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Push notification masochism: killing ourselves and boasting in our busyness.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
Twitter’s no longer on my phone. Yep, I deleted it. I’m not saying that so you can see how much better I am at self-control than you are. (I know my own heart enough to know for sure that’s not the case.) Nor am I saying that to sound super-spiritual or Puritanical in my devotional walk with God. I did it because I needed the break. Mind you, I’m not leaving the social platform altogether, neither am I about to wax eloquent about the inherent evils of using such a medium as Twitter. I obviously find great usefulness in the platform and I’ll surely continue using it to share ideas and articles and connect with likeminded folks. However, for my own health, I had to get rid of it — at least the ease of access to it.
Now, I don’t mean to directly equate Twitter use with poor health. Don’t misunderstand me. What I do want you to see, as I’ve seen, is our addiction to technology and the vast ramifications that follow that addiction. This isn’t a very original concept. Countless words have already been written and spoken on the addictive and dangerous nature of screens and news feeds. However, what’s been resonating in my own heart and life is my own addiction to the sense that there’s something better that I’m missing.
In my estimation (and I have absolutely no data to back this up, it’s just a hunch), the phenomenon of feeling like you’re missing out something is quite unique this generation. Not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I’m skeptical that Benjamin Franklin ever concerned himself with the quality of the meal served on the dinner table in the next colony over. The concept of “push notifications” exists solely because we want to be sure that we’re on the cutting edge of information. That we’re not missing out. That we’re “in the know.” We push information to our phones and into our brains so as to always be “in the know.” The irony is that, in so doing, we’ve created new dysfunctions that are the result of information overload. We know too much. By filling up on all that we think we’re missing, we find that we know more and remember even less. The truth is, the only thing we’re missing out on is the moment we’re in right now.
The constant need for pushing and refreshing has created in us the need to have more notifications come to us. As Matt Chandler would say, “Are you tracking with me?” As much as I might hate those little red dots on my app icons, deep down I love them. I love seeing double-digit texts because at least then I know that people value my input or need my expertise. I love opening Instagram and seeing all three kinds of notifications available for my perusal. (Triple-digit unread emails still and shall always stress me out though.) There’s a certain sense of worth we place on those little numbered-crimson circles. The more we have, the better we feel about ourselves.
This, naturally, creates a conundrum. If we aren’t getting push notifications, we obviously aren’t valuable. The less people contact us or like our stuff, the less we think of ourselves and more we begin to doubt our self-worth. Our solution, then, is to get as many push notifications as possible from every social media platform imaginable. We busy ourselves with new accounts, new apps, new notifications all in hopes of filling up our phones with more evidences that we’re important. We’re significant. We’re somebody. We’re needed. In a sense, these little red dots become our identity.
This is the crux of the matter for me. Perhaps there’s no escaping a generation that’s this tied to technology, but certainly there’s deliverance from finding my worth in it. “The Lord’s hand is not shortened” that it cannot rescue me from this slavery to technology and constant preoccupation. (Is 59:1 KJV) More than anything else, not having Twitter on my phone has relieved me from the busyness it created.
To be honest, I hate it when I give lazy answers to the question, “How are you doing?” Even if the person asking the question is just being nice and doesn’t really intend for a heartfelt reply, I don’t like responding with the typical terse answers that stunt good conversation and relationship-building. “How are you doing?” Good. “How are you doing?” Fine. “How are you doing?” Busy! There it is. That’s the one. “Busy” is the most common answer to inquiries about our personal condition. I’m confident that you’ve been both the giver and recipient of this curt response, which is nothing more than self-aggrandization masquerading as self-loathing. Despite how often we complain about how full our schedules are, we’re addicted to busyness. And, more than that, we value ourselves by it. In an article entitled, “Crazy Busy: In Demand (and Fully Justified) Every Hour of the Day,” David Zahl speaks articulately to our current state of affairs as a “busy” generation:
Perhaps more than anything else in modern American life, busyness serves as an almost universal barometer of identity and, therefore, self-justification, feeding on itself and fostering an environment of collective distraction at best, misery at worst.
We’re the architects of our own digital prison cells. This generation — my generation — is full of masochists. We derive a certain pleasure out of receiving and dealing with thousands of notifications that interrupt whatever it is that’s in front of us. “Identity by notification center,” though, is terrible way to live. Truthfully, it’s not even really living. It’s slavery. We’ve put ourselves in bondage to our addiction to tasks and schedules and the never-ending juggle of calendars. Again, perhaps I’m more crotchety than I let on, but I doubt George and Martha Washington had weekly calendar meetings to see when their paths would cross in the midst of all the week’s events. Nowadays, couples are routinely scheduling time to be intimate, otherwise, it’d never happen. We are effectively tasking ourselves to death. We’re just too busy. Crazy busy.
