Learning to See, Learning to Be

Spiritual Practices of Interactions with Screens

I’m going to stop cupping my kindergartner’s face in my hands and telling her the reason she’s allowed no more screen time is that I want her “to have a beautiful mind.”

I’ve been seeking some simple principles to guide our family—and when I say family, I mean not only the kids but me too, the mama, who escapes into Facebook. Rules are too fun to find the loopholes to and arguments supported by cognitive development theories are primarily focused on children, not the adult mama fleeing her frustrations.

Here are two spiritual practices related to screens that are emerging for me.

Learning to See

There are many ways to see. In nature walks we muse on the gauzy wing of an insect and the rough feel of a pinecone. Books give us words we didn’t have before to describe our experiences. While our imagination is guided, we fill in the details—why though a series on Heidi keeps popping up in our Netflix queue, I ignore it because I want my girls to encounter the book first.

Learning to see is a continual practice of faith—recognizing God’s glory in creation, his image on other humans, and a reflection of his creative work in the projects they participate in.

Engaging with screens is a way of seeing. And as an educator with literacy training in her background, I’m not “anti-screens,” rather identifying them as another literacy technology along with pencils and books.

Although a screen with streaming video is passive interaction, I take pleasure in my four-year-old’s joy in the show Octonauts, a gentle Star Trek underwater. She is seeing teamwork. She, a natural leader, is seeing a female character who is second in command and her favorite for roleplay.

And yet, she’s also my child for whom I have to be intentional in leading her to delight in the ordinary, to not expect to be entertained. We learn to see together in purposeful ways as we pull back from our screens.

Learning to Be

In a canoe last weekend, I found myself self-conscious on a church retreat as my husband and I attempted haplessly to move our oars in agreement. Friends with a camera snapped photos that were posted on Facebook. Graciously, if they did capture our inadvertent ramming of another boater, they didn’t send those pictures into cyberspace.

The philosopher James K. A. Smith bemoans teenagers’ interaction with social media in his book Imagining the Kingdom. Teenagers go home not to find rest from the “self-consciousness” of their life stage but to partake in incessant “self-display” online. Smith fears immobilization—how do you have the freedom to try out something new, to make a fool of yourself, if you know that someone nearby could be taking video to laugh at you with the world thirty seconds later?

In the future, my children will need to withdraw regularly from social media, as I need to. To halt, as Smith notes, letting an app train my mind in a new social imaginary where, I, the seeming center of a space, am praying within myself to myself: “Make me laugh. Make me cry. Let me know that I’m not the only one who feels like this.”

The narrow confines of social media connects me virtually with friends, but also, when I am misdirecting my inner hunger, influences me to lose my sense of true being. But when I am forced to sit with emptiness, as Gerald May says in Addicted to Grace, I enter God’s “spaciousness.” It is this space, where I will know: In God we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Heather Walker Peterson
Along with being a mother to two young and remarkably different daughters, Heather Walker Peterson is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and Chair of the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern-Saint Paul.

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