Slavery of the Imagination

Slavery of the Imagination May 10, 2017

Jonathan SPart 4: The Slavery of the Imagination, by Jonathan Storment

I know that you are busy. You barely have time to read this, so chances are you are skimming. You have deadlines to meet, meetings to make, and lots of important stuff to do.

So for me to suggest that those things are not as important as they seem must sound ludicrous. It is even more outlandish to suggest the starker truth, You are not as important as it seems.

And neither am I, or really anybody.

For the past few weeks, I have been reviewing Andy Crouch’s great new book The Tech-Wise Family, and today we get to the heart of the problem of my (and probably your) relationship to technology.

Practice Makes Perfect

What began as an infatuation with convenience and efficiency (and not just a little wonder) has slowly started to deteriorate into something more like slavery and idolatry.

Specifically this is what Andy calls the Slavery of our Imagination. This is how he describes our deep seated refusal to turn off and unplug from our devices:

Many of us are not as captive to round-the-clock, never-ending demands as we believe we are. Instead, we are our own jailers. We are prisoners of our own insecurity (Will I still have a job if I take two solid weeks of vacation?), pride (How can people get along without me?), fantasies (What if I miss an email telling me I’ve won the lottery?), and cultural capitulation (This is just how the world works now, isn’t it?). For us, the door to a better life is only locked from the inside. We prefer our brightly lit cage of toil and leisure (this cage, after all, comes with unlimited Netflix).

Okay, so this is my aim here, and why I would like as many people to read this book as possible.

I am a pastor and I see so many of the people I care about with rising (and often disproportional) anxiety. Many of us walk around feeling like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders when we really don’t. And a lot of that has to do with the kind of character that our technological habits are forming.

Life is cumulative. No one loses 10 pounds in a day or learns a language in a week. But over time, our habits, both good and bad, lead us into certain directions. They form us into a certain kind of person. Each habit that we have is a bit like working out or eating junk food.  No one can tell immediately, but after a year or two of practice, it starts to show.

Now imagine your life at a level deeper than maybe you are used to thinking about.  What does looking at screens repeatedly all day long do to your soul when you start to add it all up?

These are portals that seem to be windows into another (and often seeming better) world, at which you are the center. Everyone is clamoring for your attention, trying to tell you the latest news, or get you to share your latest gossip. Eventually, over time it starts to add up and convince you that your place in the universe is at the center.

The Pharaoh In Your Pocket

I wrote last week, on the need to take a Digital Sabbath, and how, a few years ago, our family had made this a priority.  It has done more to help my soul than almost anything else that have done in the past 3 years.  It is a weekly reminder of my small and limited place in God’s good world.  Those handful of times that I skipped my Friday away from devices, I could feel it the entire next week. I was more anxious and reactive, more controlling and irritable, and much less pleasant to be around.

This isn’t just a Christian idea, in fact, people all over the Western world are starting to become aware of what kind of crisis we are facing when we are left to our own devices.

Our constant addiction to viewing life through a screen, always being plugged into the internet helps make us more narcisstic, can lead to depression and anxiety, and does more harm than good when it comes to creative thinking.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be like that. Used in moderation, the internet and the screens we use to connect to it, can bring great benefits into our life. Like all idolatry, it is a good thing but we eventually turn it into the center of our life. And like all idolatry, when that happens, it leads to addiction and ultimately a form of slavery.

The truly insidious problem with this particular version of slavery is that we signed up for it ourselves, and because it is so universal no one wants to unplug from the matrix first. After all, that is where all the conversations are happening, and you might miss something. And it is fun…at least kind of, at least at first. It is where you can find all the news/sports/podcasts/ Angry Birds that you want whenever you want them.

But over time those conversations become shrill and self-righteous because the collective building anxiety from the framework that allows us to know small bits of information about everything, also keeps us from looking each other in the eyes when we have a disagreement. It prevents us from hearing the nuances of the other side of an argument.

Over time, the thing that once promised us greater life – More Connection! More Efficiency! Better Productivity! – Actually takes away the very thing it promised by our misuse of it.

Let Go of the Tree

There was an article in the NY Times recently about why people in Western society are becoming increasingly unhappy. In that article, Arthur Brooks, who studies and writes about happiness, tells a story about when a Hindu Guru named Swamin Rama learned about a Hindu concept called “Maya” or illusion.  He was studying with a Himalayan master and one day as they were walking along, the master grabbed hold of a tree and began to shout Help me! My body has been caught by this tree trunk!

Swamin tried to pry the master off the tree but couldn’t, and finally let go and laughed, telling him, This is Maya. So much of the declining happiness and the rising anxiety is that we are needlessly attaching our fate to external things that aren’t bringing us joy. And in our mind things are really really bad, and they seem to only be getting worse. But so much of that isn’t reality, it is just an imagination that has been enslaved.

We think the tree has grabbed us, but in reality we are holding on to it.

And that is exactly how this Times article ended. With a person who’s dedicated his life to researching happiness suggesting something like what Andy and I are suggesting here:

Read the news once a day, as opposed to hitting your Twitter feed 50 times a day like a chimp in a 1950s experiment on the self-administration of cocaine. Will you get the very latest goings on in Washington in real time? No. Will that make you a more boring person? No. Trust me here — you will be less boring to others. But more important, you will become happier.

So go ahead, let go of the tree.


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  • Martha Anne Underwood

    I avoid the news as much as possible on TV and internet. I actually read a lot of patheos blogs on my phone. I go to my Facebook page infrequently. To get away from technology I make greeting cards using rubber stamps, die cuts, embossing folders and other materials. I get to be creative and often lose track of time. I much prefer being with people.