarantine, practice the art of attention.
Attend to yourself, so that you may know the state of your soul.
Attend to your neighbor, so that you would know how to love him.
Attend to God, so that you may grow in your knowledge and enjoyment of Him.
God’s word is not silent on the use of free time. Ultimately, it is not ours to spend how we wish, but a gift given to us by God that we must steward. God claims ownership over all of our time, we must use it to glorify Him (1 Cor. 10:31). Indeed, He tells us to redeem the time (Eph. 5:16).
So, in your quarantine, consider how you might spend it to cultivate attention, fight distraction, and grow in the knowledge of God. In addition to investing time in prayer and Bible reading, I recommend these Christian classics, all of which are available online. I have arranged them from shortest to longest and included how many pages to read per day in order to read each of them in fourteen days.
Pick a few of the shorter ones or one of the longer ones. Let them be your conversation partner for the next fourteen days. Swim in their waters and let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through your mind.
On the Incarnation by Athanasius – 2.7pg/day (with introduction by C. S. Lewis)
The End for Which God Created the World by Jonathan Edwards – 4.4pg/day
The Freedom of the Will by Jonathan Edwards – 10.7pg/day
Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks – 10.7pg/day
Pensées by Blaise Pascal – 11.6pg/day
The Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther – 12.6pg/day
The Death of Death in the Death of Christ by John Owen – 22.9pg/day (with introduction by J. I. Packer)
Confessions by Augustine – 65.6pg/day (small pages)
Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof – 58.3pg/day
The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock – 29.9pg/day (large pages)
Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin – 66.3pg/day
Silence your phone, close your laptop, turn off the TV, and attend to those things that are true, good, and beautiful.
 You could read the entire New Testament in fourteen days by reading 18 chapters per day. Imagine what that would do for your walk with God. Similarly, consider how half an hour of prayer each day would shape your spiritual life.