It was time. Time to get away, to unplug, to finally write that novel. Time to prove he could resist the barrage of texts and tweets, news and notifications in order to focus his attention on a worthy endeavor.
So the journalist Johann Hari booked a little room by the beach in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, and made plans to go offline for three months.
He left his electronic devices at a friend’s, printed a map of his destination since he would no longer be able to use phone navigation and boarded a ferry. He felt a twinge of panic, but it vanished when he arrived and gazed into the ocean.
“I felt then a sudden certainty – you only get these feelings a few times in a lifetime – that I had done absolutely the right thing,” Johann wrote.
He strolled along the beach and through the streets, wandering into a pub where a group was gathered around a piano singing showtunes.
They ended, fittingly, with the Aladdin song “A Whole New World.”
It took a couple weeks to re-orient, for his mind to stop composing witty tweets and imagining their warm reception. Johann felt his “receptors” slowly open.
Then the words pored out of him. In three months, he wrote 92,000 words of his novel. He also finished “War and Peace,” which he read for hours-long stretches on the beach.
“It came back!” he realized. “My brain came back!”
Johann’s digital detox compelled him to dive into neuroscience, interviewing experts on attention and flow. He learned about the value of meandering, of play and of natural sleep rhythms. He compiled his findings into a new book called “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again.”
It is a cultural indictment and a call to action. And for Catholics who believe in the interconnection of body, mind and soul, the book is a spiritual summons.
When I think about these three dimensions of self, one appears sorely neglected. Discussion of physical health and spiritual wellbeing – both mightily important – far outweighs the question of our mental health. Do we guard our minds? Do we understand the way screens are thwarting our ability to think, to contribute, to function?
We touch our phones on average 2,617 times a day – reaching around little ones on our lap, ignoring the people across from us at the dining room table to scroll pictures of other people’s kids and dinner plates.
What does this mean for Catholics?
If we believe our mind is a gift from God, we honor him by guarding it. The Catholic Church should take the lead. Our teachers, our guidance counselors, our youth ministers and our priests must shine a light on mental health. They should provide guidelines for healthier habits and then make real changes: assigning less homework, rescheduling school days to allow for more unstructured outdoor play, restructuring programs to allow for earlier bedtimes, reminding teens how to interact face-to-face, urging us all to turn off our phones.
When I ask Catholic school teachers how much sleep their teenaged students get, they tell me it’s bad.
“Can you assign less homework?” I ask.
“It’s not that simple,” they say.
But we must make a leap, adjusting our screentime and the structure of our days to establish more natural rhythms.
Workplaces that make fundamental shifts, such as implementing a four-day work week, reap huge benefits. Their employees are more rested, more connected to their families and more productive.
I don’t have all the answers. I’m as afflicted as the next person. But I know there is a better way. I bet you do too. We can start by asking the right questions, swapping strategies and holding each other accountable. The stakes are high.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.
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