18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Never Preached – this is the homily that got scrapped in favor of this one.
The revised lectionary, which gave us the three-year cycle of Sunday readings, is incredible because it allows us to absorb a higher percentage of Scripture in the course of our normal Sunday worship than any Christian generation before us. Unfortunately, it also means that when we get a really powerful or important reading, we will usually not hear them again for another three years. That is the case with our second reading, which is so helpful in trial and difficulty. I am not preaching on it today, so I encourage you to read it and sit with it on your own, so that you do not miss it as it goes by.
Instead, I am going to preach on a line from our first reading which really speaks to a personal struggle of mine.
The line is, “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?”
In my case, the struggle is with how I use my time. I am constantly spending my time on things which, ultimately, fail to satisfy.
More specifically, I have compulsive addiction to distraction, which usually looks like spending hours on my phone each day. In analyzing why I do this, it seems that I use my phone as an emotional regulator. When I am bored or frustrated or exhausted or tired or anxious or upset, I pull out my phone and start opening… anything. Usually it is YouTube or a meme aggregator, but sometimes it is Instagram or Reddit or a logic puzzle game. Note, of course, that this is different than legitimate leisure, like choosing to sit down to T.V. or a video game. This phone usage is better described as escapism. I am trying to escape from my feelings or from silence or from an unpleasant activity or from my own thoughts. It is to the point that any time I am doing something that requires even a modicum of effort, I have to fight to temptation to pull out my phone every five minutes.
Now, I am a highly functional addict. I show up to my appointments. I get my work done. But it is frustrating to constantly find myself on my phone, scrolling, without any good reason other than that it is easier to keep going than to stop. More than just frustrating, this compulsive need to be distracted has made it very difficult to pray for my entire time as a seminarian and a priest, because prayer requires a settled and calm focus that is the opposite of what I have trained my brain to seek. If I carry my phone with me into prayer, there is a fifty-percent chance I will end up on my phone during some or all of my designated prayer time.
I have been struggling with compulsive distraction since college, fourteen years ago. My formation in seminary helped me name it as a problem and to keep it under a reasonable amount of control, but it is only recently that I have actually begun to make progress in understanding why I feel this constant need to be distracted and how I can begin to heal from it.
Ultimately, the reason any of us do anything is to achieve happiness. We earn money to be happy, we seek pleasure to be happy, we work for recognition and acclaim because we think it will bring happiness. Everything we do is, in some way, an answer to the question of happiness. And my desire to be distracted and entertained is no different. I am constantly seeking mental stimulation and I can honestly say that boredom is my greatest fear. So when I am doing something that I find boring or that requires discipline or that only has a long-term payoff, I feel unhappy. Whereas my phone offers me an endless world of stimulation, which looks and feels like exactly the kind of happiness I am looking for. Which means that, on the whole, I would rather be on my phone than doing more long-term fulfilling activities, because somewhere along the line I trained my subconscious to believe that true happiness was immediate happiness.
But of course, intellectually, I know that is a lie. I know that true happiness comes from God, from relationships, from self-improvement and education, from living a productive and healthy lifestyle. I know this, but I have trained my subconscious otherwise, and retraining myself has been the hardest and longest fight of my life, and I have only made the very slightest of progress.
That progress came in three ways. First, I stopped using Facebook for personal use. I do not think there is anything particularly worse about Facebook than any other social media apps, but Facebook was exactly the kind of short-term pleasure that my brain became addicted to. It was an endless supply of new information and it was easy for me to get lost in it for hours. So I uninstalled it from my phone and tried to eliminate it entirely from my life.
Second, I stopped putting my phone next to my bed. For most of my priesthood, I would wake up and immediately lose half-an-hour to my phone before even sitting up. I at least wanted to start my day by making a deliberate decision, without immediately seeking short-term pleasure and distraction, and so I physically moved my phone. I am also beginning to apply the same principle to my prayer, leaving my phone in a drawer for that hour each day. And I am applying this principle to my leisure, leaving the phone in another room even when I am watching T.V. or playing a video game, so that I can actually enter into the activity I have chosen and receive the fullness of the rest that it offers.
