Early in the morning, recovering from a New Year’s Eve party on the 1st of this year, I took Instagram and Twitter – the only platforms I frequently use – off my phone. It wasn’t impulsive; I’d planned on doing it. This year, I’m taking a break every month from something different to see what life Instafree is like.
Never have I felt a similar month long breath of fresh air. It was difficult, don’t get me wrong; here I am, social media addicted and admitting it. I needed a break, and short of swimming with my phone, the best plan of action was to rough it until February.
Like taking a vacation from a part time job, I had a lot of time on my hands. Checking to see if anyone had acknowledged digital me existed was a task, and it consumed so much of my time that, without it, I ended up with more time in my hands than Kanye has time for Kanye.
Fasting from the FAKE (sad!) media in January taught me a few things, which are that:
In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam details the rise and fall of the American community, pointing out specifically at one point the drastic turning point in the patterns of civic engagement when TVs were first introduced to the American living room.
The pace of this transformation was astonishing. Those that provided electronic entertainment – radio, the video recorder, and, above all, the television – spread into homes in American society five to ten times more quickly than other items that are as ubiquitous.
For the first time, we were able to participate emotionally at a market share previously held by what represented the utilization of American leisure: community events & clubs, family dinners & radio shows. Social capital was now being exchanged and consumed on an entirely different level than before; digital media was, and is, the medium now through which the digitally engaged citizen becomes socially and emotionally satisfied. As the rate of TVs per household simultaneously rose, more Americans were now able to commit to this social consumption solitarily in their own respective spaces, separated from family members.
Enter 2007: the release of the iPhone, the unleashing of Facebook & Twitter, and the birth of the social media age. Our new institution is the News Feed; our new public forum under 180 characters; the new version of our Hell: “___________________ would like to connect on LinkedIn.” Putnam again:
1. Institutions shape politics. The rules and standard operating procedures that make up institutions leave their imprint on political outcomes by structuring political behavior. Outcomes are not simply reducible to the billiard-ball interaction of individuals nor to the intersection of broad social forces. Institutions influence outcomes because they shape actors’ identities, power, and strategies. 2. Institutions are shaped by history. Whatever other factors may affect their form, institutions have inertia and “robustness.” They therefore embody historical trajectories and turning points. History matters because it is “path dependent”: what comes first (even if it was in some sense “accidental”) conditions what comes later. Individuals may “choose” their institutions, but they do not choose them under circumstances of their own making, and their choices in turn influence the rules within which their successors choose.
The social sphere is a good thing. I have relationships with wonderful people who I wouldn’t know if not for our new institution. While the old social capital was baking a pie for the new neighbor, it is now posting on a friend’s wall. Rotary Club was probably great, but try to fit as many fans of The Same Photo of Kevin Spacey Every Day page on Facebook into a Moose Lodge. Social change occurs on a scale previously unthinkable, now accessible to those who’ve been marginalized for centuries. We can microfinance equipment for farmers in Guatemala, share a piece on a Syrian refugee, and draw attention to an ACLU lawsuit result in one sitting. This is incredible.
Like all good things – coffee, running, buying a beautiful chair – moderation is paramount. If you indulge in those things past healthy boundaries, you’ll end up overcaffeinated, broke and in a leg cast. Like that, institutions sometimes have unintended but warranted consequences. I’d been pulling full speed ahead, unchecked and inconsiderate to the health of my soul, time, relationships & emotions. Long stints on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter most frequently left me bankrupt, exhausted & depressed after spending a considerable amount of time comparing myself to others.
A month away from the noise left me with the quiet to replace what previously demanded my time with a healthier alternative. Like quitting chocolate lunches for spinach, clarity came swift. First, instead of craving the approval of my digital identity, I had the quiet margin to get a better scale of myself. The world didn’t crash, because I’m really not very important or essential to what happens in the grand scheme of things. Not dealing with an hour long Instadive landed me the time to read The Road to Character by David Brooks:
We don’t become better because we acquire new information. We become better because we acquire better loves. We don’t become what we know. Education is a process of love formation… wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.
Information ≠ progress / life / worth, etc. Knowing more doesn’t equate to character, it only synthesizes control if left to its own devices. If I understand the world, I might be able to manipulate it to achieve what I desire, right? Finally, I had the margin to drop the pursuit of more in exchange for meaningful. Brooks echoes Augstine – “We become what we love.” If I love, crave & pursue approval, validation or importance, I become those things and operate in that economy. Again, David Brooks:
The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude.
