By Sarah Puryear
I’ve had an iPhone since 2010, and I knew from the start we would make a bad couple. I have long tried various ways to limit my interactions with it: keeping it in another room at night rather than at my bedside, downloading apps like Freedom or Moment to track my usage and block certain time-wasting websites, and using parental controls so I have to enter a password every time I want to use the Internet. I made some progress on that front in the previous year; I banished Facebook and Instagram’s apps from my phone, and I had tried my best to keep browsers on a short leash, even deleting them for short spurts of time.
However, I kept finding myself downloading Chrome in moments of weakness. I would tell myself I needed to look up some pressing piece of historical information on Wikipedia, but I’d would end up reading Carolyn Hax advice columns and fashion blogs about the Duchess of Cambridge. Next thing I knew I’d be on People.com or, worse, Daily Mail.
None of my efforts to curb my smartphone addiction solved my fundamental problem: My smartphone had become the thing I turned whenever I was done with a task, whenever I had a free moment, whenever I wasn’t sure what to do next. It had become my centering point — or rather, my decentering point. Rather than helping me collect my thoughts and refocus on whatever was next, turning to my phone splintered my focus, leaving me disoriented and ill-equipped to move forward with my day whenever I finally looked up from the screen.
This Lent I decided it was time to pull the plug and use a dumbphone for the season. It seemed an appropriate discipline; the presence of a smartphone was directly affecting the amount of time I spent in prayer each day. Instead of using time in the early morning for prayer, I would spend the first 15 minutes of my day looking at my phone. Instead of time for the Examen before bed, I would look at my phone. If I woke up in the middle of the night, instead of turning to prayer, I would look at my phone. My iPhone’s absence would instantly create the time and space for prayer I want to have during Lent and throughout the entire year.
As a first step toward smartphone freedom, I bought a ZTE 432 for $25 on Amazon. The ZTE 432 is notable for its small screen, its keyboard buttons that must be pressed, its lack of WiFI and access to an app store, and a browser so painful to navigate that you’d never use it except in dire straits. Welcome back to 2006, and try hard to remember when a phone like this (namely, the Blackberry) was cutting edge.
Getting the phone to work proved difficult. Despite my spending a few hours on customer service chats with AT&T, it took several weeks for an SIM card to arrive, only for me to discover that I had to use the card that came with the phone. Apparently dumbphones are so rarely used that even customer service reps don’t know how they work. Finally, though, the transfer of phone service was complete; in place of the usual set of signal-strength bars in the upper left corner, my iPhone reported its “No Service” status, and in its place my dumbphone was up and running.
This change in technology led to an attitude adjustment. I felt a self-righteous thrill from achieving a new level of technological self-denial, and yet I also felt as though I were cut adrift, lost without the comfort of my home button equipped with TouchID, without Siri just waiting there silently for my next request, and without the familiar lineup of app icons to tap whenever I wanted easy information or a quick escape. There is simply no escaping into a dumbphone; its icons and design don’t create a space within which you can get lost. Its dopamine-hit potential is equivalent to what you’d get from reading the phone book. There’s nothing to doon it; in place of entertainment, it proffers the handful of practical tools that wowed us when they were new back in 2006 — a stopwatch, a world clock, a camera that can shoot video! — and not just any old calculator, but a tip calculator.
But I couldn’t even play solitaire.
Instead I had to find other ways to spend those little moments between tasks and conversations and meetings. After finishing a household task, I could take a moment to orient myself to what was next without making a brief escape from the moment. While waiting for a friend to show up at lunch, I could look around and take in what was going on in the world around me. While sitting on my son’s bed waiting for him to pick out another book at bedtime, I just sat there. I discovered that I could have a moment to myself, to my thoughts, and to my prayers, which is a rare commodity when you have young kids. Those pivotal times of day for prayer that used to be occupied by my phone were suddenly returned to me, which freed me to return them to God.
