Wednesday, March 25, 2020

a stick in the sand

I'm wrestling with two sides of a coin, these days: the blessing-curse of technology. People are right to be wary of online substitutes for community, and the addictive qualities of screentime. Yet, I cannot wring my hands about it too much, having experienced deep connection and joy using the various tools of long distance communication during military deployments, for most of my life. There was a time when I found myself resisting the "powers that be" in public school, who pushed us to accept technology as a unilateral savior of our students, when we teachers (and parents) knew better. Now that I stay home part-time, I am teaching students around the world online, and my own kids in person. Both experiences continue side by side, for me, and are relatively seamless in spite of the coronavirus: Analog homeschool, online school, homeschool using digital tools... Most days we can play outside on the farm, so the only difference is finding our new normal with nowhere else to go. 

Whatever frustrations are caused by teaching online with social distancing, I'm thankful for the relative depth I experience in community with other Christians online - students, teachers, parents, family. Our local co-op that normally meets in person is now experiencing the unexpected joy of letting kids learn Latin chants, practice skip counting, use maps, and do presentations to each other online. The children's joy in seeing each other through new eyes is contagious. We as adults know the dark sides of technology, but they remind us of the light--and opportunities to connect that we take for granted. The trick is not to conflate technology with anything more than a tool... like a stick in the sand. 

This reminds me of every military training exercise I ever participated in. Among other things, we used to test plans against weaponized biological threats, using elaborate tech platforms and simulations... and not-so-elaborate paper and pen. One thing we always practiced adjusting to was the loss of technology. Cyber attack, electrical storms, or any number of issues could theoretically arise during these exercises, and while all the younger, digital natives in uniform would take a moment to bang heads against the wall, the salty, experienced "backbone" of the Army would sigh with relief... and anticipation. "Time to teach these caffeinated, bespectacled 'college grads' how to use the old grease pencil!" they'd say to themselves, each other, and anyone in earshot, while unrolling the old-school acetate layouts over each map board. Invariably, while we adjusted to the new tools, debates about the superiority of the old ways or the new ways crackled in the air. My little secret was that I loved ALL of it: the crusty, tobacco-chawing NCOs teaching us cold-war era threat templates in analog, and the cutting edge ones teaching us battle tracking with computers. I understood why people pitched their tents permanently in one camp or the other: preferences and comfort zones and drawing lines in the sand are as are human as war itself. Yet, it always felt in my gut like they were both right, and so it made sense that we always used both methods, both in training, and in war zones. 

Motherhood and schooling are a different kind of trenches, altogether. The same battle lines are drawn there, too, vs. the old and new schools and tools. Most resilient groups realize that it is, of course, a matter of how we use (and rest from) our tools. Yet, we all experience anger, fear and sadness when we feel forced to rest from our favorite tools, or try new ones. I've crafted a short prayer to share with friends and community who have a hard time celebrating technology as a tool for the Church at home, right now:

Thanks be to our Lord, who was himself a skilled worker, a tektōn (τέκτων) from which our word "technology" derives, who will empower us by His Spirit to use this tool for the good of his Body and Bride, during challenging times.

Several times this week, I taught from the cab of our truck, parked outside the brand-new (closed) local library. Our 6yo worked on reading in the backseat, so my husband had our 9yo and 2yo as he began his day, working from home. The library wifi is unmatched in this rural town: where we live, it's a big challenge, but drive down the road 5 minutes, and that fiber has been laid so that at least the public can have reliable high speed internet. It reminds me of the times I attended masters classes from the hood of my humvee, between field exercises and then briefings that were also on Adobe--the same platform we used for grad school classes. The same tool, used for both war and peace. The ability to be expeditionary, at least, is heartening. I share this with gratitude, as an antidote to the temptation to despair, becauseI really hate not being out and about, "seeing and being seen." There are more opportunities for my self-mortification there, but I am also attending to the good and holy longing underneath. We need solitude, yes, but we are made for community.

My composition class -- which was supposed to be concerned with plot structure in fiction writing -- wanted to begin with a rant against virtual art museum "field trips," plus a lament of all things "shut down." Sometimes the class has a mind of its own! Within about 5 min, we got it out of our system with an abbreviated debate. I love not having to explain why art masterworks are important, and proud of their interest in seeing specific works in person. They make so many fine connections, across classes, which was always my favorite part of school studies, anyway. 🎨

Here is a summary of their argument:

Thesis - virtual museums ARE a worthwhile experience because they promote access to great art with curated information and images

Antithesis - virtual museums ARE NOT a worthwhile experience because they degrade the quality of in-person viewing

Synthesis - While viewing great works in person is superior, virtual museum experiences CAN provide a "gateway" to the study of art and PREPARE US NOW for in-person museum experiences LATER

They crack me up. 😆

Our girls had fun doing piano lessons online, too. As I sat with them, helping with the tech challenges, being the camera woman, 🎥 I had the thought: I wonder if this time of slowed down everything (with some substituting of normal activities for virtual ones) is what it will take for me to finally feel like I am not chronically rushing, or lagging. I wonder if I'll be able to unhook from the need to undervalue or overvalue the quality of every waking moment with my family, friends and students?

do wonder if life can become a rhythm dominated by I-Thou moments, with fewer I-It moments. Martin Buber defined I-Thou moments as anchored in the present, with full awareness of the sacred image of God in the other person, rather than treating them as objects, or extensions of ourselves. Yet, our many screens, our mortgages, our bills, our savings and our vacation funds -- not to mention the siren song of finding meaningful work, a sense of closure and significance at day's end -- all threaten to supplant that image. We trade God for these idols, minute to minute, day to day, and beyond. As British poet William Wordsworth said, "Little of what we see if ours. We give our lives away, a sordid boon." Henry David Thoreau echoed him on our own continent, when he said, "The price of anything is the amount of life you are willing to exchange for it." When we try the calculus of who owes whom--now that we are all confined to home, for things like childcare, income, and education--the normal models fall apart. It turns out money doesn't explain at all what things (or people, their time and energy) are really worth. I wonder if life can become less like transactional, and permanently more like sacred space all day, as a result of this extended practice we're enjoying. 

Perhaps this coronavirus, being such a physical reality, yet affords us the chance to practice greater integrity in the way we attend to the distances between us. It's simple enough to adjust our commutes, and the time and resources we spend to be with others over long distances... or is it? There is much that is normal in our culture (traffic, longer commutes) that, over time, puts us gravely out of rhythm with Sabbath rest. What is Sabbath rest? Pete Scazzero defines it as resting from our illusions that we keep the world going at all, through rest, cessation of work (paid and unpaid), delight, and contemplation, for 24 hours each week. I have heard some (modern, not Amish) people choose to refrain from driving vehicles on their personal Sabbath, because they realize life on the freeway can be just as soul-sucking as a life mediated through screens. I wonder if we can learn rhythms that help us manage our many tools (technology included) to support deeper I-Thou relationship with others, with God, and with ourselves. Can we learn to use them, and then cease periodically, before these helpful things we made with our hands become idols to which we give up our lives? If it's possible with cars, I think it has to be possible with screens, yet it's no wonder some eschew both! Each takes on a life of its own, the more we come to depend upon it. 

The mystery may be that sometimes it's in the practice of using a tool well that keeps us from idolatry, and sometimes it's in refraining from use. Put that way, the use of digital communication technology sounds a bit more like rotating crops and fallow fields, keeping animals for work and food... and therefore a bit more connected, and, well, human.

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