I grew up in a church environment with a definite nod towards liturgy. The Methodism of my youth leaned into creeds and responsive readings to tug on that long string of connectivity with the church. I knew there was something that changed about the seasons that was relevant to church, because the banners changed. Silk layers, often sewn by the women of the church, hung high to announce the coming of Pentecost or the arrival of Easter. And Lent. It was common knowledge that Lent required some sort of sacrifice. For as long as I can remember, my mom has “given up chocolate” for the 40 days prior to Easter; this is a difficult sacrifice, as she loves chocolate. As do I.
So it’s always been in my head, this notion that Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of a season of deeper awareness, marked by the discipline of abstinence. Funny, where my faith lives now, in the shadow of a long affair with southern Baptist practice, marked by eight years of post-SBC recovery, the Lenten sacrifice – like so many other things – is, in large part, a reflection of your personal relationship with Jesus. However you find him, whatever suits you.
This year, I observed Ash Wednesday for the first time in many years. At the close of that brief service, I staked my claim to a two-fold Lenten sacrifice. First, I deactivated my Facebook account. Second, I committed to abstain from eating meat. A coworker was ruthless in his comments. “Giving up Facebook – that’s suffering like Jesus? You’re identifying with the sacrifice of a man who was crucified by giving up social media? Really?”
Point taken. In light of the grander sacrifice of Jesus, it was somewhat ridiculous. But there was a broader implication to my decision, and the end result has been thought-provoking. And I am changed.
A disclaimer, of sorts: I’d created a Facebook account for our cat, Louie, prior to Lent. It was a silly thing, really; something creative and borderline ridiculous. There were times, during Lent, when “Louie” commented or posted a status – three distinct events I can remember. One of my daughters came down hard on me for “cheating”. Again, point taken; but the goal of my decision was to muzzle myself. A vow of silence, of sorts, cutting off my tongue like the Ellen Jamesians in John Irving’s The World According To Garp; but not to prove a point to the world but to myself. What would my daily life be like if my comments were restricted to the present, here and now?
Looking back over the past 40 days, a few things were clear rather quickly. First of all, I was obviously an addict. “Checking Facebook” had become as active a verb in my life as any other, ranked right up there with “going to the bathroom”, “eating lunch”, “brushing my teeth”. Peering into the world of communication and dialogue generated by random status updates, pointless memes and pictures of your kids was a regular part of my daily routine. When I deactivated my account, I felt as though I’d gone to a far-off country, one without the family city square that allowed me to peek through my window and see the goings-on of the community, occasionally sticking my head out to share information, make a comment or shout “hello”.
With no means to see and hear all this activity, and knowing full-well that it continued just fine without me, I was left somewhat bereft. Of what? Well, distraction, to say the least. But more than that. Although the advent of social media and our absorption in it brings out legitimate criticism, there is something real about the interactions there. And I discovered that it’s a bit more than simple distraction and clever commentary.
At the risk of sounding incredibly shallow and as if I have no “real” life, I can honestly say that the social media community I participate in via Facebook is, in some very real sense, forming me, shaping my sense of my self and my place in what is a very large, very controlled – and, in some ways, “real” – community. I cannot explain all of it, but I have this sense of what I lived apart from, and what I embraced when I returned, that leads me to believe that more and more of us – primarily myself – are in the midst of relationships and interactions and conversations via Facebook that are deeply meaningful. Comparing the depth and power of social media connections to “real life” has always left the latter obviously lacking. But what I find now, for me, is that there is a new definition of “community”, one that connects a broad swath of People I Used To Know with People I Currently Know and People I’ve Never Met.
And at the center of it all? Me. What matters in this amalgamation of past, present and future tenses is me. Now, that’s about the most narcissistic, self-centered sentence I’ve ever written. But let me explain.
Community matters. We preach this in our churches, we expound upon it in discussion of nature vs. nurture in families, we long for it as portrayed in sitcoms like Friends and How I Met Your Mother. In is within the context of our communities that we are able to define ourselves. Obviously, there are extremes – we act out our best and worst impulses in the context of “who is watching”. We become codependent or find ourselves driven towards isolation. There are extremes, but at ground level, it matters.
And what I found, as I stepped back into my Facebook community, is that I was able to remember more clearly who I was, where I’ve been and where I’m headed.
Call me shallow. Maybe I am. Remind me that the downfall of our society seems to be a focus on what works for me rather than the greater good. Point out that a sense of entitlement is driving deep wedges in the working wheels of democracy. You would be right about all these things. But I must confess the simple truth: I missed being on Facebook, and it went deeper than distraction. I missed my community. I felt just a little lost without it.
Now, reconnected, I find myself more focused. More engaged with the purpose and goals that propel my daily living. I’m not as addicted; it’s not the “checking Facebook” habit that I indulged before. I have learned some temperance. But something is better in me now.
I cannot credit all of that to Facebook, but I can say this: Time away from that connection brought me a greater appreciation for it when I returned. There is some rightness in the relationship, some balance, some awareness that I needed. In whatever way, shape or form it appears, community matters, and this long tail of life connection codified by The Facebook matters to me.