Friday, March 1, 2013

The Availability Factor

I sent a text message to a friend yesterday morning in the hopes of getting an answer right away.  After a few hours without a response, I began to assume that one of two things was happening: either she couldn't find her phone (which has been known to happen once in a while) or she was busy with other things and hadn't noticed she had received my text.  At first I was irritated.  After all, wasn't that the purpose of cell phones and texting, to have a convenient and quick way to communicate?

And then I started thinking about it a little more... did my friend owe me her constant availability?  Was she being a bad friend because she was paying attention to her kids or her other responsibilities instead of answering my text?  Of course, I answered "no" to both of my own questions.

This mindset of being constantly available via the cellphone has invaded our society, I'm afraid, and it's not a good thing.  I've seen it firsthand as dinner conversations or family "together" times are interrupted by a phone call or text message.  I've witnessed social interactions that are ruined by one person's constant attention to his or her phone.  Scott and I have watched other couples who are apparently out on a date, but both individuals are completely focused on their phones, talking or texting away. Now there's a good way to build a relationship!  (Can you feel the sarcasm dripping off that statement?)

Here's the thing... your phone does not own you, you own it.  You are under no obligation to that device or -- here's the hard part -- to the person trying to contact you.  Yes, there are times when you need to be available, when people really do need to be able to reach you at that very moment.  But many, many times there is no reason why the person calling or texting cannot wait ten minutes or an hour or -- gasp! -- even a day or two.  Remember the days of answering machines, when we could call back at our own convenience?  Guess what?  You still have that option now...it's called voicemail!  

I know I'm on a bit of a soapbox here, but trust me...this is something that I struggle with myself.  We've decided as a society that we have to be available to our job, our friends, whoever might call, and we have to be available at all times.  But when you're with someone else -- be it a friend, your spouse or your kids, maybe even a business associate -- and your attention is continually torn between that person and your cell phone, you are communicating to that real, live person that they are not important, that they are second-priority to whomever is on the other end of that phone!  Whether you intend to do so or not, you are telling your companion that they are not important enough to claim your total attention.  Is that really what you want to tell your spouse, or your kids, or your best friend?

So what do we do?  How do we break this ugly habit?  It starts by putting the phone away when you're with the people you love.  And if you find yourself struggling to resist that little jingle even from another room, turn it off completely!  Maybe not for the whole day; maybe you just need to choose a particular time of day when you're not going take any calls or answer any text messages.  Like dinner time, or for the first 30 minutes after you get home from work.  You'll have time to check it soon enough.  If you're expecting a really important call, keep the phone where you can see it but only answer it when that particular call comes in. Make a conscious effort to focus your attention completely on the person or people you are with.  Remind yourself that you do not owe the person on the other end of the phone your constant availability; it will not hurt them or ruin anyone's life for them to wait a little while for an answer.  And stop feeling guilty for not answering!  Seriously, it is not a crime to send a call to voicemail!  

Scott and I have a rule (okay, I, instituted this rule) that on family outings or vacations, his phone gets turned off and put away.  He checks it a few times a day, but for the most part it is off.  I keep mine on so that anyone who really needs to contact us (as in a complete emergency) can do so.  This keeps his attention on our family, and it keeps me from feeling slighted.  So far it's working pretty well.  Sure, there have been exceptions to the rule, but we deal with those as they come.  But the point is, he is learning to be completely available to us on those few days when we get him all to ourselves.

So here's the part where I wrap this all up into a nice little devotional thought... Yes, for the most part this was a soapbox rant.  BUT, it does have an application that we shouldn't overlook.  Galatians 5:25 says, "Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit's leading in every part of our lives." In order to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, we have to be "tuned in" to Him.  We cannot be tuned in if we are constantly busying ourselves with other things.  He -- the Holy Spirit -- is the one person we should be constantly available to.  And there should be a part of every day when He is the only person we are available to, when we give God our full and focused attention.  You cannot build a relationship with Him if the only attention you ever give Him is distracted and unfocused.  To paraphrase Jesus' words to Martha in Luke 10: "Friend, you are worried and distracted by so many things.  Spend some time listening, really listening, to your Lord.  What He has to offer you is the one thing that will never change, that can never be taken away."

Be available today (and tomorrow!) to the people who really matter.  Break the bond with your phone and focus on building real relationships.  Like any other bad habit, this connection to your phone probably won't be an easy thing to change.  But with some concentrated effort you can, and your life and your relationships will be better off for it.  I promise.

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