Yesterday we looked at a hypothetical fully wired family. Today we contrast that to a specimen of the unplugged family…
Every great grunge band has an unplugged album—just old school acoustics. Purists relish the wholesome simplicity of a band relying on their brute skill, not the crutch of technology. There is something healthy about a family that is able to comfortably sit in each other’s company without craving distraction supplied by the outside world. This realization sank in during a visit to another pastor’s home.
This pastor and his wife were a couple Kim and I admired, and we had dined out with them on a few occasions. They were a bit like celebrities to us, well known in our ministry circles. So when we were invited to their home, we didn’t have to check our schedules before we RSVP’d (except to clear whatever commitment was inconveniently in the way).
The invitation to this dinner was also received over e-mail, so I knew they weren’t Amish. Kim and I, sans kids, were greeted at the door by the couple and, to our surprise, both their teenage boys. We were informed that their eldest daughter was working an immovable shift at Starbucks, and they relayed her heartfelt apologies. We were accompanied into a spacious living room lined with books whose spines had all been satisfactorily broken by repeated and apparently engrossed use. There was no trace of a television set. The furniture was instead centered around a piano. Yes, they still make those. The boys remained undistracted through the whole conversation, asking intelligent questions and contributing informed opinions. The whole family showed genuine affection for one another, and when one son offered to show us his latest organic gardening project, the whole family rose en masse and accompanied us outdoors in a supportive entourage. It was as if they actually enjoyed each other’s presence or something. The closest the conversation meandered near to the entertainment world was an impromptu piano recital—I kid you not—and a discussion of favorite novels.
The experience was positively Puritan.
I couldn’t contain my consternation, so I asked the parents how they had managed to breed cheerful, compliant teenagers with a rare, upright posture. This was a genus of teen I had not come across before. I felt like I had just stumbled upon a magical spring and wanted to take some of the water home with me. I was expecting a rehearsed “home school is the way” propaganda reply, but their winning formula was simple. “Family comes first; when the children are alone they can listen to their music or e-mail friends, but when we are together, they need to be 100% here.”
Both parents modeled this by ignoring the cell phones, which occasionally chirped for attention during dinner. Apparently letting a call go to voicemail never killed anyone. Interesting. It was the very act of letting the uninvited intruder of an ill-timed phone call go unrewarded, which seemed to have the tangible effect of proving to those present that the family was a priority.
It’s not that technology was banished from the home. Collectively the family possessed the full gamete of modern electronic accouterments. But the gadgets, like browbeaten serfs were under the indomitable control of their owners. Their iPads, iPods, iPhones, Kindles, and laptops were casually strewn about like powerless paperweights. It was clear who was at the beck-and-call of whom.
Thus the family unity was guarded by shunning disruptive intrusions, and also by each member being inextricably involved in each other’s lives and projects. The family “did life” together. They played their weekly schedule like a team sport. They supported each other, listened to each other, and respected each other enough to apply basic the courtesy of ignoring a text message while in conversation with a family member.
I realized that we often accord respect to outsiders and flout the rules of courtesy when around family. They are always so forgiving. But in time, those little decisions chip away at mutual respect and affection, until we are no more than are a bevy of isolated roommates.
Plucking the I out of iPod
You’ve heard it said, “There’s no I in team.” But I say to you there is a sneaky one sidling up to the iPod. I love the lowercase camouflage. “Don’t mind me, I’m just tagging along.” But it is that little letter that drives the whole philosophy of the techno craze today: it’s all about I, me, my. It may be time to pluck the “I” out of your “iPod.” I’m not advocating that you trash your computer, TV, and iPhone. I’m just saying it may save your family unity to pluck the “I,” the selfishness out of the experience and share it with the family. Take the urgency out of the interruption, and favor real life relationships of virtual gatecrashers. Learn to own your gadgets and don’t let them possess you. Limit the time you spend on Facebook. Have rigid rules about answering calls during dinner. Teach your kids (and model of them) that ignoring a text message is a way of respecting the person you are talking to.
