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Unplug your digital life support during Lent

Gary Caruso | Friday, February 5, 2010

As the countdown marches towards Ash Wednesday, a lonely Friday remains free for practicing Catholics to eat meat before the start of Lent. The longstanding religious ritual prepares the faithful to better focus on the sacrificial meaning of Easter by, in fact, personally sacrificing. Countless times during my youth, I watched my father build a huge ham or roast beef sandwich blanketed with pepperoni slices on Friday evenings around 11:30 p.m. — ultimately biting into his meaty delight well before the midnight deadline. He could rationalize that he hadn’t eaten meat after 11 p.m. the night before, so he fulfilled his obligation of fasting for a full 24 hours. After all, God surely accepts his heart’s intentions over any technical stroke of midnight.
Each year Lent seems to stealthily sneak up on the calendar while we still languish in the deep frozen throws of winter. And each year Lent catches many of us unprepared to designate our personally individual sacrifices beyond the universal abstention from meat on Fridays. This year, I suggest that we — especially students on campus as well as the twenty-somethings who recently graduated and are now working in real jobs with their real-life morning commutes along side their real-life coworkers — attempt to pull the plug on our digital dependences for 40 days.
Recognizing the positives of communicating with BFFs on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networking venues, consider the 40-day break a retreat into the desert sand dunes or at a mountaintop monastery. Returning back to the days of personal face-to-face interactions may just be a pleasant surprise, not to mention how it will hone one’s skill to actually make new friends or learn how to better speak with people of various backgrounds and experiences. For me, the perfect example existed during my commute to work while waiting at the Washington, D.C. Metro bus stop No. 1393 on 14th Street.
Most mornings since I first adopted this bus route, nearly everyone — young and old, skilled worker or professional, male and female — at my bus shelter and along the nearby stops of my bus route has been wired with iPods, cellular phones or both. Some appear to have escaped from a futuristic science fiction hospital with digital intravenous lines emanating from their veins. Others have attempted to juggle two devices in the right hand while sipping coffee from the left hand. However, all of them have shut themselves off from making a new friend, hearing a compliment or engaging in an interesting conversation.
For example, months ago when I first used the bus for my daily commute, I stood alongside a commuter who remarkably resembles the Scottish actor, Sean Biggerstaff. Biggerstaff is best known for playing Oliver Wood, the Gryffindor Quidditch team captain and “keeper” in the Harry Potter series who acts like a taskmaster during practice and incessantly harangues Potter to catch the Golden Snitch, even if Potter plunges off his Firebolt broom from the sky. Respecting that my neighbor was listening to his iPod while texting on his phone, I waited for another day to tell him of his resemblance to Biggerstaff. For months, we both stood together while he texted and listened to his music until one day he finally arrived without the iPod. Finally, while he intently texted, I asked, “No iPod today?”
He made no reply, so I repeated the question. Turning away, he curtly answered, “No,” as though I had annoyed him. It is ironic that he seemed to act exactly like his lookalike Oliver Wood character — focused almost to the extent of obsession, probably a nice person but lacking in interpersonal tact. On that day I would not discover his background or interests, political affiliation, if he attended one of Notre Dame’s rival schools, whether he had a dog that could play with mine or anything about his personality and humor. For an outgoing person like me, it was a possible friendship denied.
The Lenten season need not be the catalyst to curtail one’s digital addictions in favor of more face-to-face personal interaction. Religion, too, need not be the excuse to adjust one’s behavior merely for a limited period. Regardless of one’s individual universe — the scholastic campus or real life world — every moment offers an opportunity to change a life, including your own. For one never knows when a neighbor may approach a bus stop and open a conversation by saying in an imitation Scottish brogue, “But you, Harry, are a seeker!”

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.