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Valentine's Day Unplugged

February 14, 2021 by

Happy Valentine’s Day to you! Besides being known for chocolate and flowers, February 14 is the day that Alexander Graham Bell applied for a patent for his telephone – on the same day that Elisha Grey applied for a patent for his telephone (in 1876 – and that’s an interesting story for another day). It is also the day that Texas was linked by telegraph to the rest of the United States (in 1855), and the day (in 1924) that the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company changed its name to International Business Machines (IBM), which of course builds computers – and the day (or rather, the evening, in 1946) that ENIAC, one of the earliest American computers, was officially debuted to the public. What do these things have to do with each other? Maybe nothing. But it got me thinking about connectedness.

VEmbedScissor cut by Donal and Cornelia McKernan.

What is connectedness? And what does it mean to be connected to another person? Generally, we think of connecting with other people as a good thing, because it is a good thing. But being constantly interrupted is not such a good thing. So maybe we need to consider the difference between being connected and being over-connected. “I refuse the over-connection / of a busy heart,” begins a poem by Simon Mercer, 

of people who try to be
in fifteen places at once.
Through various devices they get
distracted
and never live full-hearted,
whole-hearted, in the nitty-gritty
of the now . . . 

The poem goes on for several more lines, finally ending with “Live intensely / With a smile in your heart” – which is what we all want to do, of course, and maybe Bell’s telephone, IBM’s computers, and the many other gadgets that have been spawned by those have given us more freedom and convenience so that we can live intensely with a smile in our hearts – but then again, maybe they haven’t. Maybe they’ve only given us an illusion of freedom. As the Lebanese-American writer and mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it, “The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.”

I once walked into a paddock, found a leaf that was a beautiful shape and color, and with a sharpie pen wrote a poem on it for my wife. I put the leaf in her hand. Her reaction was incredible. I was blown away by how thankful she was for this little gesture. One would have thought I had given her gold and diamonds. To do this, I didn’t need a computer, or a telegraph or telephone. I just needed a sharpie, a leaf, and a bit of imagination. Also, I rarely have such good ideas, so that made it special too. It may have even been on Valentine’s Day, I don’t remember anymore. Let’s pretend that it was. At a moment like that, I am thankful that a phone didn’t suddenly ring in my pocket and connect me to somebody else, somewhere else in the world. There are things in life that require our full attention. Love is one of these things, prayer is another. Sometimes, to do these things properly, we need to make sure we are disconnected from everything else, at least for a while.

In the part of the world where I live, there are endless opportunities to disconnect from distractions and instead connect with God’s creation, or with the person near us, or with both at the same time. For those who live in the middle of New York or Shanghai or London, it is much harder to escape the relentless distractions shouting for attention. In 1992, a group of Christians in England started something called the Quiet Garden Movement. The idea was very simple. People with gardens would make them available for individuals or couples who wanted to disconnect from city life for a while and enjoy silence and beauty. A stressed apartment-dweller, for example, could contact the group and make an appointment with a member in his area. He would then be welcomed into a quiet garden, asked to switch off his device, and given time to sit quietly, reading a book or enjoying tea or homemade cake provided by the host. If this isn’t a fabulous idea, I don’t know what is. The Quiet Garden Movement is now twenty-nine years old and has grown and spread to cities all over the world.

As with so many things, though, it seems the Japanese may have thought of it first. In the nineteen-eighties, doctors in Japan realized that quiet time spent in nature doesn’t only make us more contented but also lowers blood pressure, improves concentration and memory, and benefits a body in too many ways to mention. So they started to prescribe something called shinrin-yoku to their patients. Shinrin-yoku is awkwardly translated as “nature-bathing” or “forest-bathing.” Not soaking in water, but simply soaking up natural surroundings, in other words, drinking them in. Qing Li, a world expert on forest-bathing, gives the following advice

Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.

A long, long time before Qing Li was giving his advice, the psalmist sang, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1–2). So if we want to be connected, let’s connect with the Creator. It may help us to connect with each other more too.

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Donal McKernan

Donal McKernan lives with his wife Cornelia and two children at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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