By Scott Keith –
I understand that what I am about to write is full of irony and perhaps even sanctimony or hypocrisy because this will be published on the internet and shared on various social media platforms.
I recently listened to an Art of Manliness podcast (ha, perhaps another form of social media), which interviewed Christina Cook, author of The Joy of Missing Out. In part, her book recounts a thirty-day period in which she gave up the internet, even email. I say “even email” because that is the work-related medium that I have a hard time eliminating from my daily life.
But I respected her approach to reintegration when she plugged back in more than her completing the herculean task of “unplugging” for a month. Additionally, her interview reminded me of my own apprehensions regarding our almost ubiquitous addiction to keeping ourselves busy with all things “social” on the internet.
The problem is that social media is anti-social. When we are trolling Facebook, laughing at a meme on Instagram, pinning something on Pinterest, or watching dancing cats on YouTube, we lose touch with the people right in front of us. The “social” in social media is there to represent the idea that these platforms serve to connect us to other people, often people with whom we have lost touch because of time and distance. Thus, one of the supposed reasons for its existence is to connect us all in a way which was previously impossible.
In the process, in connecting to the people we haven’t seen in twenty years, we disconnect from the people who are right in front of us. This disconnecting is a learned behavior for those of us who did not grow up with the internet, but it is becoming instinctual for the children who are growing up with smartphones in their pockets. Several studies have already shown that those who use internet connecting personal screens from a young age face a host of challenges––including social dis-connectivity––than most older folks could ever guess. Children are being habituated to dealing with screens and not people.
Lately, I have been asking myself, how this impacts the idea of Christian vocation. Within Lutheran circles, we talk about the doctrine of vocation frequently. In fact, we covered it here on the Thinking Fellows podcast. The doctrine of vocation is the idea that Christians, being free before God on account of the person and work of Christ, are called to freely serve their neighbors here in the world. This begs the question, who is our neighbor? When I am asked this question, I often answer that, first and foremost, our neighbors are those whom God has placed in our lives closest to us—our family, literal neighbors, co-workers, and physically present friends. From there, the universe of neighbors enlarges like concentrically expanding circles outward to include all people in our neighborhood, city, county, state, country, and even the whole world. Those closest to us––primarily our family––are those whom we have the opportunity to interact with, live with, love, and serve every day.
But when we constantly distract ourselves with a hidden world of “friends” on the internet, the idea of vocational services becomes muddled at the least, and probably even eliminated. Love and service to our neighbors are all too often replaced with “likes,” pithy (or not so pithy) comments, precisely chosen emoticons, and lest we forget the ever-present sharing of cat videos (in my case, Siberian Husky videos).
So, what do we do? As per my usual, I have more critiques than suggestions. I would recommend listening to the interview with Christina Cook or reading her book. While she doesn’t deal with the idea of vocational service, she does provide some helpful suggestions for using the internet and social media as a tool rather than a method for living life. I’d also recommend removing as many social media apps from your smartphone as possible. Our phones are what make it easy for us to ignore our loved ones right in front of us for someone or something far, far away that may or may not need us at that moment. What is sure is that the loved one right in front of you needs you more than the screen in your face.
Also, as with all things, we need to remember is that, with all things in this world, our interaction with people or items which could be good is more often than not tainted by our sin and/or our sinful appropriation of them. God has covered that sin in Christ. Whether you hardly ever use social media or are addicted to it, all things are made new. Both my sanctimony for those who are on Facebook more than me and their sin for ignoring me to look at Facebook are forgiven. It is important to remember that our redemption frees us before God to love and serve our neighbors. That service is difficult to perform when we are drowning in hypocrisy or oblivious to the world because of the phone in our face. So, love God by serving your neighbor, neither ignoring them for a screen nor bemoaning them for self-righteous indignation.
Finally, for the love of God, put the damn phone down every once and while and stare at the face of the person God has put in your life right in front of you! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.