An article in today’s NY Times addresses the growing epidemic of addiction to modern digital products. Dr. Adam Alter explains that we used to think of addiction as mostly related to chemical substances like alcohol or cocaine. But today we have a growing phenomenon of behavioral addictions that in the case of technology, has people tethered to their electronics. One study suggests that as many as 41% of us have at least one behavioral addiction. The science is compelling as it compares brain chemistry among every manner of conceivable addiction.
From my earliest days of pastoral counseling, I recognized that addiction modeling had far greater applications than whether one should start attending AA meetings (as useful as that discovery was!). Many people reported unhealthy repetitive patterns in their lives around all sorts of things: food, relationships, behaviors and emotional triggers. Identifying these repetitive patterns was often an essential part of their gaining greater spiritual and emotional health and self-mastery.
When I sit quietly without my fingers tapping any device or my eyes glued to a screen and consider how I have just spent the last 24 hours, I am quite amazed at how much time was focused on keypads and glowing displays. And the thing is, this behavior did not exist for me prior to, say, even five years ago. The mesmerization has crept up like a stealthy seduction messing with my time, attention, and relationships. And as we are coming to discover, this has explicit life-threatening implications considering the rapidly increasing death toll caused by texting-while-driving.
Fortunately, our ancient and storied spiritual traditions provide excellent means for divesting ourselves of self-destructive patterns. Some intentionality is all that’s required.
Last night during our soulful Lenten service, I reflected on the necessity for being completely detached from “stuff” and distractions of every sort in order to create space for God. (I’m thinking distraction itself may be our most powerful addiction—any distraction will do.) This detachment takes effort in the form of a willingness to let go of things I normally grip. I find that when I manage to do this with one thing, other things attempt to leap into the empty space to keep my brain wired into the escapist patterns. So, yet one more thing to let go of. And then another. All the while learning anew important life lessons. It’s good work—maybe the most important there is—for the person who seeks to love well in this life.