The A is for Available in F-A-T

A couple of my friends talk about their “bandwidth” whenever the screen of our relationship tells me it is “loading” rather than playing. That means I thought we were going to connect, but my friend was not available.

I haven’t really explored this, but I think people with a “bandwidth” metaphor might think they work like a TV: the stream coming in is only so much and the draws on the stream are many. So they run out; they dry up. There is a reason to pay attention to that reality, of course — we could thoughtlessly “burn out!” On the other hand Jesus followers know that the strength to love is pretty much unlimited; it is not really time or media-player bound. So we should not monitor or excuse our choices as a matter of limited natural resources.

That’s not to say that anyone who wants to love big better consider what’s coming in and what’s going out. God may not have limitations, but we humans do. We need to know what we are given to give, not just imagine fulfilling every need we hear about. I actually have to tell people: “No one told you you needed to come to every meeting!”

I think, over time with Jesus, our spiritual, intellectual and emotional “bandwidth” actually increases, so the amount of faithfulness, attention and teaching that can flow through us in a given amount of time increases too. It is like plumbing, the greater the diameter of the intake pipe to your house, the more water pressure can get to the shower, washing machine and lawn sprinkler, all running at the same time.

We use the old idea that leaders, especially, need to be FAT: faithful, available and teachable. One of the big problems these days is finding someone to lead who is “available.” That is, they have, or will free up, enough “bandwidth” to be available. The problem with being available has two main parts I want to point out: one part is feeling busy, the other part is being inattentive.

Feeling busy

The Economist  notes that busyness is less about how much time one has than how you perceive the time you have. Ever since a clock was first used to synchronize labor in the 1700s, time has been understood in relation to money. Once hours were financially quantified, people worried more about wasting time, saving time or using “their” time profitably.

Individualistic societies, which emphasize achievement over affiliation (like the U.S.), help cultivate this time-is-money mindset. We constantly hear an urgent demand to make every moment count. When people see their time in terms of money (counting or getting), they often grow stingy with time to maximize profit. Workers who are paid by the hour volunteer less of their time and tend to feel more antsy when they are not working. When people are paid more to work, they tend to work longer hours, because working becomes a more profitable use of time.

The rising value of work time puts pressure on all time. Leisure time starts to seem more stressful, as people feel compelled to use it wisely or not at all. Big increases in productivity on the job compel people to maximize the utility of their leisure time. The most direct way to do this is to consume more goods within a given unit of time. The explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched, as the struggle to choose what to buy or watch or eat or do raises the “opportunity cost” of leisure (i.e., choosing one thing comes at the expense of choosing another) and contributes to feeling stressed or “burned out.”

The endless opportunities made possible by a simple internet connection boggle the mind. When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it. Since the pleasures are all delivered to us in restricted measures, we need to come back for more.  The ability to satisfy desires instantly but fleetingly breeds impatience, fueled by a nagging sense that one could be doing so much more. For instance, people visit websites less often if they are more than 250 milliseconds slower than a close competitor, according to research from Google.

Being inattentive

Mentioning Google brings me to the second problem with being available. People are unavailable because they are inattentive. In The Guardian, last month, an article noted that ” technology is contributing toward so-called ‘continuous partial attention,’ severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off.  ‘Everyone is distracted,’ Rosenstein (inventor of the “like” button) says. ‘All of the time.'”

It is revealing that many younger technologists are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned. They appear to be abiding by a Biggie Smalls lyric from their own youth about the perils of dealing crack cocaine: “never get high on your own supply.” The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later. None of this is an accident. It is all just as their designers intended. We are not available because we are already occupied, the thing is vibrating in our pockets, calling us to attend to it, and we do.

So is anyone available?

People who lead the church, then, or who just want to follow Jesus, have a somewhat daunting assignment. The church seems to expect an inordinate amount of time and a lot of attention, and we don’t feel like we have a lot of either. We feel pressed when we “must attend meetings” since they cost time. Somehow we miss that we are meeting with people we love or who need to be loved. We can’t attend to God because we take our phones to the prayer room and they lead us astray. Our bandwidth for time and attention is sucked dry by the demands of the endless outlets that wring whatever profit they can derive from us along our brief journey through life.

Is there any hope? Of course there is. I am going to offer just one of many solutions for each of the problems that steal our availability to do something transformative with Jesus.

Decide for yourself what your time is for and how it will be used. Take all the waking hours you expect to have in a week and allot them for the vision you are given, the needs you have, and the goals you want to meet. This will probably take a chart (I recommend one on paper, not on a screen). Use the chart to pray, not just plot. Let God lead you through time. Ask, “Who am I in Jesus and how do I make my time available to be my true self?”

Put limits on the technology, like the techies are doing for their children. Start with tracking how much screen time (with screens of every size) you are spending in a day. Decide how much you should spend and limit the time to that. If your job is in front of a computer, get up every half hour and walk away (pray as you are walking). Don’t put your phone by your bed (even for an alarm) or read a screen in bed. Don’t delude yourself into thinking watching TV together is the best way to relate. Get your cell (group, not phone) to talk about these things.

If we don’t do things that hold back the flood of attention-grabbing by the technologies of late capitalism we will never be available to God, to one another or to the mission of Jesus. Jesus will actually end up vying for our attention!  The people we love will need  to wait until our screens load and are finished with us. The mission might become too costly because there is just not enough time. We will not be FAT enough to do it.

For myself, when I run up against a loved one or leader with little bandwidth, I get discouraged. It is tempting to give up and join the stampede toward our individual tents where we fruitlessly try to commune with the ever-available internet, pretend face-time is a face, “likes” are love, and addiction is not what is happening. I need to turn back to hope and meditate on the quality of aliveness, right under my nose. Jesus changes wrongs into rights.

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About Rod White

Pastor for Circle of Hope, http://circleofhope.net , grandparent, church planter, peacemaker, comrade, spiritual director, psychotherapist, silence lover

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