Recently while dining at a local eatery — a cut above fast-food but a level below “reservations only,” — a couple took notice of the fellow diners sharing the space.
There were 15 of them and of that number, only one didn’t have his or her face in a phone. Fourteen people had their eyes down and their thumbs flying over the surface of their electronic communications devices. The one man who didn’t was born in a time when those communication devices were called “telephones” and came equipped with rotary dials and long cables that plugged into walls. They were scientific wonders in their own right. But this lone diner didn’t have a new device or access to an old one for that matter. He was reading a book.
The point is the other couples might as well have been alone because their interaction seemed limited to asking one another what they might want to eat. Order appetizers, then back to the hand-held electronics.
What we had there was a failure to communicate. Literally.
This is not to lament the major scientific strides that have produced phones and tablets and other miracles of modern electronics. They are in their own ways wonderful aspects of today’s society. They make sure parents can reach their children and vice versa. They quickly summon help when it’s needed. They have the sum total of much of the world’s knowledge at the touch of a finger.
They are truly miraculous.
But what they’ve done to conversation, to face-to-face, look-each-other-in-the-eyes discussion, is something else again.
Which brings us to Pope Francis and his Lenten message this year.
This is a time “to disconnect from cellphones and connect ourselves to the Gospel,” he said at his general audience on Feb. 26. “It’s the right time to turn off the television and open the Bible,” he said. The right time to give up the “useless words, idle chatter, rumors and gossip” that pollute so much of our so-called “social media.”
It’s a “social media” that in some ways has become anti-social. Pope Francis noted that “we live in an environment polluted by too much verbal violence, by so many offensive and harmful words which the Internet amplifies.”
“We are buried under empty words, advertisements, devious messages,” he said. “We are used to hearing everything about everybody and we risk slipping into a wordiness that atrophies the heart. And there is no bypass surgery to fix that, only silence.”
The pope asked that during this season of reflection on the sacrifice made by Jesus and his Father, we “strip away the superfluous and unnecessary” in our lives so we can find what really counts, what is essential. And perhaps, he said, we could even “rediscover the people already at our sides.”
That means putting down the phones and looking across the table at the one whose time, perhaps whose life, you are sharing. Talking directly with another human being is a wonderful exercise, especially when it can be done with civility, empathy and genuine interest. Especially when it can be done without vitriol and with love.
But it also means that we should heed the entreaties of Pope Francis and make time for silence and solitude. The pope also noted that Lent is a time to draw near to those who are alone, abandoned, poor or elderly “and anyone else in need of help.”
All of those things should be part of the Lenten experience, he said.
So perhaps we can start with warm, calm conversation with those who are sharing our lives. Look into their eyes and listen.
There’s a good chance they might have something of significance to say.
Record Editor Emeritus