But the third way I have made progress has been the most healing and effective. I have started to train myself to ask, in the midst of any activity, “Is this making me happy?” “Am I being satisfied by this?” “Is there something I would rather be doing right now?” This has been far from a cure-all, as I’ll be scrolling on my phone, I’ll ask the question, I’ll realize the answer is “No, this is not actually making me happy,” and I’ll keep going anyway. But it is still making me more aware of what I already know, that my happiness lies elsewhere. And with that awareness, I have felt the compulsion lessen and I have felt more of a desire to make deliberate decisions about how to use my time, rather than just allowing myself to fall into distraction.
Now, how do we connect all of this with Jesus? Ultimately, the entire point of the Cross was to free us from the power of sin and death, which means we negate the whole purpose of our salvation if we allow ourselves to become enslaved again. Our true happiness lies in become the beautiful, holy people God created us to be, and that fullness of existence requires that we throw off whatever chains are keeping us focused on the fallen world of sin and death rather than the restored world of resurrection and life. My chain is that I have been believing the lie that there is a shortcut to happiness and that the short-term happiness that I find in distraction can substitute for the long-term happiness I will find by following the promptings of God in my life. I image each of you have your own chains that you struggle to break. Know that there is hope in Christ. Know that freedom takes time and struggle. Know that if you keep your eyes looking up to Christ on the Cross, he will bring you freedom, no matter how long it takes.
This entire homily is about an incredibly powerful line in our first reading, but I am addressing that line by analogy and not directly, and you will not hear about it again. That line is: “Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy?”
Sometime in late 2005 or early 2006, during my senior year of high school, a friend of mine who had gone off to college invited me to join Facebook. At that time, Facebook required you to be invited by someone who was already a member of Facebook and Facebook also required you to be affiliated with a recognized school, so being invited to join was a big deal and it was really fun to develop this new type of online connection with my friends. I was also, at this point, struggling with some serious “senioritis,” so I was looking for an excuse to do anything other than my school work when I got home each day, and Facebook was the perfect outlet. At least that part of the platform has not changed in the last fifteen years.
I went from there to engineering college, where the great majority of my work involved using a computer for hours and hours each day, meaning that Facebook and the rest of the internet were at my fingertips whenever I wanted to be. It was so easy to being doing a problem set or writing some code, and then to hop over to Facebook for a couple of minutes before trying to focus in again. Or, as most programmers will tell you, a lot of computer work is waiting for a progress bar to complete, so even when I was “working” I would need to have some kind of distraction open in another tab to make sure I did not get bored.
Well, little did I know, these seemingly innocent distractions in high school and college established a pattern of behavior that is still today a major source of struggle in my life. From the ages of 17 to 22, I taught myself to flee from silence, stillness, and uncomfortable feelings and to fill every waking moment with some kind of entertainment. Having a smartphone in my pocket or in my hand is necessary to live in the modern world, but it is also the tool of my greatest vice, and I have felt trapped in this battle for almost a decade now. I cannot say that I have made much progress on this issue, but over the last two years I have begun to see at least the outlines of the deeper spiritual problem, and that is what I want to bring you today.
We should begin at the outset by reminding ourselves, as Aristotle established 2400 year ago, that the end goal of all human action is happiness. Everything we do, everything we pursue, we engage in because we think that it is going to make us happy. Money, please, power, and honor: none are sought for their own sake, but because we believe the having money, feeling pleasure, exercising power, or receiving honor will ultimately result in our happiness. Happiness is the one thing that we seek for its own sake, without expecting it to lead anywhere else.
