About Me,  Catholic Spirituality,  mindfulness,  social media

Connected to what’s real

Lately when I sit down to write, it feels a little stilted. Things feel a little off. I don’t feel quite up to the task of writing instructive, catechetical stuff right now. When I get questions about why the Catholic Church teaches this or that, or what to say when confronted with such and such pressing social issue, I sigh and close my inbox and want to answer that person in person, looking into their eyes over a cup of coffee, having a conversation.

As I’ve pulled back more and more from social media, my tolerance for human interaction has increased in a manner that this sleep-deprived introvert finds a little bit shocking. Even scandalous. Like, what have I been doing with my time these past years, that I would hide away from my neighbors and let phone calls go straight to voicemail, so anxious was I for solitude.

But it wasn’t actual solitude I was usually practicing, hunkered down in the trenches of early motherhood and round the clock feedings.

I was always connected.

Always one more click, one more scroll, one more follow. I was exhausting my entire capacity for social interaction in a way that is – if I’m being honest – social in name only. And in the practice of consuming social media, I think it was consuming me.

Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? That dazed, eyes-burning startle of guilt and confusion over the clock now reading 10:39 pm, and you were just going to log on “for a quick second.” And that was around 9:30. You don’t feel any more satisfied or any more connected, necessarily, but you might be mentally cursing your fate of now fewer than 8 hours of sleep because of one happy little rooster who will not be put off past 6 am.

I’ve missed some life events and birthdays and milestones this past couple months of ignorant bliss, but nothing so big that it couldn’t be rectified with a phone call or a personal inquiry. And the things that I truly dropped the ball on? What kind of a friendship requires digital notifications to maintain? Busy as we all are, that’s not a real relationship, in all honesty.

I’m not condemning social media or the use of it. I’m just processing and exploring what it means to me and what being unconnected now means for me. About how my brain is quieter. And in that sometimes uncomfortable quiet, there is room.

That’s the biggest difference. The busy, over-connected and always-scanning brain (mine, anyway) was noisy. Statuses I’d read, articles I’d consumed, videos I’d watched, updates I’d taken notice of. Images I’d seen and liked and assimilated into my interior landscape.

What we put into our bodies matters. I can hardly hope to eat burritos 3 times a day and avoid looking like one, however much I desire (and truly, I pine) for that not to be the case. What we put into our souls, the same. “Whatever is true, whatever is good, whatever is beautiful.” Should it come as a surprise that what we take in through our eyes matter, also? The words we read, the images we consume, the entertainment that captivates so much of the day and so much of my internal space.

I guess I’d been keeping pace with technology and consuming a moderate amount, by most standards, gradually accumulating accounts on the newer platforms and using the apps and basically just the norms of the culture around me. Without stopping to consider, truly, is this good for me? Is this healthy? Is this sustainable? 

But everybody is on Facebook. Everybody shares their lives on social media. Jenny, you are a blogger.

Yes. This is a confusing and not entirely clean-cut knot I find myself trying to untangle.

But is the ambient culture an effective litmus for what is good for the human person? Is it a good standard against which my happiness can be measured?

I don’t think it is.

I see more and more time being spent online (she types on her blog) and increasing social and emotional estrangement in real life. I see sadness and unrest and such a hunger for real connection and so much loneliness. We live with such a poverty of love. And social media has the potential to alleviate that poverty in the right doses and used in the right ways. But overall, when I asses my own usage of it and my endless appetite for more!clicks! I have to be honest with myself and admit that 90% of the time, I am not being enriched by it. And not just in a “you could be using your time better” sense, but on a deeper level.

I am not enriched by the hours I spend distracted and separate from my actual life.

I would venture to say that you are not, either.

And oh, I say this with so much compassion, so much trepidation, so much awareness that for many, many people, community is few and far between, whether by limitations that are geographic or stage-in-life or shared belief in nature. I remember myself in that little 2 bedroom apartment in Rome, looking out the balcony window at the majestic rise of the Dome of St. Peter’s with hot, homesick tears running down my cheeks while my small babies napped in the room next door. That was a season of Skype and this computer was like a portal to another world, one where I had friends who loved me and family who knew me.

But I did miss out on a lot that year, too. If I could go back and do it again, in hindsight, I wonder, would I have made the trek over to the Borgo to see my friend Susana more frequently? Would I have braved the trundling city bus – stroller and all – to go see JoAnn at the U of M campus across town? Maybe I would have hosted that ill-fated American moms meet up at my apartment more than one single time. Perhaps I’d have taken the trek down river to Trastevere and spent more mornings with Kristi on that really surprisingly nice playground, cappuccino in hand.

