How I Limit Social Media, and Why

Social media has undeniably changed the way we relate to the world. Online, we each manage our “personal brand.” News networks feature the President’s tweets prominently on their chyrons. Twitter and Facebook have been scrutinized for their role in public debate, particularly in how they can effect our political discourse. And there is evidence that too much time on social media can have a negative impact on mental health.

I was an early adopter of the major social media platforms. I signed up for Facebook with my college email address, my first Twitter updates were sincerely about what I was doing (things like “taking a walk” or “eating grapes”), and I can remember Instagram before the ads, videos, and the “discover” feature. I signed up for Snapchat when my students began using it. I made some cool videos using the face filters. At least I thought they were cool.

But in more recent years I’ve sought ways to limit my social media usage. Why? Mainly because of what I’ve observed about social media’s effect on me. I’ll admit I’ve wanted to be “online famous” for my photography or writing, but thank God that never happened. I’ve gotten caught in stupid online arguments and I’ve allowed the thoughts and opinions of strangers on the internet to darken my mood. I’ve been jealous of what other people show online, whether it be their possessions or their perfectly stylized life. I’ve sought confirmation of my own biases and nurtured negative views of “those people” over there, who are often the very people (neighbors, enemies) whom I believe I am called to love in Jesus Christ.

Online engagement is spiritually formative. When social media is a habit, it becomes part of the ongoing, continuous process in which we are becoming who we will be forever. And while I’ve done my best to make social media work for me, to tailor it toward life-giving and positive ends, I’ve found there are limits to the various platforms. Each, in its own way, can yield some good, but there are negative side effects that come with daily use.

I started by deleting all social media applications from my phone, and keeping all but one application (Twitter) off of my tablet. That keeps my usage way down.

I only access Facebook on my web browser, and I try to check it only once a day, and to never scroll. I don’t want to be a voyeur, though there is an element of voyeurism in all social media. It’s like one great big never ending episode of “The Real World.” When I do access Facebook, I only peek at notifications and make sure I don’t have any new messages. I sometimes fail in the “once a day” rule, and I still think once a day is too much for me. I also fail, at times, to remain at the top of the feed. I do not like what Facebook has become, but I maintain a presence there because of the friends and family members who have connected with me on the service, especially those I’ve befriended through Christian fellowship.

Twitter is, by far, my favorite social media service. It’s how I track trends and news. But I’m not a fan of the timeline algorithm, and I sometimes get annoyed when political takes trend. I love it when I’m watching a live sporting event.

I limit updates to Instagram to one day a week. I install the application on my phone on Wednesdays, post my image for the week, and then delete the application. I enjoy photography and I have friends who actively use the service, and see the images and words I share as a way to encourage and offer a little slice of life to others.

I left Snapchat for good when my friend Oliver ditched the service. Technically I still have an account, but I haven’t logged in for over one year.

My rules are in no ways laws, and I’m constantly tweaking how I use each service. There is a part of me that would like to simply leave social media altogether, as Jaron Lanier suggests in Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. But I can’t bring myself to do it. For one, I’m a writer, and social media is one means of connecting with readers. But also, there is the gravitational pull of social connections. Even though I’m Facebook friends with people I haven’t spoken to in years, I value maintaining the thread, keeping open a channel in the event that if there is a need to communicate, I can.

I also have privacy concerns about online use, or how we freely give mega-corporations information about our lives, with little idea of how that information could be used to harm or manipulate us. That’s a concern of mine, not only for me, but for my family, whom I sometimes share pictures of or stories about. Building a scrapbook, or keeping a journal, may actually be the safer and wiser path.

These days I’ve found that I’m a little more present, a little happier, and a little less anxious. I get most of my news from my local paper, the Waco Tribune-Herald. I call my mom about once a week. I spend time with a small group of friends. And when I attend a sporting event or a concert, I watch, or listen, and try to take it all in. To see it with my own eyes, hear it with my own ears, and to treasure what is happening in the moment.

I’m OK with the transient nature of the experience. I don’t have to capture it. I can just be part of it. I don’t need to tell others what I’m up to. I don’t have to always know what other people are thinking. I don’t need to try and improve my status by sharing my latest take, or my most recent witticism.

I save that stuff for the people I’m with.

Carrying the Old, Making the New

In his essay “Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins asks, “What are we doing with all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures? Why keep making them? Don’t we have enough, or too much?”

Robbins wrote a new essay to pose that question to us, and then makes his argument with the help of old poets, philosophers, writers, singers, and filmmakers. We make art, dearly beloved, because it helps us “get through this thing called life.

The composition of verse is part of what it means to be human. It is, in one formulation and according to Robbins, “a response to threat.” It is a consolation in the face of suffering and our eventual death. It crosses chasms and creates bonds. It renders meaning and brings forth a shared language. Art appeals to the affections as well as to our rationality. It evokes a visceral response, one we cannot help but attempt to articulate, no matter how vain those articulations might be toward accurately conveying our experience.