Jesus said that we need to get amputative about temptations. “Pluck out your eye and throw it from you” (Matt 18:9). Not keep it on ice for possible reconstructive surgery later. Throw it away. With your throwing arm, lop off your hand and toss it away.
Have you heard of the red hand of O’Neill? On a missions trip to Northern Ireland I noticed the ubiquitous Ulster flag, which sported a red hand in the center. The locals love to tell the legend of Heremon O’Neill. As the story goes, the entire landmass of Ireland was offered to the first Celt who could touch its shores. In a grueling sailboat race, O’Neill found himself coming a close second. To usurp the advantage, with not a moment to spare, he hacked off his own hand, and with a herculean effort hurled the severed hand onto the beach, thus beating his rival and securing the rightful title to the beautiful Emerald Isle.
That emblem proves the determination some people have for a prize that lasts only as long as life. The family is more cherished than land, more valuable than life or limb. What are you willing to forego, what are you willing to sever, for a closer family? it may just be time to pull the plug on your former priorities and pluck the I from your iPod.
Kim and I went home after our exposure to that positively Puritan model family resolved to do…something. It’s not like we penned 70 resolutions with the eloquence of Jonathan Edwards. We weren’t even sure what steps to take, but we knew the destination of where we wanted to end up, and we altered our course by degrees wherever we could. We envisioned a future family that would eat together, worship together, and eagerly gather when we summoned them using a reasonable decibel level. We wanted a team.
Our first revolt against the tyranny of technology was aimed at the family idol, the TV set. I had found myself trapped in the quicksand of habit. I had a routine of coaxing the toddlers outside to play with our white Labrador, Spurgeon, then plopping down in front of whatever was on TV while Kim made dinner in our open-plan kitchen. The reason we had designed an open plan kitchen dining room and living room when we built the home, was so that we could host large groups for Bible study, and so that the TV could be seen from all spaces. This was our first amputation.
Ok, so we didn’t cut it off and throw it away, we just moved it to another room. We weren’t ready for cold turkey yet; these were just baby steps. But it was a big move for us. We also rearranged the furniture to facilitate conversation. If we now wanted to watch something on TV or DVD, we had to move the TV back into the loving room, and move the couches out of the way. This is a brilliant way of using my own laziness as a weapon against itself. I used to watch whatever was there because I was too “tired from the day’s work” (read lazy and selfish) to do anything productive. Now I found myself too lazy to get the TV out, which forced me to play with the kids and Spurgeon. Frequently I now found myself sitting on the kitchen countertops, chatting to Kim on my right as she cooked, and answering the kids playful interruptions on my left as they barged in with Lego creations and the like.
In the silence of night, while the kids slept, Kim and I would sit on the patio together and read, or talk, while sipping coffee and snacking on ice-cream. All of these are blessings from God that we used to snub in favor of whatever trivial trash was being proffered on the tube. The baby step of putting our TV in its rightful place (out of sight, out of mind) led to a closer marriage and small pleasures been added to the family routine. Soon conversations with friends had been expurgated of all current TV happenings. We couldn’t comment on the latest American Idol fiasco or the celebrity gossip. Not because we were now mature, but because we were now ignorant of the latest trivia. Oh, blissful ignorance; it leaves room for other treasured facts I’ve collected about my wife and kids. I would now rather hear my 4-year-old’s impression of a song playing in the background, than Simon Cowel’s haughty opinions.
I hate legalism. This is a distaste I acquired from studying Jesus’ aversion to Pharisaical rules based religion. You cannot legislate family affections. You can’t tell a 17-year-old Goth to genuinely enjoy the company of a sibling seven-year-old Nintendo addict. The way to tackle this is as early as possible begin to live it out yourself, day in and day out. If you interrupt your lecture on the value of family to answer the phone, then you are slitting the throat of the very lesson you are trying to teach them. Children will not behave as you say; they’ll behave as you behave. If you devalue the priority of family in your own life, your kids will imbibe that attitude by osmosis. You can’t talk, teach, and spank your way out of a value system you have lived yourself into.