To Social Media Or Not To Social Media

How did the 2016 election influence your attitude toward social media? Did it keep you more engaged or turn you off? For me, the taste of social media grew sour.

I began "social distancing" then in my online presence and interaction. In hindsight, this distancing mirrored the social upheaval in my embodied life as we had recently moved from Memphis back to Champaign.

And then in 2018 I did an independent study for my master's program related to the nexus of technology and spiritual formation. Suffice to say, the reading and reflection for that course certainly did not increase my affinity for social media (as just one area of "technology" which I looked at, which includes everything from language to tractors to Segways to Google).

So, the terrain I was navigating after those events induced a great reluctance to give what finite attention and resources I do have to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Amazon (somehow Google escaped - an interesting note for future consideration).

As well, I was no longer working in a position which required my ongoing attention to social media, as did my previous employer in Memphis (it was a job and place I loved, and miss, but during that specific season of life, and as an introvert, the deluge of communication wore me down at times).

Finally, as I looked for signposts from the past as to how I would relate to social media, I also noticed how in 2012 and 2013, the transition to smart phones for Amber and I seemed to bring an unwanted distraction and expectation of constant connectivity that perhaps didn't benefit us.

By time 2020 arrived, I had deleted all social media apps from my phone and was really only engaging when necessary for my newest role in marketing and communications (two jobs subsequent to my position in Memphis). Without the apps on my phone, I experienced a welcome freedom from the digiphrenia. The way a Twitter feed can suck me in with incessant scrolling causing anxiety and anger to swell. The way Instagram can beckon me to an image-driven competition. The way Facebook can dangle judgment and pretense.

I saw in hindsight how quickly I turned to my social media feed for distraction, escape or self-indulgence. It seemed to more often nudge me away from, not toward, the apostle Paul's exhortation to "seek the good of my neighbor, not my own." This isn't Instagram or Facebook or Twitter's fault, per se, but technology has a way of gaining power over us. Ultimately, we have to take ownership of our own hearts and habits. The time away was a helpful weaning off of something that had become an unhealthy addiction.

But then the coronavirus hit.

The state of Illinois shut down except for all essential business and everyone is shuttering in place. The social distancing that began on March 11 with the announcement of a cancellation of transatlantic flights and the NBA and NCAA seasons, among other things, quickly escalated to a statewide lockdown and shuttering in place here in the state of Illinois.

The entire planet is in solidarity, watching the novel coronavirus pandemic sweep across the globe. Even a nation of 1.3 billion people has instituted a nationwide lockdown. This is new territory for our generation, for our hyper-connected, global community.

So, in solidarity with billions of others around the world, trying to mitigate the spread of this insidious virus, I'm at home. Every day. (Okay, we still go on family walks and bike rides. And, we remind ourselves that people like Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank and many, many others lived at home in hiding for months and years during World War II.)

For the first two weeks, I honestly mostly felt an unexpected wave of joy and freedom. I felt more alive. Something about the existential crisis heightened my sense of awe toward God, the grand Story in which I am a minuscule but important player, and the hope we have in Risen King Jesus. The forced slow down and elimination of evening activities and decision-making about where to go with the kids all melted away in a wave of quiet bliss on our schedule.

But, this was also mixed with lament and concern for the vulnerable who do not have the privilege of health or resources during this pandemic and our new expected norms.

But, we're entering our third week now. This isn't a "staycation." This is totally new territory. I started to feel restless and lonely. I was struggling with my own new routine. The kids were showing more signs of emotional disruption from the new "normal."

I noticed, though, that Amber seemed to be doing much better staying socially bouyed that me. As an Ennegram 7, of course, she is typically perpetually hopeful and quick to stay in touch with her friends. She was staying connected via Marco Polo and Facebook, keeping company with others while at home. (What was it actually like for the rest of human history when we didn't have the phone or social media but you lived and worked from home?!).

I know each human, regardless of our introversion or extroversion tanks, is created for community. Even before we began to wander and rebel, living east of Eden, God said that something was "not good" in his creation - it was "not good" to be alone for that first spirit-filled human, Adam. If the community of Father, Son and Spirit have always existed in self-giving love, then of course, their artwork in humanity would also be made for community.

So, how am I doing at that during this new pandemic social protocol? How are you doing?

I know I crave community. I idealise community. I enjoy community. But, honestly, I struggle to seek it out when I am alone. I often self-sabotage. I cave to my introversion and assume others don't want to hear from me. I cave to the inward curvature of my sinful flesh and indulge myself rather than seek the welfare of others.

I recognized yesterday I need to do more in this state of "coronesia" (just made up that term) to pursue community - beyond that of my wonderful wife and 9, 4 and 2 year old. The invitation to community is best served and enjoyed when I approach it to be authentic, to have no pretense, to not hide, to be fully present to others and to bless others - not to get affirmation or social distraction as a replacement for social distancing. 

As Nazi-resistor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, "let him who cannot be alone beware of being in community, and let him who cannot be in community beware of being alone." In other words, coronavirus or not, we can be a danger to ourselves and to others if we don't know how to live in peace and be present to ourselves when alone and at peace and present to others when in community.

Think about the greatest human ever to walk the earth - Jesus of Nazareth, the God-man and Risen King of the cosmos. He pioneered a life of being able to regularly be alone with the Father for extended periods, but also able to engage meaningfully, compassionately, prophetically and socially with crowds, at parties, on the streets, in the synagogue, or in small groups with his apprentices.

These musings finally wander now to my initial motivation for this writing: I want to re-engage with social media in a meaningful way during this time of "coronesia" (My working definition = a state of disorientation wrought by the sudden involuntary upheaval of personal and societal norms due to the coronavirus global pandemic).

Again, not to get likes or shares, but to engage in the virtual public square and stay connected to the fears, hopes, joys and sorrows of others - millions and millions of others - who do communicate regularly in these spaces.

I know that it has been a relative degree of privilege that I've disconnected myself from social media. In our global economy and new communication matrix, some have depended upon spaces like Twitter to share the needs and voice concerns for the hurts and injustice in and around them. I've not "had" to go to those spaces to speak - or to listen. (Here, there is a tension, because I am grateful for the friendships and fellowship I share in my local Christian community; though, we use social media to still talk to each other and share needs.)
But, in my own social media distancing and now in my physical social distancing, I want to walk in the way of Jesus to be present to others around me - and, now, that largely includes doing so through an online medium. I think social media can be a helpful way to mediate relationship in our age if used wisely.

Putting boundaries on my social media re-engagement will be critical - with or without a global pandemic. Some guiding principles I hope to follow:

1) Turn off my phone one hour per day; one day per week; one week per year
2) Turn off all notifications
3) Use social media not for self-promotion but in a manner worthy of the kingdom of God
4) Resist urgency and immediacy
5) Prioritize embodied presence (with my family at home right now) over digital presence

All that said, I know there are still some beautiful and powerful ways I can be present to others physically, not defaulting to my phone. Neighborhood walks are turning out to be a great way to see and talk to neighbors as people are out and about at unprecedented levels, trying to get out of their isolation!

Perhaps, in our society where people tend to stay indoors with Netflix or be away from home at extracurricular events or out to eat at a restaurant with the shutter-at-home protocols, people are realizing we can't stay at home all the time. We might actually get to know our neighbors!


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