Technology and the Soul
In a multitasking world filled with mountains of information and floods of messages, how do you harmonize things digital and divine?
Illustrations by Andrew Colin Beck (’13)
Much of my research in theatre and media arts is dedicated to observations of the rising generation, and you students have a lot to be proud of.
A recent column in New York Times Magazine noted that young people today are more averse to risky behavior than their parents were at the same age. Drug and alcohol use, smoking, and sexual activity have all been in sharp decline in your demographic during the past 20 years.1 Also, financial firm TD Ameritrade sees evidence that you are more financially savvy and better savers than your parents.2 I certainly believe that these and other positive trends would only be amplified among the student body of BYU.
This good news does not come as a shock to me. I watch you on campus; I see you doing good. I am acutely aware of my responsibility to add to and not detract from the spirit that you carry.
While you certainly deserve praise and recognition, you should also recognize that your generation has its own unique characteristics and challenges. For example, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to capture and maintain your attention. I know that many of you are multitasking at this very moment—doing homework, checking your Facebook account, answering e-mails, texting your friends about your lunch plans, or even shopping. All of these things are available to us here in the Marriott Center through the devices that we carry in our pockets; these tools and technologies are increasingly becoming vital parts of our work, our play, our families, and our very identities.
I’m addicted, too. If you would have told me a few years ago that I would feel completely lost without a cell phone, I never would have believed you. Now my iPhone is almost always within reach. My children likely believe that my most important possession is my MacBook Air, which is usually open and on whenever I am in the house. If I hear my children cheering, “Go, Mama, go!” from the basement, I know they are not actually cheering on me but rather my Mii on the Wii. I know that there is excellent cell phone service here in the Marriott Center because on any other Tuesday you would find me answering e-mails and texting my husband to arrange my own lunch plans. So please understand that my task is not to scold or reprimand you for spending too much time on Facebook or for carrying your phone to class. Rather, I will try to give some hopeful and helpful words about how our spiritual lives might intersect with the world of data and devices that swirls around us.
In answer to my fervent prayers, the Spirit has guided me again and again to two doctrines that were central to one of the most revered devotionals ever given at BYU—one that I have personal experience with.
On Jan. 12, 1988, I sat here in this very space in one of the chairs that you are sitting in today. I knew that the president of the university at the time was wise and that he loved the students here on campus very much. That is why I was sitting in the Marriott Center ready to receive personal revelation. That revelation came in the form of a devotional talk delivered by university president Jeffrey R. Holland. The devotional was titled “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” and in it President Holland provided profound doctrines in answer to the question “Why be morally clean?”3
I believe that two doctrines he spoke of that day, the doctrine of the soul and the doctrine of the sacrament, have profound implications for our media-enabled—or mediated—interactions with the world.
All Things Given Us
First, the doctrine of the soul. Elder Holland taught that we “must understand the revealed, restored Latter-day Saint doctrine of the soul, and the high and inextricable part the body plays in that doctrine.”4 In support of that statement, he cited D&C 88:15: “The spirit and the body are the soul of man.”
With this in mind, I want to call to your attention the ways in which mass communication technologies impact your body—and therefore your soul. I also want you to be conscious of the ways in which the world is impacted by your soul—and therefore your body.
In very real ways, communication technologies allow us to project our souls across vast geographies. The very nature of our presence is rapidly changing and expanding. As with all things here in our second estate (see Abr. 3:26), there are some spiritual disadvantages of these new abilities that stand in opposition to their obvious rewards.
I am not speaking of theoretical or metaphysical notions. Rather, I am speaking of very practical and actual effects that I know you and I have experienced. For example, my texting or e-mailing before and even during a devotional has an effect on my presence here. My iPhone enables me to divide my presence. While I might be seated here, part of my attention—part of my soul—is back at the office, where the concerns of the e-mail I am reading are properly housed. Another part of my soul is in the company of the person I am texting—miles away. Such a disbursement of my soul has prevented me on occasion from participating in a devotional with my complete presence, and I have learned that receiving a message through the Spirit is dependent upon my willingness to listen to that message with my whole soul.
In contrast to those occasions, perhaps the reason that Elder Holland’s talk has had such a lasting impact on my life is because I did experience it with my whole soul. The physical impact of those words went far beyond the sounds that entered my ears. I felt them. I continue to feel them in a manner that has become characteristic of our faith’s notion of a testimony. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Oliver Cowdery was told that the Spirit speaks “in your mind and in your heart” (D&C 8:2), which implies that testimonies have a physical component in addition to a rational conception. Therefore, the language of the Spirit is partly a physical language—or, in other words, a true and native language of the soul.
The soul’s ability to communicate by that language is not necessarily hindered by our use of technology. In fact, the Church has enthusiastically embraced the opportunities that communication technologies have provided to extend the presence of our modern prophets throughout the world. Today we often take for granted how President Thomas S. Monson and the living apostles of Jesus Christ are present in our lives through satellite broadcasts, web streaming, and other digital technologies. We recognize their faces, we know their voices, and we feel their presence as they testify of Him who sent them and of Him whose presence is our ultimate goal and reward. As Lehi taught, there is “opposition in all things” (2 Ne. 2:11). In opposition to those negative things that often dominate our discussions of the Internet and all things mediated is an explosion in the availability of all that is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report” (A of F 1:13).
