On Limits

I think that this may be the truth of these technologies that we carry around: We film and post and read social media constantly in order to capture something, some exciting moment or feeling or experience that we are afraid to miss, but the things about life that we most want to capture may not be, in the end, capturable.
— Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network

This last week was a long, busy one for our family, even though the school/workweek was technically only four days long. Come Friday morning, my brain was fried, Jason wasn't feeling well, and -- bonus! -- the girls had the day off school. What had initially looked like a prime opportunity to sneak away for a day to practice our newfound skiing skills as a family slowly ebbed into a day where, by noon, I had only really conquered work email and none of us were dressed. In spite of my occasional declarations that "We should really go do something," what ended up happening was that we never left the house and the girls, whose during-the-week screen time is essentially zilch, spent untold hours playing Wii. 

To nobody's surprise, by the time 5:00 rolled around, everyone was cranky. Instead of feeling lucky that they'd gotten away with bursting all previous screen-time records, the girls were fractious and bickering, Jason and I too lethargic to figure out what to cook for dinner. It was not our finest moment as a family, but it did confirm a suspicion I've had for a while now about happiness and screens.

I know screens are pretty much universally bad for kids' brain development. And our family is, frankly, usually too busy during the week to even consider getting close to the national average, which is reported to be between three and seven hours per day. So those have always been my reasons for no screens during the week and very limited iPad, Wii, and television on weekends: it's bad for your brain, and we're too busy doing other things (piano practice, reading, sports, homework, and actual playing outside in our neighborhood, luckily). But it turns out studies are starting to show excess screen time has a negative effect on health and happiness even as it increases feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Hmm. What might this have to do with Reclaiming Sunday Supper? I thought about this connection a lot as I read the book The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter by Susan Pinker. The book's chapters range widely, with one delving into the longevity found in a cluster of remote Sardinian villages and another summing up research on long-term survival rates in breast cancer patients. But the chapter that interested me the most was "Who's Coming to Dinner," a survey of the available data on the ways communal eating influences obesity, racism, and friendship. Pinker finds that brain imaging studies show that the neural mechanisms activated by the act of sharing food in person -- not via Skype, though -- are key to feeling pleasure. She also digs into the reasons behind the now-well-known mantra that eating family dinner can be key to better outcomes for kids.

"Research shows that skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic, academic standing in high school, scores on college entrance tests, and much more besides -- all are linked to sitting down to family dinner," Pinker writes. Why does eating together regularly increase academic performance and decrease depression, drug use, sex, suicide, and eating disorders? Pinker -- and the researchers -- thinks it's a bunch of things (family income, rituals, a sense of belonging) but mostly this: "Sharing meals is an intimate act, an expression of the closeness of our family bonds. It's also a way for kids and parents to check in daily and connect."

If spending time together with the people we love -- friends, family, neighbors -- boosts our happiness and our success, why are we doing less of it and not more? In his book In the Neighborhood by Peter Lovenheim, he writes, "According to social scientists, from 1974 to 1998 the frequency with which Americans spent a social evening with neighbors fell by about one third . . . Why is it that in an age of cheap long-distance rates, discount airlines, and the Internet, when we can create community anywhere, we often don't know the people who live next door?"

I hypothesize it's this: We've been fooled into thinking that we're just as connected to those we love when we like their Facebook status or send them a fun text as we are when we hug them hello or clink wine glasses together across the table. But it's clearly not true. I saw it on Friday; a day spent largely tethered to technology and screens left us feeling grumpy, empty, dissatisfied -- and that's the opposite of the way we felt last Sunday night as we bid farewell to the fun couple we hosted for Sunday supper.

In a sense, we're all like little kids, so easily addicted to the little rectangle in our hand or the big rectangle on the wall that we'll use it and use it and use it until someone puts a limit on us because they know better. I have a suspicion that the Sabbath, in its simplest sense, is God putting a limit on us, not just on the number of hours we look at our Twitter feed but on the number of minutes we ignore the relationships that mean the most in favor of a laptop or a football game or a heated-up microwave meal scarfed down in front of a television show. 

‘Remember the Sabbath’ is not simply a life-style suggestion. It is a spiritual precept in most of the world’s spiritual traditions.
— Wayne Muller, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives

I'm totally not anti-technology. My life wouldn't be as rich without the article I read about education in The Atlantic this morning, the Instagram feed of a dear friend who lives states away, the blogs written by women I admire, the amazing Facebook gems Anne Lamott posts from time to time. My kids use Google docs and play Wii bowling like pros, and that's fine with me. But I don't want to forget there's literally no replacement for taking time out of our week to look the people we love in the eye and share a meal together. And even though it can feel good sometimes to binge-watch old episodes of 30 Rock (I did this last night, actually), that's ultimately not the kind of rest and connection we really need. Sacred texts and traditions from multiple religions remind us, and we remind ourselves when we compare the way we feel after a day full of iPhone with a day full of rest and connection.

Most of us not born in Sardinian mountain villages still hanker for the feeling of belonging — not to mention the extra twenty years of life — that those villages bestow. Though few of us are willing to give up the educational and occupational opportunities of the present for the inequalities of the past and the very real privations of old-style rural life, at some level we still want a piece of it. The most common reaction to a 2013 radio documentary I wrote about the phenomenon of Sardinian super-longevity was I want to live there — even from people in their twenties and thirties . . . Despite our being increasingly tethered to the devices that connect us virtually, there has not been a corresponding uptick in well-being. In fact, it’s the reverse. By and large we’re lonelier and unhappier than we were in the decades before the Internet age.
— Susan Pinker, The Village Effect