The dumbphone was unfortunately not the choice toward greater practicality I expected it to be; in fact, the model I chose turned out to be decidedly impractical for my needs. The number of workarounds I had to invent to take the place of my smartphone piled up until they became an obstacle to everyday living. The lack of WiFi kept me from accessing timewasting apps, but it also meant I had to print directions before leaving the house and stick to the route I had planned ahead of time. I was unable to transfer my contacts from one phone to the other, leaving me to enter each phone number into my new phone’s address book.
This was all inconvenience I could have learned to live with. However, my dumbphone sealed its fate on the day my son tripped and hit his mouth on a life-sized concrete alligator at the local zoo. Once the EMT had cleared him to leave without going to the ER, I needed to call my husband, our pediatrician, and our dentist in rapid succession, but I couldn’t summon Siri to do the heavy dialing while I tried to drive home with a screaming child in the back of my van. (Our son is fine, and thankfully all his teeth have survived intact.)
Then, a week later on Holy Saturday, hours before the end of Lent, I discovered that for the third time in a week my new phone hadn’t received a text sent to my number. I had figured that my dumbphone would (at least) be an adequate device for making and receiving phone calls and texts; when it failed that basic criterion, I was done. At 2 p.m. that day I got back on AT&T’s online chat, reinstated my iPhone as my device of choice, and kicked the dumbphone to the curb. Happy Easter to me!
On some level, I fear my rather swift return to my iPhone just as Lent ended is a sign of weakness on my part. I wish I could say that in this day and age it was easier for me to do without my smartphone. However, I turned my smartphone on again with a new understanding of what it’s there to do. At its best, the smartphone functions like a top-line Leatherman: one of those multitools that puts your childhood pocket knife to shame with its ruler, bottle opener, screwdrivers, and mini-saw. The smartphone did indeed put my dumbphone’s tools to shame: The tip calculator was nothing compared to scheduling recurring reminders with notifications, to sharing pictures of my kids with my family seamlessly via a shared photo stream, or to adding an extra errand into my day knowing I could get directions on the fly.
But the smartphone is not meant to be, theologically speaking, our centering point — the totem to which we turn whenever we have a spare second, whenever we aren’t sure what to do next, whenever we feel the slightest twinge of social anxiety in a public space. An object should not command its master’s attention and devotion. The Bible calls that phenomenon idolatry. Rather than refocusing us on what really matters, the smartphone can divert us, draining our energy, time, and attention from the moment in which we can encounter God.
When I got my smartphone back on line, I subjected each of its apps to the tool test. If it didn’t qualify as a helpful tool, I deleted it. I had already removed social media from my phone, so I started deleting the browsers. While they can be useful tools, I too easily waste time on them to justify keeping them on my phone. I got rid of shopping apps like Amazon and eBay, which were responsible for many an impulse purchase. I finally admitted that my brain doesn’t retain anything I read in ebook format on my phone and deleted Kindle. I did hang on to apps that did something useful for me without become spaces to hang out and hide in: Google Maps for navigation; banking apps for mobile deposits; Evernote to access recipes I’ve saved; Amazon music, so I can listen in the car; a handful of photo editing apps; and a couple of devotional apps like Divine Office and Blue Letter Bible.
I try to limit the apps on my phone to one screen, with only two subfolders: one for utilities, and the other for photo apps. I suppose you could say I’ve hacked my iPhone and turned it into a dumbphone, just one with great intuitive design and ease of use for calling and making texts.
As a reminder of where my true center is found, I have started wearing a prayer bracelet. Made by Orthodox nuns at St. Paisius Monastery in Arizona, it has one large cross-shaped bead and 33 satin knots, one for each of the years of Christ’s life on earth. I find myself fumbling for it now in those little moments when I used to turn to my phone, when my restless fingers remind me of the urge to escape the moment into some mindless app. I’m no perfect smartphone user, even now. I still have to watch for excuses to get Google Chrome or Amazon’s shopping cart back on my smartphone screen, and make sure I don’t get stuck scrolling endlessly through photos on my camera roll.
But by God’s grace, this year’s Lenten discipline showed me new ways to center my heart on the one in whom true joy is to be found.