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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The Social Media Dilemma and Courage to “Unplug”

By Joe LaGuardia

The first thing my son does in the morning is open his laptop and watch his favorite YouTube channel.  My daughter checks her social media pages.  I groggily turn over and tune in to Facebook to see what is new.  My wife tells everyone to unplug.

This is our typical day, as I’m sure it is for millions of other Americans who enjoy technology without knowing how it affects their lives for good or worse.

My wife once recommended we unplug from Facebook, and I have been putting off the idea for some time.  The subject came up again, this time at my own initiative.  I’ve been reading The Driver in the Driverless Car by techno-ethicist Vivek Wadwha after hearing an interview with him on the radio.  I knew that I was spelling the end of my social media days when I ordered the book.  It was just a matter of time.

When I recommended we unplug, I asked, “How will we keep in touch with friends and family?” My wife replied, “The same way you kept in touch before we had Facebook.  Make a phone call.”  The wheels started turning, and prayer ensued.

Wadwha’s book focuses on several ethical issues surrounding the emergence of technology.  No matter how invasive, he contends, technology is only as beneficial as we are autonomous.  Dependence upon technology can be harmful and, in some cases, immoral.  Its just as Jesus might have said if he lived in the 21st-Century, “Man does not live online alone, but on every word of God.”

Autonomy is about choice — do we have a choice whether we can survive apart from the technology in our lives, and do we have a choice to go beyond our online tribes and algorithm-shaped echo chambers?

My question about Facebook –“How will we keep in touch?”– revealed an acute dependence whether real or perceived: in short, “How will I live without Facebook?”

That evening, we mapped out the needs, fears, benefits, and costs of social media.  We then sought to rectify our needs, confront our fears with biblical antidotes, and list benefits related to being unplugged.

Assuming we have only three needs for social media–the social media “triad”, as it were: friends and family, news and entertainment, and (in my case as an author and pastor) publicity — that means we had to devise a couple of alternatives for each need.  For instance, we can keep in touch with family and friends the old-fashioned way, by phone or mail (a much more personal touch).  We also have messenger and texting.

For news, we can spend time reading the newspaper that calls our driveway home every morning without fail.  And for publicity, we can drive up subscriptions to this blog, knowing that every post is emailed to those who sign up.

Professional relationships and publicity can also go through the church Facebook page, of which I will be a part, primarily during work hours or ministry projects.  No need to check the church FB page at midnight, during dinner, or any of those other obtrusive times when we seem so addicted to our screens.  Our world has to be larger than 3 X 5 inches, you know.

Our fears were clear: fears of being “out of the loop”, missing news, of not being “present” online either for publicity or pastoral sake, a concern for any clergy worth his salt.  But when we looked to the Bible for help and focused on two admonishments (maintaining privacy and freedom in Christ — autonomy and choice, per Wadwha), we found 2 Thessalonians 4:11-12 relevant and all-inclusive to our conundrum:

And make it your ambition to lead a quiet life…so that you will behave properly toward others and be dependent on no one.”

And, we figured, to be dependent on no thing, social media included.

We had charted our course, now it was a matter of unplugging.  We devised a plan: Write this article, put posts on our Facebook pages to inform everyone of our decision, and put with a link to the article with instructions on how people can contact us.

If you are reading this now, you’ve likely seen the post.

So begins our new adventure without social media.  It will be a challenge as any change is, but we are confident in God’s guidance for this endeavor.  And there is God’s Word to consider: If more of us lived quietly and earnestly, putting our hands to the Lord’s harvest, perhaps we might be a happier society, creators of healthier churches, and the source of a more dedicated, simple folk.

Here’s to unplugging!

Generational Disorientation and Grieving Blockbuster

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, a Swami, Rabbi, Christian Scientist, and I (the Baptist) went to a local private high school to provide three workshops on our respective faith communities.  I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we were there as part of a larger conference on “sharing our stories.”  Each of us had about 10 minutes to present who we were and our faith.

As the workshops got underway — with about a dozen or so students in each one — we realized that all our planning for telling our stories, sharing anecdotes, and providing illustrations to express our faith fell short.