Or maybe not. But I like to think that if I’d had more emotional reserves in the ‘ol tank or could have known how truly fleeting that season was, that it could have been different.

That’s the thing about hindsight, though. It’s only ever an exercise in imagination. And it can’t undo what was.

But now, in this time and in this season, I can apply that exercise in imagination and allow it to inform the choices and allocations of time and energy that are being made daily. And I’m finding more and more that I’m picking up the phone, not to scroll or to distract, but to call someone or send a text. I’m walking over to the fence and talking to my neighbor. I’m sitting in the silence of the post-bedtime hurricane, surveying the damage of the living room and feeling the tug towards a screen, but choosing often to forgo another episode of such and such, to plug in the phone for the night and walk away.

I can’t say that those nights are particularly exciting, or even productive, but there is a peaceful stillness to the way a brain naturally shuts down, maybe after a bath or a half hour with a book or a newspaper. Or maybe just in quiet, companionable silence mingled with conversation with my husband.

I don’t want to miss my life because I’m trying to escape from it. I want to lean into the hard, boring, painful parts and find out what He has for me there. Or I want to curl into a ball and cry out to Him that I can’t handle the pain, that I need Him to fix it, to answer me.

But I don’t want to be distracted from it. That’s not good enough any more.

Entertained sometimes? Sure. I still want that. But want to be the one to make that call.

I don’t want my default setting to be “numb, zoned, consumed, detached.” I’m too aware of the sharp pains and pleasures now of real life, and that every minute I spend disconnected from it is a gradual atrophy of the muscles I need in order to stay in the present when the going gets tough. Motherhood is hard enough when I’m not handicapping myself by training my attention span back down to that of my very sanguine 6-year-old’s. Distraction is a poor master but a good occasional servant. I don’t need to constantly employ it in the checkout line or the car. Or when I’m in pain and tempted to turn away from real life.

It’s not cut and dry, and I’m not disavowing technology or digital engagement. But there is peace and clarity in pulling back, in assessing and evaluating and making conscious and intentional decisions about how this short time on earth is spent, and what it is spent on.

Sometimes I’ve joked in the past that I’m going to have to answer to God one day for every hour spent on Facebook. And while it was said tongue in cheek, that’s actually a terrifying prospect. Not that I used social media, per se, but how much time was spent there, and doing what.

The tools are neutral. Our actions with them are not. I don’t want to get busted having buried the talent.

Not because of any servile fear of God, but because what a waste. I wonder, when I think about Mother Teresa’s now-famed schedule, would she have found time to build a platform and grow a brand and get the MCs online, even if it would have been great for their fundraising efforts?

And I do sincerely wonder this. We have few saints to pattern our behavior after in this new digital frontier. I have a hunch that she’d probably err on the side of social media minimalism, just because she had such insight into matters of the heart. She’s a good saint, I think, to petition for prayers in this landscape of human loneliness and discontent. I think she would be happy to become a sort of patroness against isolation and loneliness. I think she’d like that a lot.



  • Maria

    Jenny! It’s a good reminder you bring to us all about the dangers- the pitfalls- the slothness – that surrounds the over use of social media. I believe I’m about ten years older than you and consequently, missed “growing up” with personal cell phones, iPads, etc. I would much prefer face-to-face social contact with people, but often find myself relying on the virtual engagements due to my current state of life- homeschool, at home for the greater part of my life…. but when I find myself locked on to my computer- I start to feel crappy- as you said- unsatisfied. I know it’s not good for my soul, but it’s – so – easy to fall into again and again. I usually have to just put my iPad away (no smart phone here, by request for I know my weaknesses at home with a computer!)- if I don’t have it out of sight- it usually is not out of mind. Good luck to us all! When I drop off my kids at church choir, 95% of the parents are clicking or scrolling away on their phones, and no one looks up to talk to one another- and worst of all, while they sit outside waiting during the class- there is Eucharistic Adoration going on next door! God have mercy, for the temptation is great!

