It's not hard to believe, I'm sure, but one of our observations and struggles after coming home after a year and half abroad had to do with re-entering a culture that is obsessed with technology and being "plugged-in" to the online world. Of course, most of us realize and freely admit this, but it was something that was a glaringly stark contrast to how we had lived on our island. I came across this quote from Thoreau's Walden a while back, and it kept coming to mind over and over again during our time in America.
"Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at."
(side note: unsurprisingly, these sentiments seem to be right in line with the spirit of this famously subversive "fight the man by finding the meaning of life alone in the woods" piece of literature. But, it's also funny to realize that the "pretty new inventions" that Thoreau was ranting about were railroads and the telegraph. I wonder what ole Henry D. would think of Facebook and iPhones...)
Now, it may seem trite and predictable for us to pretend that we have come back enlightened and elevated above the evils and distractions of contemporary America after our short time abroad. But the true, saddening reality was how easy it became to fall right back in to the temptations that our technology offered us. How easy it was to disconnect from real conversation when there was wireless internet to be had. How easy it was to care more about how people on Facebook perceived me than fully loving the actual people around me.
The other funny and interesting thing to notice was how other people talked about this phenomenon. It seemed like everywhere we went, people would make remarks completely on their own about "how lucky we were to have lived so simply" or "how damaging our society's obsession with technology is." It is as though we are addicts who are fully comfortable admitting that we have a problem, but helplessly floundering as if we don't have the tools to fix ourselves.
Yet, I will always believe it is an unbelievably tough subject, because of all the benefits of modern technology. It was amazing to be able to share our stories, pictures, and experiences with all our family and friends. It was so cool to be able to correspond with and hear from friends living and serving the Lord, literally, all over the world. I believe that globalization and the growing smallness of our world has the potential to connect us in ways never before possible, drawing us to be more compassionate, understanding, and informed people. But, of course, there are dangers on the other side of that coin.
Meditating on Thoreau's quote brings up so many important questions for us. What are the "serious things" that our pretty toys distract us from? Genuine community? Vulnerable relationships? Deeply embracing nature and beauty? Denying consumerism and embracing simplicity? True intimacy with God?
And while our technology has continued to improve and develop at an astounding rate, what is the "unimproved end" that we are striving for in our use of these fancy gadgets? Are we spending time using our inventions for healthy or unhealthy things? Are we choosing to engage with people and the world through online personas rather than genuine, face-to-face interactions? Are we capable of embracing life-giving simplicity while finding a proper balance in our technologically-oriented world?
I'm certainly still very far away from understanding this balance and putting it into action. But, more than ever, I realize that it is so important that we guard ourselves against the temptations of modern technology and strive to live genuine lives free from these easy-to-fasten chains.