Last week, my little brother FaceTimed me. This was during the witching hour—that magical time just before dinner when our toddler and our infant work so well together to set the world on fire. I was averting disasters while my wife juggled in the kitchen, but my brother had never called me before.
Michael is 21 years old. He’s severely autistic, he’s a Pixar connoisseur, he’s a Richard Simmons enthusiast, and for health and behavioral reasons he’s now in an individualized supported living home full of screens, furniture, and professional caretakers. You better believe I answered the call.
I expected one of his caretakers to pop up onscreen, helping him call his immediate family as part of some new checklist. Instead all I saw was Michael’s shoulder and half his face. I could tell from the light that he was watching TV.
I greeted him. He glanced at me. Michael doesn’t talk or write, so I made our family devil-horns version of the “I love you” sign, which is the only one he’ll sometimes reciprocate. This time he didn’t.
Our infant was trying to crawl and instead was digging into the hardwood floor with her chin for a shovel. Knowing he wouldn't answer, I asked Michael if he was okay.
Our toddler scaled the couch to sound her hangry yawp over the countertops of the house. I asked Michael if he needed anything. He went on watching whatever he was watching.
My wife fired an S.O.S. flare from the kitchen. I told Michael I had to go, held up our devil-horn sign one more time, and ended the call.
Right away I felt guilty, and I think I’ve figured out why.
Digital tech is almost always about doing. It's about filling empty moments with activity. We check social media, we play a game, we Skype someone to say, hear, show, or see something. I think that’s part of why I was confused when Michael called. I couldn’t figure out what he wanted me to do.
Then I remembered the advice author John Green received when he was a chaplain at a children’s hospital, struggling to comfort families in crisis. The advice was this: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”
Years ago Michael used to drag us into his room for a lively session of Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Richard Simmons. He knew the dances so well he’d spend most of the time correcting our form. More often in recent years, he’s pulled one of us in there just to sit. No play. No cuddling. Just watching Finding Nemo separately together.
Now I think that’s what Michael was asking me to do last week. He wanted me to be there with him in that little room. And after about two minutes, I hung up on him.
There are plenty of debates about whether technology brings families together or tears them apart. What gets less air time is that the best part of being with family is often ignoring each other. You sit in the same room and everyone does their own thing—reading, puzzles, napping, long-winded blogging. No one speaks, but everyone is warmed by being together.
It’s what Gandalf does in the best scene of that stupid Hobbit trilogy. Bilbo is mourning dwarves one, four, and seven, and Gandalf sits down beside him and just cleans his pipe. He’s got nothing to say, and somehow that silence restores the hobbit (the character, not the stupid trilogy).
I’ve learned to jump off an app as soon as there’s nothing left to do on it. But if I ever get Michael on FaceTime again, I’ll stay put. He can watch his movies, eat his dinner, or crush a dance routine, and I won’t just do something; I’ll FaceTime.