The rabbi, for instance, opened by recalling a scene from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  After realizing that no one in the workshops (but one!) had heard of the book, he re-calibrated his lesson.  He referred to the hit, prime time show, Big Bang Theory instead, but again fell short.  No one (apparently under the age of 30) watches Big Bang Theory.  When he made a joke about Sheldon Cooper, no one laughed.

I tried a different tact as I wanted to explain various Baptist visions of how to live out the Gospel.  I asked if anyone knew who Billy Graham was.  No one.  I gave a brief introduction and went on with the story.  Then I asked who was assassinated that day 50 years ago–April 4, 1968.  No one knew that it was Martin Luther King, Jr.  I talked about MLK, by now assuming they never heard of him either.

The swami and the Christian Scientist did no better.  We muddled through three sessions of workshops trying our best to connect our lives with theirs.  We were miserable failures.

During the third and final session, we changed strategies and wanted to hear more from the students.  It was a small group, so we were able to personalize our discussion, so we asked the question: “What do you all do–what do you watch, listen to, talk about?”  The rabbi asked, “Is there anything that you share in common, a favorite TV show?”

The students explained that many of their activities revolved around their families–they spent time fishing and going to the beach, etc.  But when it came time to connect with peers, there were limited opportunities.  There were few common interests they shared, and that meant no common language based on pop culture.

Social media, which I assumed connected young people, only tended to keep them in an algorithmic bubble that showed them what they wanted.  Time on the phone, then, meant less time looking outwards–to books (when we gathered in a large group in the auditorium for the keynote speaker, the speaker asked who read Harry Potter–this, in front of over 200 students; only a couple dozen rose their hands, and the keynote speaker had to re-calibrate too), to movies or television shows, or to radio stations (do young people even own radios anymore?).

No shared platform means no shared pop culture allusions, narratives that frame our relationships, or foundations for a common language.  That young people don’t write anymore means that their ability to communicate beyond Tweets and posts and Snapchats at 130 characters is breaking down–or has become dysfunctional already.

Consider some of the things I read or heard recently:

  • Author Vivek Wadwha of The Driver in the Driverless Car, notes that most young people have never written a full-length letter.  To me, that means that people no longer know how to see, describe, and explore how they feel and how to invite others into their thoughts.
  • Recent reports show that a higher usage of “screen time” results in a higher rate of depression and feelings of isolation or loneliness.
  • The mystery as to why radio stations, television, and even movies are going vintage (how many have been throwing nods to the 1980s and 1970s in look, feel, and music–Thor Ragnorak for instance?) is solved: Corporations know that the over-40 crowd not only consumes that stuff more often than younger generations, we also have more money to spend!

As I spoke with those students in class, I asked them how they even found videos and music on Youtube or Spotify to figure out what to listen to in the first place.  One admitted it was all technology–the media platforms automatically feed students what they like, so why do having choices even matter?

I explained that my favorite Friday-night “date” with my wife was going to a Blockbuster video–where all of the choices of movies were set before us and no one and no robot was going to tell me what I liked!  I could easily go to the slasher-horror section as easily as the romance section, and no one was going to tell me what I was going to watch (I used this point as to why I am a Baptist, and focused on liberty during my talk in that third session).

When I asked them if they had an issue that corporations were literally running their life preferences, they said, “No, we don’t care.  We like what we see, so not really.”  I wanted to talk about The Matrix at that point, but I let that one go–for their sake and mine.

Algorithms matter.  I had a feeling that this bunch won’t make good Baptists, as we Baptists are known for having issues with authority and tyranny.  But then again, maybe that’s why my–and so many other Baptist churches–are struggling to attract young adults in the first place.  We walk on the lawn when the sign says, “Keep off Grass,” and we prefer Bibles to programs that give us the “Verse of the Day.”  We know our heroes — from Graham to MLK– and there ain’t no brand going to take their place.

I am not sure our brief time in high school provided thorough research to draw broader conclusions.  Nor am I apt to make assumptions based on anecdotal evidence.  But if my time with these young people mean anything, then all I can say is that I think that I and my ilk are doomed.  It means that, decades from now, we will get arrested for walking and dancing on the grass.