Facebook, social networking is good therapy if used properly

Picture by Theephin; click on picture for Flickr page source

I am an introvert.  That means two things:  One, I make for a lousy pastor because I am shy.  Two, I live most of my life inside of my own head.

In fact, there is a whole library in my head.  I pull up a chair, turn on the brain, and pick some good books off the bookshelf.  I have my favorites: The one on anxiety has a torn cover from too much use; then there is one on desires and another on opinions.  There are a few others on time management and lots of books on politics.

Every now and then, some of what goes on in my crowded brain makes it into the public square, mostly in the form of articles or sermons.

Over the span of my life, however, I have found that being an introvert gets frustrating because things can build up sometimes. (I have met other introverts with the same issue.)   I don’t get mad at people or get physically stressed.  I don’t show much emotion.   Instead, I tend to sulk, withdraw, or get moody when my thoughts get overwhelming.

When conflict arises, I withdraw into that library.  I think, dwell, and worry too much.  “Relax!” and “Get over it!” are two phrases my wife often tells me.

Then Facebook and blogs came along, and I quickly found that they brought some much-needed solace as an outlet for my brooding ways.  At first, I found that social networking was so liberating–to express all of those thoughts quickly and freely!– that I abused those websites.  My mantra became, “I publish, therefore I am!”

It eventually became a bit too much.  I mean, who really wants to know whether I cooked mac-n-cheese instead of chicken nuggets for my kids on a particular night?

And Lent came along and I recognized that my abuse had to stop.  Since that time, I have focused on setting boundaries on social networking during the last three seasons of Lent.

That first Lent, I “fasted” from Facebook altogether.  The next year, I gave up using Facebook on my smart phone.  The third Lent, I sold my smart phone for a simple cell phone and had my wife password-protect our computer to limit my time online.

I realized that I had to find healthier ways to interact with people.  I increased my pastoral visits, spent time calling people on the phone rather than emailing them, and took time to visit some local eateries in town for breakfast now and then (Oaks Diner is the best!).

Yet, my use of social networks still continue, although not as neurotically.  It’s actually become quite therapeutic in a way.  The other day I was frustrated about a few things regarding my lack of exercise and self-discipline, and I wrote a status update saying as much.

Without that status update, my frustration would have been an on-going drama in the recesses of my head.  But the update proved helpful as I got several online responses.  A few people wrote supportive comments; one friend took time to text me and ask how he could help me or pray for me.  That made my day.

Getting that frustration out allowed me to let some people in my life so that they could carry me in their prayers and encouragement.  Even pastors need that now and then.

James’ epistle reminds us of the importance of “letting it out” because of the grace that others can provide when we become vulnerable in our communities of support: “Are any among you suffering?  They should pray.  Are any cheerful?  They should sing songs of praise.  Are any among you sick?  They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them”  (5:14).

There are times to keep some things in, between you and the Lord; but, more times than not, it’s good to go outside and let others in to your life too.  It supports the old adage, “We are, therefore I am,” and allows for “mutual love to continue” (Hebrews 13:1).

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Facebook, Social Networking has its downsides

Online social networks such as Facebook are fantastic tools in building community. Just last week, I befriended an old chum from elementary school whom I have not seen since, well, elementary school. Before this technology existed, I would not even consider finding such long-lost pals. Now I can do it at the stroke of a button.

This is a real asset for me because I am not good at keeping in touch with people. I forget to call family. Sometimes I even forget birthdays. Social networking Web sites have been a Godsend in my life.

The Internet has created a sense of community in profound ways, but there are pitfalls as well.

For one, there is a strong temptation for us to parade our lives on the Internet and flirt with virtual exhibitionism. I’m not so sure I want to know your every move, nor do I need to see your relationships evolve, fracture and get torn asunder before my very eyes. The pictures you took during your trip to Acapulco? Not so family-friendly.

In order to fight the urge to splurge on public domains, I recommend a family Internet policy that protects you and your family from nosey voyeurs, be it friend or foe alike.

Some of my personal rules include posting pictures that are modest and appropriate. That’s not to say that I have inappropriate pictures. I just don’t want people to peruse snapshots of my family’s trip to the pool or beach.

Also, I do not befriend coworkers, bosses or acquaintances unless I spend time with them outside of work. My status updates communicate my musings, but not my innermost emotional roller coasters. What you don’t know won’t kill you, trust me.

Another pitfall to social networking is that it is very addictive. Fifteen minutes to check our inbox can turn into three hours. Eventually, to invoke a tactic used by the Borg in Star Trek, our computers end up assimilating us. We spend so much time online chatting with friends that the Internet slowly replaces flesh-and-blood contact. We may be connected, but we are not connecting with a sense of authentic communion.

Consider these statistics from one study I read: only one in every four people has someone in which to confide. Sixty-one percent of people say they have only a few close friends. The Internet is giving us a sense of community, but is not providing the connections that make up sustainable support systems.

The recent film “Up In the Air” explores this theme. In it, Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, makes a living by traveling across the nation to lay people off from their respective employers.

A young, inexperienced efficiency manager figures out that if Bingham and his coworkers fired people via Webcams from their home office, then Bingham’s company would save money by cutting travel expenses.

Bingham opposes the Webcams and argues that online interactions with clients not only robs them of the dignity of the “firing,” but removes the personal support required for a sensitive moment of loss.

The movie teaches that we cannot conjure relational depth by simply logging onto each other’s lives. We require intimacy and nuance, awe and enchantment. Without real human contact, we miss out on the beauty of storytelling, the dance of non-verbal communication, awkward silences, moments of divine inspiration and sudden bouts of irrational laughter.

Even though my computer helps me remember birthdays, it does little in helping me find the relational intimacy to which I, and every other person in God’s creation, aspire. I just hope that, in the end, resistance is not futile.