No one has ever mistaken me for a rebel or a counter-cultural warrior, not even when I was at an age when it might be expected or even appropriate. I never once ran away from home. (Heck, I didn't even move out on my own until I was 22.) My tastes in food, art, and fashion run solidly to the classics, if not the outright conventional. Yet late last Thursday afternoon, I found myself escaping work and my social life to do something that has become downright transgressive — going silent for several days.
This wasn't just a routine slowdown in public communication or a brief break in traveling between internet connections, either. For almost four days, no one would hear from me — not family, not friends, and certainly not readers or Twitter followers. I entered a Jesuit retreat center, where I engaged in almost no conversation — spoken or otherwise — from Thursday evening to Sunday evening. Cell phones had to be turned off, and no television, radio, or newspapers would be available. No wi-fi networks would be in range for miles. Instead of overloading on moment-to-moment social networking and news updates, all of the men would cut off from the world and contemplate God.
Not one phone call. Not one tweet. Not even a text, or a breaking-news update. Just … silence. "You cannot make a good retreat," the priests advise right from the beginning, "unless you are recollected, and you cannot be recollected unless you keep silence." Recollection involves disconnection — and disconnection means facing yourself as well as facing God.
This was not my first visit to the Jesuit retreat center. For the past three years, I have spent one long weekend each July at the retreat, housed on the former estate of a Minnesota industrialist. Each year I have disconnected from the hyperconnected world in which we live, and that produces feelings of panic and obsession that feel very similar to withdrawal. Each year it gets easier, but not once has it failed to provoke anxiety, dread, and occasionally outright panic. On my first retreat, I spent my first night wondering how I could break into the garage to retrieve my cell phone and make sure I was not missing any important messages, big stories, or career-ending mistakes. Now that's addiction, or at least the paranoia that it sometimes causes.
While on this retreat, I dedicated my time to spiritual growth. But after my return, I began to think more about the effort required to just stop and reflect for a few days. We used to live in an un-networked age. We had conversations around the water cooler at work, but became incognito once on the road home. Vacations didn't carry an expectation of checking in constantly on company performance. Social networking meant going on a tour with your lodge or parish, and twitter was a heads-up for bird watchers on nature hikes. Every vacation allowed for silence in some manner, and every factory whistle started a retreat of sorts.
The digital age brings with it many blessings, especially in terms of ready information and instantly accessible research, but the most seductive are the instant connections we make on social media. Those who make a living in online media thrive in this environment. We can know about the smallest developments on the most arcane stories and issues in real time, communicate them to our friends and colleagues, and get instant feedback on what the broader community believes it means.
That's surely not all bad, but it's not all good, either. More and more, all of us live under the expectation of constant connection. We barely get time for sleeping, let alone having regular intervals of the quiet solitude needed to process all of this data to find its meaning. Ubiquitous connection rarely goes unused, either by those looking for people who are taking a break, or more so by the break-takers themselves. We feel compelled to post to social media when we should be socializing with family and friends, and tweeting life as observers instead of living it.
It's easy to feel victimized by this, but it's really a self-inflicted conceit. We become the center of our own worlds, with the constant connection a validation of our own importance. The removal of that connection does not disturb anyone else, but the removal of that validation makes it clear that the world spins on without us. And when we return, we discover that not much really changes in the time we spent away from social media, away from the office, and even away from friends and family.
Even when I knew it was coming, that realization still had its shock effect. When I returned home this time, I tarried on the drive, making a couple of stops along the way for groceries after discovering (in a cell phone call that began just as I cleared the gates of the retreat center) that my wife had missed me but otherwise had a perfectly fine weekend without me. Over 280 emails awaited me when I got back to my computer — but only three of them required a reply. While stories arose and developed on the newswires, media outlets, and Twitter, my colleagues handled them just fine without me. It took me very little time to re-enter the online media environment, and few noticed my absence or my return.
Withdrawing from the world turns out not to be transgressive after all, but it's edifying. What really frightens us about going entirely silent, disconnecting, and gaining some perspective is also what make it so valuable. We depart believing in some way that we're God, and then return realizing that we're not. Even if that's all I gained from this retreat — and it's not — it would have been time well spent.
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