On Friday night, my wife and I were able to get out of the house and go on a date. And despite being really tired, we didn’t just grab a bite to eat and come home to crash this time. It was a real date. Dinner and a movie. It was wonderful. When my wife and I got home, it was pretty late, and we were back to feeling tired. One of those nights where you really don’t want to haul yourself out of bed and study your scriptures. But I did. And as I studied, I came across this counsel from the prophet Jacob:
Wherefore, do not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy.
For some reason, the words seemed to really pop out at me. I pondered on Jacob’s words, several sources surfaced to my mind that helped me see this verse in a new light:
Source #1: Ready Player One
First, I started thinking about Jacob’s words in the context of the movie we had just watched. For our date, my wife and I went to see Ready Player One. I give the book 8/10. I give the movie 6/10 (I was about to say 7 but I have to subtract a point to account for the “recliner theater high”).
If you don’t already know the background of the story, Ready Player One takes place after a genius software guy builds a massive online world. It starts out as a game like the Sims or Second Life, but is expansive enough and accumulates enough users that everything in that digital universe becomes more important, more stable, and more attractive than what is going on in the real world. The digital universe’s money replaces the dollar as the global currency standard. Banking, business, education, relationships, and all other interactions happen in this online world much more frequently than outside it. People go to work, make a salary, and live almost entirely in this virtual reality. The world outside is pretty bleak, so why not, right?
I’m not going to spoil everything, but I will let you know that the theme of the story (more so in the movie than in the book, actually), is about learning to live in and enjoy the world we are given– to take advantage of the opportunities reality gives us every day without always wanting to escape into a “better” reality that we can invent for ourselves, but which ultimately is not real.
Source #2: Elder Bednar in 2010
The next thing that came to my mind as I read Jacob’s warning to “not spend money for that which is of no worth, nor your labor for that which cannot satisfy” was a talk by Elder Bednar almost a decade ago called “Things as they really are” (text, video).
In that great talk, he addresses the problems with letting virtual reality overcome our actual reality. It’s so good and so poignant that I’m going to copy a good chunk of it right here:
Sadly, some young men and young women in the Church today ignore “things as they really are” and neglect eternal relationships for digital distractions, diversions, and detours that have no lasting value… A young man or woman may waste countless hours, postpone or forfeit vocational or academic achievement, and ultimately sacrifice cherished human relationships because of mind- and spirit-numbing video and online games…
You may now be asking yourself, “But, Brother Bednar, you began today by talking about the importance of a physical body in our eternal progression. Are you suggesting that video gaming and various types of computer-mediated communication can play a role in minimizing the importance of our physical bodies?” That is precisely what I am declaring. Let me explain.
We live at a time when technology can be used to replicate reality, to augment reality, and to create virtual reality… Such a simulation can be constructive if the fidelity is high and the purposes are good… However, a simulation or model can lead to spiritual impairment and danger if the fidelity is high and the purposes are bad… I raise an apostolic voice of warning about the potentially stifling, suffocating, suppressing, and constraining impact of some kinds of cyberspace interactions and experiences upon our souls…
If the adversary cannot entice us to misuse our physical bodies, then one of his most potent tactics is to beguile you and me as embodied spirits to disconnect gradually and physically from things as they really are. In essence, he encourages us to think and act as if we were in our premortal, unembodied state. And, if we let him, he can cunningly employ some aspects of modern technology to accomplish his purposes. Please be careful of becoming so immersed and engrossed in pixels, texting, earbuds, twittering, online social networking, and potentially addictive uses of media and the Internet that you fail to recognize the importance of your physical body and miss the richness of person-to-person communication. Beware of digital displays and data in many forms of computer-mediated interaction that can displace the full range of physical capacity and experience.
He then went on to relate the heart-breaking stories of men and women who had become so engrossed in their online activities that they spent hours each day cultivating entirely new lives as their online personas: new houses, pets, jobs, and even spouses. Many of these spend real money accumulating virtual possessions. One woman described her feelings about her online relationship especially vividly:
“[My online boyfriend] became my everyday life. All the tangible stuff fell away. My body did not exist. I had no skin, no hair, no bones. All desire had converted itself into a cerebral current that reached nothing but my frontal lobe. There was no outdoors, no social life, no weather. There was only the computer screen and the phone, my chair, and maybe a glass of water.”
After relating this and similar tragedies, Elder Bednar sternly warned:
An immature or misguided spouse may devote an inordinate amount of time to playing video games, chatting online, or in other ways allowing the digital to dominate things as they really are… Important opportunities are missed for developing and improving interpersonal skills, for laughing and crying together, and for creating a rich and enduring bond of emotional intimacy. Progressively, seemingly innocent entertainment can become a form of pernicious enslavement.
To feel the warmth of a tender hug from an eternal companion or to see the sincerity in the eyes of another person as testimony is shared—all of these things experienced as they really are through the instrument of our physical body—could be sacrificed for a high-fidelity fantasy that has no lasting value. If you and I are not vigilant, we can become “past feeling” (1 Nephi 17:45), as did Laman and Lemuel long ago…
My beloved brothers and sisters, beware! To the extent personal fidelity decreases in computer-mediated communications and the purposes of such communications are distorted, perverted, and wicked, the potential for spiritual disaster is dangerously high. I implore you to turn away immediately and permanently from such places and activities.
Source #3: Elder Bednar in Argentina
The last thing that came to my mind was yet another Elder Bednar experience. This time, it was a Q&A that he had participated in after a talk in Buenos Aires. A young Bishop asked Elder Bednar how he could best balance the demands of Church, work, and family. Elder Bednar responded:
“Balance” is a false notion. You can only do one thing at one time. So if you’re attending to your family, by definition you are neglecting Church and work. If you are at work, by definition you cannot attend to the immediate needs of your family or Church.
So, when you’re home, be home– not at work, not at Church. When you are home, be home. When you are at Church, be at Church– not at home, not at work– at Church. When you’re at work, be at work– not in Church, not at home– at work.
Pulling it all together
That’s when the pieces fell into place. Ready Player One. Jacob’s words. Elder Bednar. The Spirit started to teach me about some changes I need to make. I’m not big on social media. I don’t play video games or get on forums. I can’t relate to the kind of addictions he mentioned.
But at the same time, I’ve noticed that whenever I have a free moment, my first instinct is to pull out my phone and start reading my favorite Mormon and software blogs. When my alarm goes off in the morning, I often check email as a way to wake myself up. And sometimes when I’m with my family, I’m mentally brainstorming how to tackle the next work or school project. And when we finally get the kid to bed, too often my wife and I each retreat for some “personal time” zoning out on our devices.
None of these things are inherently bad. In fact, they are all very good… in their proper context. But I realized that good things from one area of my life become digital distractions when they impede on the quality of time in other areas of my life. And some of that stuff can be removed entirely. It’s time spent on “that which cannot satisfy.”
I’m going to be setting some new personal goals. We’re going to set some new family goals. We’re going to be looking at everything we do and ask, “Will this matter in 1,000 years?.”
We’ll miss some TV shows. Coworkers’ questions will wait until morning. But the world will go on, Facebook will survive, and with any luck, my family will be all the better for it.