Spirit of solitude essential in the age of the iPhone

Little more than a dozen years ago, my wife and I walked into an AT&T store in Fort Worth, Texas, to replace our old cell phones. We’d resisted the appeal of the iPhone thus far, and we didn’t plan to change our attitudes that day.

But the sales staff at that AT&T store must have been well-trained or particularly gifted. Within an hour of entering the store, we walked out with two brand new iPhones.

The glamour of the sleek new phones, however, wore off quickly. That evening, as we fiddled with the devices, we realized we simply didn’t like them. As silly as it may seem now, the phones seemed to us to have too many functions, and we couldn’t grasp how to use them.

When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in January of 2007, John Markoff, writing in The New York Times, predicted this new “creation, the iPhone, will not be for everyone.” That day, after purchasing two of them, we couldn’t have agreed more – and the next day we returned our smart phones for a couple of reliable dumb phones.

Of course, Markoff’s prediction was wrong. Granted, the iPhone isn’t the only smart phone on the market any longer, but smart phones have become ubiquitous. And the new devices have changed our world.

Pathway Cartoon by Dennis Fletcher

In 1945, when the term “wireless” referred only to telegraphs and radios, Oxford don and Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote, “the wireless has seen to it that” people are “never less alone than when alone.” Even then, he said, “We live . . . in a world starved for solitude, silence and privacy.” What would he think today?

In recent weeks, while considering how best to prepare my pre-teen children for the iPhone age, I remembered the role that silence and solitude played in my own spiritual growth. After all, when I was a teenager, God drew me to Himself amid solitary walks, quiet evenings gazing at the stars, unexpected lulls in the day when I had nothing to do but wait and listen and think, as well as silent moments to read His Word without distraction.

Where would I be today had I faced the iPhone’s constant barrage of social media, videos, text messages, phone calls, podcasts, audiobooks, kindle books, apps and emails? Of course, even if we lay the smartphone aside, much noise and many other distractions exist around us.

Christian writers of the past summed up true wisdom with two interconnected principles: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self. But, in “a world starved for solitude, silence and privacy,” we face hurdles on both fronts.

Ironically, studies and news reports in recent years have linked smartphones with a growth in loneliness. Perhaps, the unguarded use of smartphones creates a hurdle not only for solitude, but also for true community.

After all, solitude goes hand-in-hand with community, as once noted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who in 1945 was hanged for opposing the Nazi regime. You can’t rightly have one without the other.

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his book, Life Together. “… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”

In his classic, Celebration of Disciplines, Richard Foster outlined four steps to pursuing the spiritual discipline of solitude:

• First, “take advantage of the ‘little solitudes’ that fill our day” – that is, the unexpected moments of waiting that arise each day.

• Second, find a quiet place and quiet time to spend in solitude with God and His Word.

• Third, speak fewer, but fuller, words. “Let’s become known as people who have something to say when we speak.”

• Finally, pull yourself away from everything for several hours – at least four times a year, if possible – to pray through and examine your goals in life.

Fortunately, Foster adds, if we have hearts intent on hearing and heeding God’s Word and seeing God’s presence in the world around us, we can develop a spirit of solitude even on days filled with noise, distraction – and, yes, iPhones.

That’s good news, especially since my wife and I finally broke down in 2013, trading in our dumb phones for smart phones.

Leave a Comment