  • jeanette

    The reason you are realizing all of this is because of the effect you are feeling from it. It is important to focus on the essentials of what God wants us to do with the time we have, and that means discernment of God’s will. But how can one discern without having silence! Silence only comes when you unplug from everything and plug into God. That won’t happen without discipline or attention to how you carry out God’s will. Tools are tools and to the extent that they accomplish a purpose that fits in with God’s will, they are great; to the extent that they pull you away from the focus of your day, they are best avoided. It takes spiritual formation, not willpower. In any case, you are no doubt on the right path when you question your situation.

    Over the years many people have suggested that I ought to write this or that (I was a writer by profession, so it is not something spectacular to suggest that I could write). A few years ago, a priest from my parish who knew me very well suggested seriously that I ought to write a blog. I thought very carefully about it, then prayed for discernment. I realized what benefit there could be for others as well as what demands it would put upon me. What I discerned was that it would draw me away from the time I needed for something much more serious that I felt called by God to do with my time. I decided instead that the right path was to continue engaging people on a personal level when the occasion arose, rather than the more impersonal though more far-reaching blog environment.

    Sometimes we have to realize that because something may be good in itself, it is not always a sufficient reason to do something: it has to be measured against what conforms most closely to God’s will for the day. We each have a particular vocation to live out, and that is the primary way we can understand God’s will. We can have an apostolate that might provide insight into fulfilling God’s will. But we all have the same call to love God with our whole heart, our whole soul, and our whole mind, and to love our neighbor as ourself. This is also a basis for discernment.

    The feeling of alienation from others that arises when we depend too heavily upon tools that keep relationships on the surface should be the signal to us that we need to use technological tools to facilitate connections, not supplant connections. We cannot go very deep into a relationship if it functions at the one liner text message or Facebook entry. That keeps everyone at an arms distance. You are right, you need to look someone in the eye (and if you can’t look them in the eye, you at least need to say more than a handful of words to them and listen to more than a handful of words in reply).

    In terms of human relationships, one is better off with 2 or 3 deep friendships than 50 surface ones (not that surface relationships are totally bad: one never knows when a particular surface relationship will meet a point of deepening). Technology often cultivates many surface ones, because you do feel a sense of needing to keep in touch, but time is a limitation on maintaining too many relationships, so it becomes hard to deepen them in any meaningful way.

  • Holly

    This is so good, Jenny, and so true. I have been off Facebook for about a year, but I still have Instagram and I still read blogs. I just asked my husband to order me a dumb phone because truly I am sick of the siren call of the screen. And interestingly, I do have a Kindle Paperwhite (so it literally just allows book reading, no web capabilities) and I DON’T feel the same way about it. Laying in bed with a kid as they fall asleep while looking at my phone makes me so antsy and dissatisfied. Laying in bed with a kid as they fall asleep while reading a book on my Kindle leaves me feeling refreshed. I am actually including this intention (self control with electronics, being present) with my St Andrew Christmas novena. Anyway, I am right here with you on this and as always am so appreciative of how well you word things!

  • Sun Bud

    I’ve don’t pay for data on my cell since I was on bus to work & back on it constantly. One day I realize.. I was missing stranger faces around me & small action of ppl coming & going off transit. The changing scenery outside windows as we passed. I have more interaction crocheting on route than a electronic in hands. Ive made efforts once to ask someone reading interesting book to break nasty of habit. It was harder at first. also save some dollars and enjoy what’s happening in moment. The machine will always be running to drop in it to check it out. Meanwhile I enjoy life more of what I have around me actually living.. like my doggie..

  • star

    While I definitely agree about how quickly we can waste time online and that separating ourselves from our real lives is not a good thing, I use Facebook and do not feel guilty for a few reasons. 1) I live far away from my family and some of my closest friends. Facebook is actually the best way for us to stay involved in the daily experiences of one another’s lives. You can’t be on the phone all the time, especially when you have children (as you well know). I even use Facebook to talk with friends who are local, as everyone is busy. 2)I love to see how other people see the world, and I think writing encourages people to be more expressive. I feel that the posts my friends and family make, even the articles they share, tell me about life as they are experiencing it, the world through their eyes. 2) As in #2, I feel that I am more expressive, thoughtful, analytical (my best self?) when I write. Since I am introverted, I feel lost and rushed, like topics were left unexplored in phone calls. Face to face would be much better, but that is usually not possible. And while I try to make new friends, this has never been a specialty of mine, so I try to cultivate the friendships I do have, wherever they are.

