Taking a Media Sabbath —by Jinny Batterson
In Judeo-Christian traditions, we are taught to “honor the Sabbath, and keep it holy.” According to the strictest interpretations, that means on every seventh day abstaining from all sorts of work and some of our usual daily activities, taking time instead to focus on spiritual growth. The term is related to a longer interval, a “sabbatical,” a seventh year widely observed in academic settings when professors and researchers take an extended break from their standard duties to pursue alternate studies and to recharge.
The use of a day of prayer is not limited to Christian or Jewish traditions, though, and can have political overtones. In British-controlled India in 1919, a set of repressive new laws were passed giving the British government authority to arrest anyone suspected of “terrorist activity” and to detain them for up to two years without trial. Other laws simultaneously broadened police powers to conduct searches without warrants and curbed press freedoms. When the most egregious law, commonly called the Rowlatt Act, went into effect, opposition figure Mohandas Gandhi proposed that the entire country observe a hartal, a day of fasting, prayer, and abstention from physical labor, in protest. The response was overwhelming–on April 6, 1919, millions of Indians simply did not go to work, and for twenty-four hours (agonizing hours for the British) India simply ground to a halt. (https://www.sparknotes.com/biography/gandhi/section7/) After continuing protests, the Rowlatt Act was repealed in 1922.
As internet use has spread globally, much of the world’s population spends at least some time online. Back in 2017, scientists writing in a journal of neuropsychiatry estimated that perhaps 2% of the adult population suffered from “internet addiction,” compulsively spending more and more online time. (abstract from 10.4172/Neuropsychiatry.1000171, 2017) An article from 2019 (https://www.psycom.net/iadcriteria.html) gave a range of estimated internet addiction from below 1% to nearly 38% of adults. Since the onset of the current global covid-19 pandemic, internet use has spiked further as more of us turn to online communications while confined close to home and admonished to maintain social distancing.
The internet can be a source of valuable new information, publicizing trends and histories that many of us had been unaware of. For example, as someone with no known enslaved ancestors, I’d been less aware of “Juneteenth” than those whose ancestry was less fortunate. (The holiday initially celebrated the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when formerly enslaved people in Galveston, Texas first got official word that they were now free.) Juneteenth is becoming more widely celebrated throughout the United States, and was recently cited as a reason for the postponement of a political rally by our current President.
However, the internet can also be used to spread spurious information and to inflame tensions. It provides instantaneous feedback as “algorithms” select more and more of the content they believe we might want to be exposed to. We become “products” who are encouraged to buy more and more goods and services. These days, I know that my use and misuse of the internet can drift close to addictive behavior as I search for clues on how to stay well, relatively safe and somewhat sane in this confusing and highly politicized time.
So I will use this Sunday, July 19, as my individual “Julyteenth,” my media sabbath, a brief freedom from the endless click bait of internet content providers. I’ll disengage as much as possible from internet browsing or virtual meetings. I’ll also try to cut back on television, streaming services, and the like. I’ll try to focus instead on spiritual growth, with perhaps some limited, more direct, but safe offline methods of reconnecting with neighbors and loved ones. I’ll adapt some advice of poet and writer Maya Angelou, who counseled a generation ago:
“Every person needs to take one day away. A day in which one consciously separates the past from the future. … Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” (Maya Angelou, from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now, 1993)
If my media sabbath refreshes me, I may make it at least a monthly ritual, if not yet every seventh day. My hope is that the spiritual nourishment of a sabbath will better equip me to confront the complex issues of my community, nation, and world. Good Sabbath, friends.