That’s the kind of person I desire most truly to be. I, the egotist, will easily spend myself to frantic panic trying to find the path to being ‘worth’ something in the digital landscape while others exist right around me in my local landscape. Taking a break taught me the practice of being present in conversations, and focusing on the relationships in life that mean much. Self promoting, jarred & anxious is exactly what describes me when focusing on how to make my sandhill bigger, and not looking at the big picture.
This revealed to me a deeper calling to a higher purpose – what would happen if I traded in the beater of social media insecurity and loops of purpose searching on news feeds late at night for a pursuit of character, wisdom, purposeful engagement & presence with others?
A reactive approach would be to retreat, and to avoid social media at all costs, resorting for no measure of it at all as opposed to any risk of being pulled to the black hole of my pictures are awful and everyone else is better than I am.
A proactive approach, however, might weigh the risk and see that, yes, too much of a good thing is unhealthy. However, that’s not to say there’s no opportunity in using a good thing well. Like anything else, using a tool well is always preferable over not using it at all.
My commitment is to be proactive, and to admit now that I do have a problem, and for now the next important sign post in my Small Path is to scale back for a bit, until I’ve learned how to balance increasing user engagement with paying attention to people who are right in front of me, as well as how to leave my phone in another room so I’m not distracted from reading a book.
Character ferments and blossoms when it has space & margin to do so. Purposeful practice in principles that matter are more valuable and important than the cycle of hair pulling does-anyone-know-I-exist anxiety. Take a break from another journey down the feed, and take the first step into sweet silence, moderation, & peace. Jesus had so many following him that he was intentional in getting away from it all, to the erémos – a quiet place.
That’s the point of this all. Get away from the noise, drink of the water that gives you real satisfaction. Jesus told the woman at the well, “Drink of my water, and you’ll never thirst again.” Do I believe that? Perhaps, but certainly not when I thirst for approval, validation & cognitive stimulation in Instaeverythingelse other than what truly does deliver. The message has always been the same: the first will be made last, the meek will inherit the earth, not the great. Jesus said only the sick need help, and man, do I need help.
Here’s what I did, and I give it ★★★★★ on Yelp 10/10 times.
Go to a quiet place, and reflect on the tapestry of your life. A mentor once told me, “You’re really not that important in the grand scheme of things.” He was right; what would actually happen after an afternoon of you out of the noise and in the Garden?
If you’re feeling saucy, go hang out with some monks at a monastery. At the least, choose to rest where you can finally hear yourself think, perhaps where AT&T can’t get data your way to fuel your social media habit.
Getting away physically is wonderful, and getting away mentally, spiritually & emotionally is even better. Give up another run of late night tweets for a conversation with family, or to cook dinner. If there are other practices or habits you feel lead to fast from, do it. Fasting from food, TV, meetings, coffee or anything else that adds noise is on the table to be off the table.
Ernest Hemmingway said, “There’s nothing to writing. You just sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” He has a point; sometimes we have to blurt out what we’ve been suppressing inside with stress, noise & overstimulation. Embrace the process of processing, and work through your thoughts. Be Socrates to yourself, and ask, “Why do I do what I do?”
In the moment with the most noise, stress & anxiety, Jesus went to the Garden and prayed. In the quiet, he confronted his fears & battled with God. Israel, when he wrestled God, gave all his anger & frustration, and was left with a true new name and identity afterwards. Prayer changes the way we see the journey, because we bring our cares to the man who said, “Take on my yolk which is easy, and my burden which is light.”
My hope for you is you try peace on for size, and sacrifice the gain for self for the sacrifice of our desire to be important. You are important, but in ways we cannot see when anxious & stressed. To go up, we must go down. The first at the table will be last, and the last will be first. We, the witnesses of 2007 & TVs in bedrooms now are beckoned towards something more crucial: the repurposing of our social tools to effect good in and for others. Through moderation and intentionality, we can sacrifice self-exultation for self-effacement; greatness for wholeness.
“Joy is not produced because others praise you. Joy emanates unbidden and unforced. Joy comes as a gift when you least expect it. At those fleeting moments you know why you were put here and what truth you serve. You may not feel giddy at those moments, you may not hear the orchestra’s delirious swell or see flashes of crimson and gold, but you will feel a satisfaction, a silence, a peace—a hush. Those moments are the blessings and the signs of a beautiful life.” - Robert Punam