Modeling Patience in a Digital World

A spiritual fruit in short supply.

I do not have children, and they are likely still a number of years off. But I work in digital marketing, where it’s hard to stay sane in today’s world of always-accessible emails and social media platforms and smartphones, and so my thoughts often stray to the generation to come. What about the kids – my kids, even – who grew up in this world of screens and can’t even remember a distant childhood before the advent of the Internet? How will I raise these digital natives without losing them down the rabbit hole of screens?

I recently took a moment to observe a friend as she checked her Instagram feed. She scrolled through the images rhythmically, almost to a beat. She spent one or two seconds on each picture, made a snap judgment whether to tap that heart, then moved on to the next one. I’d wager it’s a typical pattern for smartphone users.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, we have a problem here. No one can read a thousand words every two seconds.

Perhaps the most disconcerting facet of this world of screens is that it cultivates the pornification of experience. I use that term not to mean that screens over-sexualize everything (though that’s certainly one manifestation), but rather to convey that whether it’s sexuality, nature, humor, news, take your pick, screens cheapen experience. They reduce the beauties of life into “traffic” and “engagement” and “content” to be consumed. They condition us to seek experiences that we can access on demand and that don’t require any emotional investment or substantive effort on our end. There’s little contemplation, no steady buildup of knowledge, passion, and emotion in this rapid succession of quick visual pleasures. We make judgments based on whatever can be evaluated in a split second and move on to the next post, picture, or link, repeating indefinitely.

The space that has emerged from this is truly bizarre. In a fifteen-second span I can encounter pleas for help from Syrian refugees, a video of friendly dogs smothering people in kisses, an excerpt of theology from Thomas Aquinas, and a selfie from a friend’s trip to the lake last weekend. I probably encountered a mix of posts like that just this afternoon, in fact. Ripped out of context and juxtaposed next to each other, there’s simply no way I can experience any of them in a meaningful, lasting sense.

This is the universe our children will inherit: frictionless, instant, and discombobulated. They won’t see that good things come to those who wait, because who will be waiting?

For the antidote to the world of screens, then, we must look back to the timeless virtue of patience. This choicest of spiritual fruits will be in short supply in the Google Fiber future that awaits us, and so it must be cultivated diligently and intentionally if we wish to shape our children into feeling, creative beings who are truly alive in the world. It must be our banner and our rallying cry, the compass by which we guide them, kneaded into their habits and curbing their impulses.

I can hear my mother in the back of my head telling me “I told you so,” and she’s right. In essence, the task is the same one faced by every parent from ages past, but the fiber-connected particulars of the world of screens will make teaching patience more difficult.

Indeed, parents must fight for patience on every front of life. It means showing our children that resistance and friction are necessary for personal and spiritual growth, that people aren’t meant to skate through life and that one cannot find meaning in participation trophies. It means showing grace and rising above the digital lynch mob that ruins lives and careers for a 140-character misstep. It means closing Instagram, shutting down the tablet and going outside to plant a garden or go camping or watch the sunset. And it means pointing them to the wellspring from which true patience flows. God, after all, is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, though it may feel like it at times, because he is patient. Let us go and do likewise.

For his day job, Andrew Collins manages social media and writes for a nonprofit news outlet. He harbors wistful dreams of being a screenwriter, loves living in a big city, strives to read promiscuously, and hopes to travel more.

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