We’re so busy, in fact, that we begin to feel anxious and guilty if we’re not busy. As a society, we’ve collectively forced everyone to be just as busy as we are or risk being demeaned, discredited, and devalued. We define ourselves by what we do and what we can accomplish. In a world operating in these terms, achievement is the curator of identity. And, furthermore, by that logic, ease is its executioner. Those who aren’t working and grinding and pushing, then, are getting left in the dust. They’re the beggars crying for alms on the streets of performancism. Work is our virtue and busyness our currency. The fuller our calendar, the higher our value, the better we feel about ourselves. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance,” Tim Kreider says, “a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Preoccupation and performance are the only quantifiable data used to measure significance and influence, which are the chief engineers in the boiler room of mankind’s identity.
I share this with you because even as I iterate how I hate constantly broadcasting how busy I am, I feel as though I’m in the busiest season of my life so far. The next few weeks of my calendar look as beautifully chaotic as one of J. S. Bach’s fugues. It’d be the kind of busyness résumé I could boast in and brag about to other bloggers or pastors. It’s the kind that could lend itself to saying, “See how busy I am? That’s how important I am.” But the resonance of the gospel reminds me, to paraphrase the apostle, that it’s all utter crap if Jesus is lost. (Phil 3:8) My accomplishments are meaningless compared to the all-surpassing worth of Christ. Jesus is my résumé.
This is good news, because where society would have you wear your exhaustion as a badge of honor, the Word tells us that “exhaustion is not a status symbol.” Your productivity is not the measure of your worth. All our bustling and busyness is really just a mask we put on to hide the crater that resides in our soul. We can’t stand not having those tri-tone dings alert us of another like, share, retweet, favorite, email, etc., because in the quiet of no notifications our soul speaks the loudest to us. We’re afraid of the silence because of the deafening noise of our own dissatisfaction with ourselves that screams at us in those moments. Yet, ironically, stillness is the only foundation for actually getting things accomplished, making things happen. “The space and quiet that idleness provides,” Kreider continues, “is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole . . . it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
Everyone, and Christians too, seem to have forgotten that true, lasting peace is never a self-willed reality. Transcendent peace, life-changing peace is entirely a passive blessing of the gospel of God. (Phil 4:7) New Age psychiatric philosophies would have you believe that “wellness,” de-stressing, and “peace of mind” are brought on through meditation and self-awareness and the like. But the peace of the gospel can never be summoned by such means. It is not brought on not by self-will but by the gracious interruption and invasion of the Spirit of God. And it is this selfsame Spirit that informs us of the settlement already made on your behalf. “Everything is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and he has committed the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Cor 5:18–19)
Life’s blessings aren’t procured by your busyness but by Another’s blood. The violence of the cross is the only way to get the peace of heaven. Yes, there are scores to settle, but they’ve been settled for you. All debts have been collected already. All standards have been exceeded. The ledgers are closed. The enmity’s been appeased. The wrath’s been shouldered. The propitiation’s won. (1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) Nothing now remains for you to accomplish. The gospel declares the benefits of achievement are already yours in Christ. You’re just freed to enjoy them for as long as you live.
The gospel of reconciliation frees us to rest from our stressful and anxious scorekeeping and relax in God’s assurance and acceptance of us through the substitution of his Son. It’s the end of religious tick marks and spiritual badge collecting and the beginning of joyful recreation and reformation in the playground of grace. The good news of the gospel isn’t a conclusion you’re left to come to or empowered conjure up on your own. It is ever and always something that the Spirit does and reminds us of. It is a truth that you’re told. News that’s announced to you. A gift you’re given. A gift wholly of grace. (2 Cor 5:20–21) The more we believe the lie that our busyness is what accomplishes this, the more stressed we’ll become. The more we forget who we are in Christ, the less we’ll truly live. The peace and poise of the gospel comes from knowing who you are in Christ and being assured of that in a world that tells you to boast in how much you’re doing.
In the end, the gospel of God’s grace rescues us from our “always-on,” “always-refreshing,” forever preoccupied busyness into the playground of assurance and absolution totum gratis, free of charge. Christ’s “Done!” relieves me from my bustle and frees me to live in the moment. I don’t have to stress about an ever-increasing to-do list because “it is finished.” And even if I do, Jesus died for that too. Jesus did all for me. In the midst of all my schedules and stresses, the gospel is there to remind me that my Father has seen it, he knows of it, and has scribbled a cross over it all. The atonement is sturdy enough for all my anxiety. I can live in the moment because Christ has redeemed my past and rewritten my future.