Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Lent, Social Media, and Social Isolation

I haven't had that rough a Lent since I tried to give up coffee.

To be honest, I thought it'd be easy.  My discipline, for the Lenten season, was simply to curtail my level of social media engagement.  I allowed myself one hour in the morning, and nothing more.  After nine in the AM, I was done for the day.

No more Facebook.  No more Twitter.  That was it.

This seemed entirely viable, and for a day or so, it felt fine.  Just a quick check in, and then on to my day.  How civilized!  How straightforward!

And with the increasingly pernicious hold that corporatized social media has had on our culture, it also felt faintly empowering.  No more manipulation!  No more everyone freaking out about everything always!  No more microtargeted ads I don't need to see!

But after a week or so, it began to feel rather less positive, and significantly more...isolating.

In large part, that's because the dynamics of my life have trended towards isolation.  As a pastor, I serve a wonderful community of souls, but my work with my sweet little Jesus tribe is very part time, and I'm not nearby.  That means I may see that group of people Wednesdays and Sundays, but otherwise I'm working remotely.  Meaning, by myself.

I've also been trying to make a go of it as a writer, with modest success.  Writing, though, is a semi-monastic avocation, also involves a tremendous amount of time spent by oneself.

With that, and with my offspring now both basically adults and my time as a shuttle-dad at an end, I find myself in a position familiar to a surprisingly large number of American adults.

I'm alone, most of the time.

I've always been an introvert, so my energies do tend that way, and I'm comfortable with...and need...more time by myself than most souls.  There are boundaries, though, to what is and is not healthy solitude.

Four days out of seven, from the point at which I drop my wife off at the metro in the morning to early evening, my life currently involves functionally zero face-to-face human interaction.  I might talk to a friend now and again, or get a call from family.

But most days, it's pretty much just me and the empty house.  If I go for a walk, it's me and an empty suburban neighborhood, one that seems less "quiet" and more "desolate" in the middle of what for most folks is their working day.

Like many who look around and realize things have become too quiet, I'll find ways to get out, creating intentional inefficiencies in my day.  I'll do smaller grocery shops, fully aware that I'd rather walk or bicycle to get a small load of groceries simply because it means I'm not rattling around at home.  I'll hit the library for books.  I volunteer, delivering food for Meals on Wheels, which gives me an opportunity to be socially present for the chronically ill and the elderly.  I feel their isolation, and taking a few moments to talk and be present is as life-giving for me as it is for them.

In the context of that life, social media had become a synthetic proxy for human interaction in my day.  It is...for good or ill...a virtual watercooler, to which I can go and get a sense that there are still other human beings out there that I know and that know me.  I like, I retweet, or I comment, and it almost feels like people are around.  What that offers, in moments when the sense of disconnect feels too potently concentrated, is a social lifeline.

Meaning, simply, that setting aside that form of media for forty days really did feel like a desert experience.  It stripped away Zuckerberg's synthetic veneer of connection, and the ooh-here's-a-thingness of my curated Twitter feed.

For forty days, it was just me and the reptiles of my stagnant mind, as William Blake once put it.

And that was unsettling to my soul's complacency, as Lent should be.  Curtailing social media had the effect of stopping a numbing process, like day two of the flu when you back off the laddered acetaminophen and ibuprofen to see if the fever comes back.  That you are artificially suppressing symptoms doesn't mean the illness is gone.

As the time progressed, I found myself adapting.

My library journeys found me returning with a book about the dynamics of human isolation and our fundamental need for social connection.  Among the striking things in that book were two things.

First, that isolation sabotages our thinking.  We lose the ability to critically assess our own actions, which leads to both fearful and recursive thought patterns and a tendency towards socially awkward behavior.  I know those ways of thinking have roots in me, roots that have me rehashing or ruminating over things in ways that are not healthy for my soul.

Second, that the only way out that consistently works is turning yourself towards others in selfless service.  What that does, according to those who research the human psyche, is create the positive other-ideation that isolation destroys.  And from positive other-ideation, we learn to trust, and from trust, we find connection.

Then I went back and studied the sayings of the Desert Fathers, the anchorite monastics of early Christianity, who spent a soul-staggering amount of time by themselves.  They all went just the tiniest bit crazy, but they also seemed to find ways to cope that preserved their integrity.

Not all of those can be replicated these days without loved ones applying clinical interventions, but some can.  The desert fathers defeated the demons of isolation by being relentlessly selfless, defying the demons..and they really did think they were demons...of anxious fearfulness, sexual compulsion, and gnawing greed by doing precisely what the best psychological research suggests.  Though many spent years in their monastic cells or in wilderness places, when they did wander shabby and wild-eyed into the company of others, they were relentlessly compassionate.  Even they took time for what they called synaxis, for "being together," and it was a place of nourishment for them.

And there, perhaps the best spiritual insight offered up from this last season of fasting:  Both psychology and the insights of monastic mysticism present us with the strangest paradox of human loneliness and social isolation.  It's negative impacts cannot be overcome by the mediating structures of technology, and most particularly not by profit-driven structures designed to create compulsive use.  Those can distract, or numb, but they do not provide what we ultimately need, any more than an opiate cures a broken bone.

We need each other, face to face, real to real, soul to soul.

And more significant, this year's fast came with the reminder that the self blossoms in the soil of others.  We do not love ourselves most deeply by turning that love inward, by "learning to love yourself."  Our souls grow when we love the other, and when we ground that love in something deeper still.

Good to get that most fundamental reminder, this Lenten season.