Downtime is important. But devices are a double-edged sword
Ahuva has a husband, seven children, a full-time job, and a Jewish home with all of its seasonal, weekly, and daily demands. She’s a busy person! And she needs her downtime.
“Ma? Ma? Ma, I’m trying to tell you something! Ma, are you listening? What are you doing?”
“Ma” is relaxing, that’s what she is doing. She finally has a minute to herself. The little ones are asleep. The big ones are doing their own thing. Hubby is out learning. Now she can take a few precious moments of downtime to scroll through the deals on her phone.
Oh, look! Better Boutique is having a two-for-one sale! But what’s this disturbance? Why is Sruli calling her now? Shouldn’t he be doing homework?
“Ma, I can never talk to you! You’re always on your phone!”
Ahuva remembers hearing these same words decades ago — from her mother! In those days, Ahuva spoke to friends all nightlong (so her mother claimed) on a landline.
But now Ahuva is the grown-up, and she feels resentful. Why can she never have downtime, private time, quiet time, just-for-me time? Is she really supposed to be on call every waking hour?
“Mommy is busy, Sruli, and you’re supposed to be doing your homework. I just need a few minutes to myself right now.”
“You’re not busy! You’re just on your phone!” Sruli slams the door as he leaves the room.
Ahuva is feeling a mix of annoyance and guilt. Her son’s words remind her of something her husband said just a week ago. “You’re always distracted when I speak to you. Can you please put that thing away?”
Then, too, Ahuva dug her heels in. “I was relaxing for a minute, and that’s when you decided you needed to speak to me. Why can’t I have two minutes to myself?”
Now she feels like everyone is ganging up on her. She does everything she can — and then some — for her family, and everyone begrudges her a few measly minutes a day of mindless scrolling (actually sometimes it is mindful scrolling. Ahuva actually has some neat Torah apps she tunes in to regularly, so it’s even a good thing).
People have always needed to “relax.” They may have had a cuppa while reading a newspaper. Or they may have curled up in bed with a good book. Family members would see them occupied with their printed material. Yet they didn’t normally feel blocked out, tuned out, or otherwise shut out by their reading relative. That phenomenon is particular to interactions one has with a device. Why?
Well, if you find your spouse reading at the table and you sit down and begin to talk to him, what typically happens? While there are exceptions of course, what is likely to happen in many homes is that your spouse will stop reading and look up, once you call his or her name and begin speaking about something. You will, in other words, have your partner’s full attention (now that you’ve interrupted his reading!).
However, this sequence doesn’t tend to happen when your spouse (or parent or child) is using a device. In this latter scenario, the person is likely to continue attending to the device while you try to communicate. You’ll be having partial communication with a highly distracted loved one. And no one likes speaking to someone who is only half-listening.
Is Ahuva entitled to downtime even when her family is around? Of course! Without it she may fall into depression, illness, irritability, or some other dysfunctional state.
Can she find a type of downtime that won’t be frustrating and alienating to her loved ones? Of course! She just has to want to. She has to recognize the value of the gift of full attention — its power to build strong bonds, reduce alienation and isolation, heal hearts, inspire and support those who will, in return, heal, inspire, and support her.
Today, many people pay for the privilege of being listened to by professionals. (How much would that service be worth if the therapist scrolled through her phone during session?)
Although focused attention doesn’t cure all ails, it’s an important form of nurturing that we can all offer — if we want to.
And as for our phone — we can use it during our private time, the time when it won’t prevent us from interacting with loved ones.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 672)