We should acknowledge that our cell phones and laptops carry no secret powers that will push us toward one side or the other of the war that began in heaven; they are simply tools that amplify the choices we make through our agency. Agency was the issue in the beginning, and agency—personal, private, moment-to-moment agency—is the issue for you and me today.
In 2 Nephi 2:26 Lehi explained that because we “are redeemed from the fall [we] have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon” (emphasis added). I take this as a scriptural promise that our agency will never be overwhelmed, by technology or anything else. Indeed, I believe that technology enhances our agency, allowing us at every moment to choose the better parts of our world.
In the next verse Lehi said, “All things are given [us]” (2 Ne. 2:27). Clearly the phrase “all things” can apply to our world of digital information and Google. All things truly have been given us, good and bad, and the act of choosing from among those things—or exercising our agency—alters the nature of our eternal souls. Each time we choose light, truth, and righteousness we become more like our Heavenly Father and we develop some of His most important characteristics: we expand our knowledge, we increase our capacities, we grow in our compassion and love for others, and we build our testimonies. All of these rewards come because our most important act of agency is to choose to see things from a perspective of eternity—to choose to see things through the vision of our Heavenly Father.
The Good, the Happy, and the Worthy
When I was a child, President Spencer W. Kimball regularly told members of the Church to keep a journal as a record of their faith for the later benefit of their families.5 When I was about to be married, my BYU stake president gave me some very good advice: He told me to take pictures and document my life and my marriage and my family. He explained that this would benefit my children because they would see that my husband and I existed before they were born, that we loved each other, and that important things happened that they didn’t know of or remember. He said that a record of our life through pictures would give our children a sense of eternity, because they would have evidence of good, happy, and worthy things beyond their own experiences.
How are you keeping records of the good, happy, and worthy things in your life?
We all have the opportunity and the responsibility to be record keepers. Beyond journals and photographs, we now have at our disposal an immense system of record keeping and sharing. Our blogs, family videos, Facebook pages, and tweets are all opportunities to inject goodness, testimony, and faith into the world. Your digital footprint—your record of experiences, testimony, and faith—will have the greatest impact on those who are the most important to you: your closest friends and your immediate family.
I am so grateful that my sister Anne was a record keeper. She was also a mom, an eighth-grade reading and writing teacher, a Laurel advisor, a runner, a photographer, a sharer of recipes, and a blogger. She loved using technology to improve her life and to reach out to others.
Two and a half years ago this beautiful sister of mine was engaged in a brutal war with metastatic melanoma. While she was fighting cancer, she published stories in the Friend and the New Era, recorded the miraculous experience of her daughter’s birth through NPR’s StoryCorps program, and regularly blogged about the everyday occurrences of her life. In every one of these instances she shared her testimony, described her existence as blessed, and identified herself as a daughter of God.
On Aug. 15, 2009, she posted the following on her blog, This Home Is Filled with Love and Dreams:
I have no doubt that if it is Heavenly Father’s will, I will be healed. But even if I’m not, I have to admit that I feel at peace. The last month has been fraught with panic and frantic anguish, but now I feel differently. I trust Him. I look forward to asking WHY all of this had to happen. I’m not going to ask it now, because I know that He can see the whole picture and I know that whatever His will is, things will be okay. My girls will be okay because they have Ward. I know that Ward will be okay because he has them. And we all have each other—FOREVER—and that’s what really matters.6
Seven days later Anne passed away. Her body is buried on a peaceful hill in Eden, Utah, where she lived with her husband, Ward, and their three daughters. Most of the time I feel like she is very far away, but when I read those words from her blog, I feel her presence and I know that her spirit and her body—her fierce and gentle soul—are not lost. Those words have power to bring Ann’s presence to me, and, more than that, those words have the power to transport a portion of my soul back to a time before cancer and loss and forward to a time of resurrection and reunion. Those words—that testimony—help me feel eternity.
Anne, like me, was an avid consumer of mediated messages; she read widely, and she loved a good movie. However, even before the weight of mortality began to rest on her, she was consistent in her view that she was participating in a process that had eternal significance. She was insistent that everything she read or watched with her children should teach something good or build something good in herself or her family. Similarly, everything she wrote or shared on the Internet was meant to help someone or demonstrate something decent or testify of something great. Her engagement with the world through technology was something more than just entertainment, a hobby, or an interesting way to pass the time. To her, these were holy activities—purposeful, consecrated actions and sacramental exercises of faith that helped her obtain and share the vision of our Heavenly Father.
