The Spiritual Discipline of Unplugging from Social Media

By Joe LaGuardia

My wife and I have “unplugged” from Facebook just short of two months ago.  It was part spiritual discipline, part ethical choice.  It brought with it some ground rules–like checking Facebook a few times a month for professional reasons, building a professional profile to administrate the church Facebook page, and continuing to communicate with friends and family on Messenger and several private group pages.

It also brought some difficulties, like missing out on a few things, such as a friend’s near-death experience with electricity that hospitalized him for a time.  We caught the post on FB and prayed; we just happened to “tune in” that day.

The first few weeks of being unplugged was torturous. I would wake up and instinctively(!) grab my cell phone only to remember: “Oh, yeah, no more Facebook like this.”  When I put the phone down, I tried to remember what I did before I had a cell phone and social media.  I’ve been praying a lot more as a result!

Another re-occurring hardship was not being able to post ideas, articles, and accomplishments that I wanted others to enjoy.  At times, I thought, “This would make a great FB post!”, only to remember that my goal in unplugging was to escape the need for affirmation all of the time.  Why do we feel the need to publish everything?

I also learned recently that getting published, receiving “Likes”, and reading comments do indeed release chemicals that make us feel great, so the “high” appended to this type of attention is very real.  Even negative comments or discussions release chemicals that we start desiring on a daily basis.  It helps us feel relevant and perhaps even remembered–we do not want to be forgotten or set aside, meaningless, useless, or vacuous.  This creates an addiction that sociologists and scientists have begun to catalogue.  It won’t be long before the CDC coins social media usage a public health risk.

Wanting recognition is nothing new, but it was not always so accessible.  Before the internet, recognition came by way of picky publishers, agents, and local newsletters.  You earned your place in the sun.  Now everyone is published, but not everyone knows the downfall of recognition–it is a problem as old as sin, the one we once called pride.

Some years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary.  Nouwen, a famous author and priest, entered the Genesee monastery for a sabbatical.  There, he struggled with the daily routine of silence, work, and disconnection from the outside world.  He missed publishing articles, and he wrestled quite openly about his desire to be read and to interact with fans and students (he taught for many years).  The book was published in 1976, well before the internet!  In this memoir, he wrote:

The monastic life is indeed very unsensational.  I keep catching myself with the desire to do something special, to make a contribution, to add something new, and have to remind myself constantly that the less I am noticed, the less special attention I require, the less I am different, the more I am living the monastic life.  Maybe–when you have become fully aware that you have nothing to say that has not already been said–maybe then a monk might be interested in listening to you.  The mystery of God’s love is that in this sameness we discover our uniqueness” (Nouwen, p. 66-67).

I resonate with Nouwen’s struggles, and every time I want to give up on this spiritual discipline, I go through my mental map: Why do I feel the need to publish my thoughts?  What is the benefit?  What are the costs?  How much time away from my family and ministry will this take?  And so it goes.

Several weeks ago, I went through my FB feed to check in.  As I mentioned above, I do this about every two weeks to help manage notifications and the like.  We are not Amish, you know.  In about 15 minutes of checking, I realized that I only saw one thing that was pertinent–I think it was an article that came out of the Southern Baptist Convention general assembly (see, the fact that I can’t even remember is telling!).  That’s one thing.  In 15 minutes.  The rest was business as usual, not necessarily without value, just not beneficial in the larger scheme of things.  It was a reminder that our social media was made for man, not man for social media.  It helps to put things in perspective and not be enslaved to the gods of technology, threatening to minimize the size of our world to a 3″ x 5″ screen that is, now, as powerful as nicotine and as pervasive as sugary cereal.

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