Unfortunately, we flawed humans struggle mightily to determine what makes us happy. Aristotle wrote his own book about it centuries before Jesus was born, and every philosopher since him has had to provide his or her own answer to the question of happiness. We lay folks, who have not benefitted from a classical or philosophical education are left creating our own answers to the question of happiness, often with poor results. A drug addict, after all, began the habit because they were seeking happiness. The same can really be said about any addiction. We may condemn all sorts of people for being evil or misguided or broken in their approach to life, but if you dig down deep enough, they are going what they are doing because they, often wrongly, believe it will lead them to some form of happiness.
Well, this is what happened to me in high school. I was a fantastic student, highly motivated and a hard worker. I loved doing my homework, organizing my clubs, and engaging with my friendships. And I was truly and deeply happy. But after four years of the same thing, I was becoming board, and I was ready to expand my horizons. Enter Facebook. It was new, it was exciting, and it was quick. I could experience the thrill of the new, that thing I originally loved so much about learning and reading, I could experience that thrill much faster by logging on to this social network. And so I quickly began to do that more and more, because I wanted to be happy, and this was a shortcut to it. The same thing continued in college. Engineering work was hard and required serious focus and effort. It certainly did not bring immediate happiness. But the internet did. So when I had to choose between a problem set or a quick distraction like scrolling through the internet, the internet usually won until I could not put off my school work any longer, which just added to the stress and the dread of school work.
Enough years of this, and I had trained myself to seek out the short-term happiness of distraction over long-term happiness of self-actualization and fulfillment. And I have yet to break this habit. I was a seminarian for seven years and have been a priest for three, and I am still a complete failure at prayer. At least twice this week alone, I sat down to pray my holy hour and clicked around on my phone for the majority of it. That quick hit of happiness is so much more appealing than the true, long-term happiness of prayer and relationship with God, and I daily struggle to fight it. Even deliberate, intentional leisure activities like video games or streaming shows are so much better for happiness than the compulsive distractions I find on my phone.
But, like I said, I have begun to see at least the outlines of a solution. I have tried a whole lot of things, but two have actually born fruit.
First, for a whole slew of complicated reasons, I stopped using my personal Facebook eighteen months ago. Now, I am not saying everyone needs to give up Facebook, but I am saying it was a particular temptation for me. Again, I like the thrill of the new and the exciting, and my favored distraction is trying to catch up on “what is going on”. Facebook is an endless well of new information, and I could scroll and scroll and scroll and never reach the end of it. So I needed to give it up. But when I did so, my craving for new information did not go away, so I quickly found my way to newspapers, news sites, Reddit, and other information aggregators. Still, say what you will about Facebook, but it is really good at what it does, and these new sites were not as satisfying, and I got bored with them more quickly. This, finally, after years of struggle, began to give me and endpoint, where I sense a feeling of dissatisfaction, where I run out of new apps to open on my phone, and where I can finally confront the reality that what I am doing is not, actually, making me happy.
The second thing I did was a stopped putting my phone next to my bed. Getting ready in the morning is one of the hardest parts of my day, because I have to mentally prepare myself for the mixed bag that is life, and I had developed the habit of doing a whole lot of scrolling before I would even get out of bed. My phone continues to a temptation, since I carry it around with me all morning, but at least now the first decision I make each day is a deliberate decision, is a plan of action, rather than an immediate dopamine distraction hit from my adult pacifier.
My friends, ultimately what worked for me was asking myself, over and over and over again, “is this making me happy?” In the midst of my distraction and procrastination, “Is this making me happy? What could I do instead that would actually make me happy? What would I rather be doing right now?” Again, it seems that I have made so little progress in my decade of religious life, but that question seems to be the only one with power. What will make me happy? I have enough formation to know that the real answer to that question is prayer, worship, education. Is living out my mission as a baptized Christian and as a priest. It is relationships and friendships and family. It is living a responsible, adult life, where dishes get done and mail gets answered. I know these things to be true. I just hope that one day, I will be able to live out the truths that I, at least intellectually believe. I hope that one day I will stop spending my wages, especially the wages of my time, on what fails to satisfy.