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Father reclaims sacred space with new digital boundaries

January 16, 2020

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 15, 2020

Life is busy. Just ask anyone and they will reflexively tell you just how busy they are. In fact, many people will tell you how busy they are even if you don’t ask. The busier the better, so it seems; as if being busy is a marker of success. I suspect Americans are among the busiest humans on the planet. I’ve also read in many sources that Americans have some of the highest rates of stress and insomnia, too.

While I live a fairly privileged life, with basic needs readily fulfilled, stress and insomnia have long been my companions. In many ways I practice a healthy lifestyle — well balanced diet, regular exercise, daily meditation and positive connection with family and co-workers. I also live in a relatively safe community, where the threat of violence or discord is low.

Despite all these benefits, it seems that my nervous system is consistently drained and often reaches a state of overload, resulting in stress and disrupted sleep — neither of which produce my best parenting.

So, in a quest to improve my general well-being and fathering, I did some reflecting. Quickly I came to the realization that the most notable exception — to my busyness, stress and sleeplessness — is our annual family camping trip on the shores of Lake Champlain, Vermont. During that week, we settle into a rhythm of physical activities such as biking, hiking, fishing, skipping stones, reading, star gazing and campfires. My stress melts away and I enjoy my best sleep of the year.

But there’s one other important detail. During that week I fully unplug, turning off my (smart?) phone and storing it in the glove box of our car. Of course, being on vacation I also take a break from my computer, which stays at home. Without these devices, I feel liberated and my nervous system is much happier.

When at home, I seem to be using one or both devices most waking hours of the day. I use Google Calendar to organize my work and family schedules, in coordination with the work and family schedules of my colleagues. I meet with co-workers and clients on virtual conference calls. I communicate with colleagues and family through text, email and calls. I confirm travel arrangements, medical appointments and party invitations through online portals. I use GPS to navigate while driving, listen to podcasts when exercising at the YMCA, and have experimented with meditation apps to calm myself in the evening. I learn through webinars, manage projects for virtual teams with virtual tools, and store files in the cloud. I shop, bank, order library books and renew my automobile registration as well as my driver’s license online. All this and I don’t even use social media or television; I consider myself a modest tech user!

Granted, oodles of phone and computer-based activities are beneficial, time saving and kind of cool, it’s just that collectively the digital deluge is totally over-whelming.

While I’m certainly not the first father — or human — to notice that the increasing and incessant volume (pun intended) of phone and computer time in the course of our days is sucking the life out of us — to the detriment of our physical and mental well-being and relationships — I’ve reached a personal tipping point.

So, I started thinking about how I might decrease the busyness in my life through regular, self-administered doses of unplugged time. After kvetching to a counselor about my stress and insomnia, she suggested I consider the practice of keeping Sabbath. This led me to reading “Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives,” authored by Wayne Muller, published in 1999 and even more relevant today than when first released.

Muller writes of Sabbath as a spiritual practice — shared, in similar though differing forms, by Christians, Jews, Buddhists and others — where designated sacred time for rest, reflection and quality connection to self and others helps ensure a life where work and rest are in balance.

One Jewish practice, I learned, is the use of a Sabbath box. At the start of Sabbath — sundown on Fridays, for example — symbols of work, such as keys, wallet, phone and pen, are placed in a box to make way for reflection, prayer, shared meal and celebration.

This simple, yet profound, practice reminded me of placing my cell phone in the glove box during vacation, and inspired me to create new boundaries with my digital devices, in an effort to restore some balance to my life.

I now have my work email turned off on my phone, most of the time; occasionally turning it on when away from my desk, and otherwise reserving work email for when I’m at my computer. Additionally, I recently started turning off my phone at the end of work on Friday and placing it in a desk drawer (a type of Sabbath box), just before celebrating the week’s end during our Friday family dinner. Sometimes I leave the phone turned off for part or all of the weekend, which has spilled over to week nights when I also park the phone in the desk, helping me disrupt the habit of mindlessly reading news feeds. I’m also more intentional about scheduling a block of time on the weekend — and not at night — when I work on computer related household tasks such as online banking and coordinating family schedules, so that my brain is able to enjoy digital free space most of the weekend.

As I have been making these changes I have certainly felt the urge to reach for the phone or laptop, but have replaced that urge with a commitment to engage more with our rapidly aging kids, Zoe and Adam, and my wife Lori. I’ve noticed feeling more connected to the three of them and to an increase in meaningful conversations, at the dinner table, in the car and just whenever.

In the big picture, less digital time might not seem significant but, so far, it seems to be having a positive impact by offering me a bit more breathing space in my day, more connection with family, a bit less stress and — hopefully — better sleep in 2020.

John Engel of Florence can be reached through his website

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