Uniting Symbolically with God
That brings me to a second doctrine that Elder Holland talked about in 1988: the doctrine of a holy sacrament. He said:
A sacrament could be any one of a number of gestures or acts or ordinances that unite us with God and His limitless powers. We are imperfect and mortal; He is perfect and immortal. But from time to time—indeed, as often as is possible and appropriate—we find ways and go to places and create circumstances where we can unite symbolically with Him and, in so doing, gain access to His power. Those special moments of union with God are sacramental moments, such as kneeling at a marriage altar or blessing a newborn baby or partaking of the emblems of the Lord’s Supper. This latter ordinance is the one we in the Church have come to associate most traditionally with the word sacrament, though it is technically only one of many such moments when we formally take the hand of God and feel His divine power.7
In a world in which all things are delivered to us electronically, a world in which light and darkness are divided by a small number of keystrokes or even the click of a mouse, a world in which what you see is determined much more by the perceptions of your heart than the function of your eyes—in this world we must make our use of technology and media a holy sacrament.
When we engage with this world through digital devices, we must take every opportunity to “formally take the hand of God and feel His divine power” as He alters our vision to see things as they really are. When we are discerning the myriad of messages that swirl around us every day, we must create those sacramental conditions on a moment-to-moment basis. This means that we must not take our souls to places where the Spirit cannot follow. We must not find ourselves in circumstances where the Holy Ghost cannot abide.
We must be watchful of our agency in each moment because it is often the unassuming and unprepared-for moments of our lives that have the biggest consequences. Such a moment came for me when I was 18. I was participating in the Utah High School State Debate Tournament, and I met my husband for the first time. There are various versions of that day’s events, depending upon if you ask my husband or me. One thing we do agree on is that there was a note—and we probably agree on that only because I still have it.
It is glorious and comes from a 1980s context that I think only people in their 40s can truly understand. This note was our first communication. It reads: “Hello. I think you are beautiful. If you think you are beautiful say hello and I will be your slave for life.”
It is signed, “The Man in the Black Suit.”
Though this note was mysterious, exciting, and more than a little bit silly at the time, it has become holy to me in the context of the rest of my life. This was the beginning of my most important relationship. This represents the point at which my family began. This piece of paper was present at the moment that made all the difference in who I am today.
My husband’s and my communication now is far more mundane, and, like much of your communication, it comes in bursts of 144 characters or fewer. “Love you” is a common message, as is “I’m here.” To me, our text messages are just as holy as that first note, because they represent consecrated efforts to serve, cheer, comfort, and care for one another. While that first note represented exciting possibilities, these daily missives demonstrate the extraordinary reality of a family unit that tries (and sometimes succeeds) through faith, covenants, and divine promises to become something greater than the members of the family are as individuals.
Our texts are sacramental to me because they are evidence of a partnership between imperfect people and a perfect Deity who is active in our efforts to improve the daily condition of our souls. We facilitate this improvement through conversations, sometimes through texts, sometimes through e-mails, and often even in person.
The tools of technology that surround us are easily tasked to our benefit and refinement when they facilitate conversations rather than simply transport communications. A conversation, by definition, is an interchange—a back and forth or give and take in which we listen and respond. The best conversations that we have often become moments of private repentance, because it is often during conversations that we change our minds, find a new path, or decide to do better. The changes we make to our souls in these moments are usually small, simple, incremental, comforting, and productive.
Beyond Mere Consumption
You can often tell if the media and technology in your life are having a positive or negative effect on your soul by the quality of the media conversations you are having. We should regularly ask ourselves three questions: First, am I having media conversations, or am I simply consuming media? Second, what conversations am I having about media with my family and those closest to me? Third, what am I doing to improve the conversations around me when I use media to communicate?
As a media scholar, I can tell you that simply consuming media messages is one of the most destructive things we can do to ourselves. The changes that unchallenged consumption has on your soul are also small, simple, and incremental but oriented toward your eventual destruction. Any media practice that discourages conversations with others or is focused inwardly on your appetites rather than outwardly on others will rob you of your faith and prove debilitating to your soul.
As I said before, I know that you are good. Your potential for greatness and beauty and everything exciting and happy and wonderful is palpable to me and almost overwhelming. This world of yours is filled with mountains of information and floods of messages that vie for your attention and present unprecedented challenges. But really, it is still just a matter of agency, just as it always has been. And I have faith in you.
I invite you to use media to “find ways and go to places and create circumstances where [you] can unite symbolically with [our Father] and . . . gain access to His power” to help you navigate through the choices and challenges of your generation. For this is life eternal, that you in your world, with the tools of your day and the practices of your everyday life—that you will come to know the true and living God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent (see John 17:3).
- See Tara Parker-Pope, “The Kids Are More Than All Right,” The Well Column (blog), New York Times Magazine, Feb. 2, 2012.
- See “TD Ameritrade Survey: Gen Y Saving More Rigorously for Retirement Than Their Parents and Grandparents,” Ameritrade, last modified Dec. 20, 2011.
- Jeffrey R. Holland, Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2001), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 11.
- See Spencer W. Kimball, “,” New Era, October 1975, pp. 4–5.
- Anne Creager, “August 15, 2009,” This Home Is Filled with Love and Dreams (blog), Aug. 15, 2009.
- Holland, Of Souls, pp. 27–28; emphasis added.