Saturday, March 8, 2014

Social Media and Lent: All or Nothing?

Some people have decided to "give up social media" for Lent. They're "off" Facebook or Google+ or whatever until Easter.

I respect this, and can appreciate why people might choose to do it. Lent is a season to go into the desert, to give our time to God, to withdraw from some activities (even ones that are good in themselves) in order to open up greater space in our hearts for silence, for listening to God. For some people, the simplest and most helpful thing to do is just turn off all the gadgets. Period. I would not want to discourage anyone who concludes, after prayerful consideration, that Jesus is calling them to draw closer to him by taking up this particular kind of solitude.

I do think that anyone who makes this decision, however, should consider carefully that it is not only a personal sacrifice (as if social media were the same as a television program or a preferred kind of food). To "give up" using communications media is to make ourselves unavailable to the persons with whom we usually communicate. When we make this sacrifice, we are asking them also to endure the loss of our presence through these media, to go without communication and companionship with us. This may be something they will have to accept, but it is also an important factor we should consider.

We must, of course, make every effort (not only during Lent) to use social media as instruments of genuine human interaction. If we are doing this (even imperfectly) then we are fostering real relationships with 100% real life human beings. We are sharing ourselves and our real companionship with them by means of these media. The fact that these are "virtual" media does not mean that the persons who use them are only "virtual" humans.

Communication, even by means of technologically refined media, remains an interaction between human persons and therefore calls us to give ourselves and to be receptive to others. This does not mean that it has to be something hard and painful. The fact that we enjoy and find a richness in using these media indicates they have the foundation of genuine human communication.

If we persevere online with a commitment to being faithful to our humanity and the humanity of others, we will find challenges and difficulties and the need to do hard things, such as the exercise of self-restraint, the courtesy that makes room for others, the endurance of misunderstandings, the willingness to admit when we are wrong and to forgive, and all the other elements of being human together.

Certainly, social media in a particular way lend themselves to remaining superficial, to the illusion of easy intimacy, and to giving less attention to more pressing personal and relational responsibilities. With God's grace, we have to recognize and struggle against these negative tendencies that the media allow by the very fact of their versatility, speed, and range. Nevertheless, these media also open profound and positive possibilities for communication and human interaction. We as Christians need to take responsibility for these positive possibilities; we need to cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit and make the effort to use these media for the good.

These are media that we can and do use for building real community among Christians and with others, for helping each other, for praying together, and (often unknowingly) for being present in some way to those who are lonely. We can be witnesses to one another, and even open up the luminous "missionary element" present in our daily lives when we share our joys and struggles, because the love of Jesus is at work within these very mundane joys and struggles. We can also consciously reach out to evangelize others, or we can be open to responding to new opportunities to travel paths with new people whom God may bring to us in various ways.

Of course we often use these media in a self-indulgent way (just as we often indulge our vanity in relationships we have with people we see offline everyday). A break of some sort can bring much needed silence and focus.

But is "all or nothing" the only possibility? Some may choose the option of "nothing" and ask us, their friends, to endure their absence as a share in their sacrifice. As true friends, we should embrace them in this and support them even if we do truly miss them.

Still, it doesn't have to be a question of all or nothing. There are many other ways that Lent on social media can be made meaningful.

We must remember that our presence here offers us the opportunity to practice "spiritual works of mercy" (not necessarily "talking about God" but even just being human here and helping others to have confidence that they are not alone in their struggles).

Certainly, there are other ways that social media can serve our Lenten observance of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Some people might consider more limited sacrifices: e.g. staying off three days a week as opposed to a complete blackout, or checking in less frequently each day, or putting aside the use of mobile devices. Perhaps people online might consider some group prayer or penitential practices, such as praying a Holy Hour every Wednesday or Friday at the same time (and encouraging one another in this), or choosing a common text for Lectio Divina and sharing insights, or perhaps agreeing to a special sacrifice for a common intention.

Social media do not have to be a distraction. They could actually help us to stay in front of God in a deeper way, not only during Lent. But we must first recognize and be committed to the fact that social media are not "mind candy" that at best we indulge in as a guilty pleasure, that serve as nothing but a distraction and therefore have no place in the seriousness of our life.

Whatever uses and/or sacrifices we make this Lent (or any other time) on social media and the use of technology more generally should be given proper consideration. They should allow for the enrichment of personal recollection and also help curb careless habits and develop an attentiveness in using these media for good. We should ask Jesus our merciful Lord to form our hearts with his grace as we seek charity -- the motive of love of God and of one another -- as the focus of our presence online.

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