I have one of those antique fliptop cell phones. It was only a few years ago that my husband and I became convinced that having a cell phone – one to share between us – might be a useful thing. And it was much more recently that I finally learned how to text. When picking out the phone with our service provider, I intentionally asked for the simplest model, intending to use it only for emergencies. But that intention gave way when I started to realize that there were particular people in my life – friends, parish leaders – who could only be contacted through texting. That is, I no doubt could have continued to contact them through any of the more traditional methods (phone, e-mail, facebook), but if I wanted to receive a response, or more accurately, if I wanted to receive the HOPE of a response, I needed to text. My relationships can now be broken down into categories according to who will be reached by which medium. My husband needs a facebook message. My grandmother and my daughter’s best friend’s parents need a phone call. My wardens respond almost instantaneously to e-mails, but in a time sensitive matter might require a follow-up ring. Two of my dear Orillia friends, one of my colleagues, and much of my youth group, need texts.
When I pull out my phone to text, I am mercilessly ribbed by any friends or parishioners who happen to be nearby. I don’t mind the teasing because I can easily see myself through their eyes. I am scrunching up my nose, carefully examining each key for the letter I’m seeking, stroke-stroke to get the letter ‘h,’ then a pause to indicate to my phone that I am happy with the selection I have made before, stroke-stroke-stroke, following that letter ‘h’ with the letter ‘i’. And then: do I waste the energy it takes to cycle through the punctuation key to find the comma? Or should I settle for the exclamation mark, which comes up in the punctuation options first, even though it will express an unwarranted enthusiasm for what should be a simple greeting? Rats! In my hurry to find the comma, I have cycled past it. I choose the ‘!’ after all. I re-focus and struggle through the rest of the message – striving for succinctness, self-editing my inclination to begin every communication with the basic platitudes of ‘how are you?’ and to end with trite filler like ‘talk to you soon!’ — only to sigh in exasperation as a long-winded reply with many questions begging for response comes back almost instantaneously from the friend on the other end who evidently has long since moved past fliptop phones.
“Why wouldn’t you get a proper phone?” my observer asks, inevitably now with an edge of irritation to her voice rather than just mockery. This inefficiency seems, to any sensible modern-day person, unneccessary. I shrug. “I like to keep it real,” is my non-response.
The truth is that I like this version of texting. It’s a strange thing for me to admit, a person who thrives on efficiency, who always feels as if my time is at a premium. What could possibly appeal to me about this labour-intensive form of communication?
There are the obvious reasons. I value simplicity of lifestyle and a certain frugality when it comes to technology, even though I would hardly claim to be a beacon of asceticism. I don’t want to buy a fancier phone and I don’t want to give in to the widespread assumption that human beings can no longer function without one. I don’t want to be a cliché.
But the more interesting reason is the way that my fliptop makes me consider language with a care and intentionality that is rarely required of me. I can type without thinking, allowing me an almost uninterrupted stream of consciousness, whatever words spring into my head effortlessly materializing on screen. I am a lousy hand-writer (as my husband regularly reminds me when trying to decipher my grocery lists) but I can still put pen to paper at a good clip, and in many ways I wonder whether this form of writing doesn’t still work best for brainstorming ideas and allowing a free flow of thoughts. I can speak, and if I am paying attention, I might note the cluttered manner with which my words spill out, punctuated by all too many verbal tics, like jettisoning the word ‘like’ into completely meaningless places and ending far too many sentences with ‘you know what I mean?’
This older form of texting attaches a certain cost to each word, even each letter, I wish to use. And I like it. I like being made so keenly aware of language as an exercise of choice. How few words can I use to express this thought? Where is it worth spending the extra key strokes on articulating the right nuance in my message? For example, do I opt for the economy of asking ‘can we get together?’ or do I invest instead in typing the warmer, more invitational option, ‘could we get together?’ When time is of the essence, when texting is merely to communicate basic information like ‘I am waiting at the back door,’ how focussed can I be in getting that message across as quickly as possible? (Solution: eliminate the word ‘waiting’). And where will I choose to be inflexible, to not give myself over to the shorthand of the texting world and instead to maintain some semblance of care for the English language? (For inexplicable reasons, I am okay with using ‘w’ as shorthand for ‘with’ and yet the common practice of typing ‘u r’ in place of ‘you are’ sufficiently repulses me into the unshakeable principle that the extra four letters required in the latter are always worth it).
It is an untraditional venue for being reminded that language is loaded. God identified Adam as unique in creation by inviting him to share in the holy work of naming the world around him. The ten commandments devote twenty percent of their tablet space toward how human beings speak to, and about, one another and God. Jesus upsets the apple cart by noting that we should pay less attention to the rules around what we are putting into our mouths and more to what is coming out of them. The monastic tradition traditionally grounds itself in a practice of fasting in speech.
Throughout our religious witness runs a consistent thread of recognition that what we say shapes our experience of the world around us, and therefore also shapes our understanding of God. A holy emptiness–found in an intentional choosing of our words and our silence–is widely and cross-culturally affirmed as key in allowing our lives to, once again, be surprised, to discover God and God’s creation anew.
This wisdom stands in marked contrast to a world that has several hundred years under its belt of facile communication, a world where words are treated as being of little consequence, even the basic conventions around the use of holy, private, sexual and profane words almost entirely broken down. Although it makes my ears hurt every time I hear the expression ‘omigod’ thrown around on national tv as if it is meaningless, I am not arguing for the tightening of censorship laws or for getting uptight around the use of swear words. My aim in this particular collection of words is more modest. I am noticing. I am giving thanks for opportunities to notice, to be forced from my easy flow of modern day verbage into considering word by word what it is I actually want to communicate and how much energy it is worth it to me to expend in doing so.
It’s an amazing world and a praise-worthy God that can even use out-dated technology for the purpose of, perhaps just momentarily, pausing and drawing closer.