    • jeanette

      A number of years ago my husband and I moved to another state, leaving behind every person we know. To keep in touch with people, I felt certain relationships required regular phone calls: my parents, my kids. Certain people required occasional phone calls: siblings, close friends. Then I would periodically send out a group email to everyone, keeping them abreast of our life and sending photos with the letter. I even had certain friends that I would only send personal letters via the US mail, and others whom I would send individual emails. In response, some would send a reply and we might engage in further emails catching up with each other. It worked very well.

      Realize that prior to the existence of Facebook, people have always had to find ways to stay in touch from afar and that includes busy mothers. From what I’ve seen in Facebook use, it often has fluff, not depth. Sometimes it just is prattle (i.e. the need to say something, anything, to be connected and get reciprocal attention). To that extent, it is not good for forming or sustaining relationships (not to say that is how your experience of the tool has been, your use will be unique to your own personality).

      It is also important to consider that Facebook demands participation by the other, and while you may be able to keep it in perspective on your end, others whom you pull into your circle may not be using Facebook in a reasonable or healthy way, and you are indirectly helping them to squander time, etc. Not that your link to them causes it, but many people get sucked into spending far more time than they intend to, just because they are logged in. If in order to maintain a relationship with you they MUST use Facebook, then that encourages them to use something that may not be beneficial, but they don’t want to lose you, so they have no choice. That is really not a mutually agreeable situation. If you sent them an email, it has much more limited scope (i.e. they are not required to be logged into Facebook). I would also suggest that people become busier because they are spending some time each day on the internet and that uses up the total amount of time they have each day. To free up time, less time on the internet helps and avails one to the opportunity to make phone calls (albeit a mother of small children has great limitations on using the phone in general, and email is a useful help if done when time is free for it).

      It really isn’t necessary to have a daily contact with all of the people we know: only a few people fall into that category. That’s one of the flaws with Facebook: it puts all of the people you “friend” into the same bucket. That simply doesn’t respect the uniqueness of each relationship that you have. To use Facebook, one must be very mindful of that aspect of making their relationships generic. I guess for an older person who didn’t grow up with all of these tools, I can see that relationships are formed and maintained in many ways, but time and attention are required, regardless of the means used to maintain them.

  • JTLiuzza

    I recently dumped Twitter, which I didn’t really use anyway, after their selective purge of certain accounts which was nothing but political. They won’t miss me but neither will I them. Censorship eventually turns any medium into a boring echo chamber.

    Last Sunday I was on Facebook and it occurred to me just how pointless and vapid it is looking at the same baloney being posted by the same people over and over. I know your baby is cute but do you have to post a picture of him every time you put him in a new shirt? I know you love to fish. Great. Just about one more picture of you on your boat should do it. How about sharing another recipe? You’ve only posted about a thousand so far. Random thoughts and one dimensional narcissism.

    I deactivated my account. As with Twitter, I’m sure they don’t miss me.

  • kristal

    thank you for your bravery and honesty. i would not have understood what you were trying to convey a few months ago, but since giving up Facebook i’ve started to notice the mental space and emotional presence i’ve reclaimed. i think i can understand what you’re saying because i’m starting to experience it. whether or not i fully understand your message i commend you for the courage it took to even broach this subject. it is a fiercely personal one and therefore a great risk to speak about. for this very reason i think it is just the thing we should be poking, prodding, and evaluating personally and together.

  • Gerard McLain

    Hear I am, one of those just as you describe and or but for one very important reason. For my Lord, the Risen Christ Jesus, no sacriface is too big to share the insight given me in a ‘UNITIVE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE” 41+ years ago, an unexpected, unmerited encounter with the God of my Salvation coming immediately following my confession of complete failure; then placing my life completey at His Mercy. There was no other option for me. Then with all power and Majesty He filled my aching, empty heart with unconditional Love, Devine Love, that completely changed my life forever. Now to the best of my ability by any and every means possible, I need as much as air to live, to prcclaim God’s Love for all of His Creation.

  • Susan Arico

    I loved this post, and its content resonates deeply with me. Both FINDING the balance and then maintaining DISCIPLINE within that healthy balance is so critical (and so difficult!), especially for those who write.
    I especially loved this bit:
    ” I’m too aware of the sharp pains and pleasures now of real life, and that every minute I spend disconnected from it is a gradual atrophy of the muscles I need in order to stay in the present when the going gets tough. Motherhood is hard enough when I’m not handicapping myself by training my attention span back down to that of my very sanguine 6-year-old’s. Distraction is a poor master but a good occasional servant.”

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