I have derived pleasure throughout my life and achieved insight by conducting micro-experiments, mostly on myself. When I was a kid, I would experiment to see if I could slow my heartbeat? Could I run until I was out of breath and then recover by taking one single deep breath and holding it? Could I stop time with my mind? Somewhere I have a recording of myself at 8 years old hypothesizing that the island I lived on had once been underwater because I frequently found fossilized seashells in the inland jungle. My self-experimentation and hypothesizing continue to this day.
On Christmas Eve, I watched a sermon that was based on a chapter from Skye Jethani's book, "With." During the message, the idea of being fully present, having one's attention, thoughts, and feelings entirely focused on the moment, inspired an experiment.
Question: Could I be casually engaged with my smartphone and fully present with friends, family, and Christmas Eve traditions?
Hypothesis: I can listen to and track multiple conversations simultaneously. If I can do that, I should be able to be fully present while periodically engaging with my phone on a casual level.
The Experiment Design: Download a familiar game onto my phone. Engage with the game intermittently or when other people engage with their phones. Observe any changes or unexpected outcomes throughout the evening.
I was unsure what I was looking for but committed myself to the little research project. I chose Clash of Clans for the game because I knew it well. I uploaded a low-level village from years ago that I knew would require little thought or interaction throughout the evening. On a scale of 1 – 10, I would place the required smartphone interaction at a 1.
The Experiment Implemented: As we concluded dinner, family and friends went into the living room to visit, exchange gifts then watch The Nativity. I sat in my usual spot, opened the Clash of Clans app, and began to engage casually with the game while opening gifts and socializing. The game seemed completely unintrusive. I was having a wonderful time, was fully involved in conversations, and enjoyed watching each person give and receive gifts. Others engaged with their phones periodically as well. After about an hour, I assumed the experiment was a bust, so I stopped making observations but continued to engage with the game casually. Hypothesis proven?
We all sat silently as we watched the movie. Now, two things are important to know: 1) this was my 15th time seeing The Nativity, and 2) I always cry when Mary hands the baby Jesus to a filthy, socially rejected shepherd and says, "He is for ALL mankind." The crying turns to blubbering when one of the Wise Men offers a gift of myrrh in honor of Jesus' impending suffering. My family always teases me about the crying. It has become a beloved family tradition to mock Dad's tears. LOL.
As the time for crying arrived, I caught my wife and daughter glancing over towards me expectantly. I had three nearly simultaneous realizations: 1) I was not crying, 2) I had not experienced my usual emotional connection to the movie at all, 3) I was eligible to upgrade my Clan Castle! Wait! No emotional connection at all? I looked around the room. Several people were looking down at their phones and appeared to be disconnected entirely from the movie's climax as well.
Hypothesis Disproven: Yes, I could track multiple conversations and follow a movie while casually engaging with my smartphone. However, I could not be fully present. My lack of emotional presence had just proven that. Present? Yes. Fully Present? No.
An Experiment Requires Concluding Observations: I think I would feel better if being engaged with my smartphone simply diminished my cognitive ability or mental presence. However, this experiment showed that my emotional engagement was impacted. My phone may be smart, but it is diminishing my emotional intelligence.
When I shared my experiment and the results with my wife, she asked, "Image you were sitting in the room with Jesus himself, would you pick up your phone for any reason?" I replied, "No, I would not pick it up for any reason, text, call, game, or anything else." Then it occurred to me that when I am in a room with another human being, I am in the presence of one who carries the Image of God. That is worthy of my full attention. When I am in the presence of another Christian, I am in the presence of God himself. How, you ask? Well, when we are born again, we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, God. Wow!
As I ponder these things, I feel like Ebeneezer Scrooge when he woke up after his visitations. Realizing it was Christmas morning, he was overjoyed that he had not missed Christmas. He gave his housekeeper a raise, sent a Goose to the Cratchits, made a charitable donation, and set forth to do better, to be better. I am still alive, and people still want to meet with me. Like Scrooge, I have not missed it, and I want to do better, to be better. So, I am putting away my phone and giving people my full attention. I am choosing to be better, to do better, to be fully present.