Drawing from an insight of Harold Bloom, Robbins agrees that a text is “good for something.” Robbins writes that “we can make them do things for us.” We keep making texts and poetry and other works of art because they are “of use.” A thing that is of use is otherwise known as “equipment.” Robbins forwards this idea with a phrase from Kenneth Burke, who wrote “Poetry…is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.”

Robbins cites examples from Boethius and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He draws from Nietsche and Cameron Crowe. He shows how poetry and song provide forms that offer both consolation and community. He is carefully to say that “Poetry does not kiss the boo-boo and make it all better.” Poetry does not solve or minimize our problems, but it does provide “strategies” for us as we confront the human situation. Poetry offers us ways of responding. “It’s like in the song…”

Robbins notes how the various forms of poetry and pop music also serve to distinguish one community from another, citing the example of different Christian communities. Robbins writes, “The televangelical JAY-sus, the sober Jesu Christe of the Latin Mass, the radical Jewish peasant Yeshua of Nazareth of Guy Davenport’s translations, and the Gee-zuhhs of Norman Greenbaum’s “gotta have a friend in” are not the same sort of equipment.” And he’s right. They are not.

In this very same essay Robbins notes pop music captures and relays some “ideal” that is commonly known to everyone, which I understand to include notions about love, friendship, sorrow, adventure, tragedy, and others. Or, that is the intent. Some artists succeed, and others fail miserably.

My thoughts as I read this essay turned to the Psalms, which come to us as both poetry and song, and then more: prayer. They convey meaning; they create community. The psalms bind one heart to another in their recitation, in their singing, in their praying. Monastic rhythms are built on the Psalter, as are liturgical rhythms. Poetry becomes song, which then becomes prayer, or perhaps it is prayer that becomes poetry which then becomes song, or song becoming prayer that is then experienced as poetry. You get my drift.

For the Christian person, the wider testimony of Scripture is also text, a work of literature, God-breathed, around which a community has been formed. It contains wisdom and narrative that provide “strategies” for life. It is also a text, read differently by different communities, that has spawned multitudes, offering diverse forms of “equipment” for understanding the Divine and best stewarding the creation. This is why we continue to need the theologian, the prophet, and the critic, who can help us to discern the good, true, and beautiful from the wicked, false, and ugly. Useful tools can be taken up toward destructive ends, as we sadly know.

We also know that Christian communities continue to bring forth something new, all while drawing from the old. This is for good reason. We continue to live. We continue to face reality, and it continues to bring forth joys and sorrows. Most human beings want to live well. They continue to ask, “Who is well off?” and “What does it mean to be virtuous?” and “How do I become a person who is well off?” They make their best run at the answers, while holding out hope that the answers they find are good ones. Thomas Merton understood, “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.” This is why all theology, in the end, is practical. It is to be “of use.”

Which is why I think Christians continue to write, and preach, and to “work out” salvation. We must continue to make, to create. Life offers us no other choice.

It is one thing to proclaim that God has given us all the equipment we need for living. It is another to put it to use.

On Christmas morning…

On Christmas morning, when I got down to the kitchen, the men were just coming in from their morning chores–the horses and pigs always had their breakfast before we did. Jake and Otto shouted, ‘Merry Christmas!’ to me, and winked at each other when they saw the waffle-irons on the stove. Grandfather came down, wearing a white shirt and his Sunday coat. Morning prayers were longer than usual. He read the chapters from Saint Matthew about the birth of Christ, and as we listened, it all seemed like something that had happened lately, and near at hand. In his prayer he thanked the Lord for the first Christmas, and for all that it had meant to the world ever since. He gave thanks for our food and comfort, and prayed for the poor and destitute in great cities, where the struggle for life was harder than it was here with us. Grandfather’s prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression.  Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to know his feelings and his views about things.

– From Willa Cather’s My ‘Antonia, 84-85, emphasis mine

Tallying Family Values

We live according to our values and priorities, and, as Greg McKeon has observed, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

Our family has a list of values. They are:

  • Faith.
  • Hospitality.
  • Joy, Celebration, and Fun.
  • Strong, Healthy Bodies.
  • Creative Expression and Intellectual Pursuit.
  • Simplicity.
  • Togetherness.
  • Appreciation of the Natural World.

How do we know when we’re living according to our values? It is hard to measure something like “togetherness,” and I didn’t think a scoring system was proper. So I derived a few true/false statements that could help me have confidence we were hitting the mark. We are living according to our values if:

  • We have peace at home.
  • We are secure in one another’s love.
  • We are not in a hurry.
  • We are well-practiced in saying no to the nonessential so we can say yes to the essential.
  • We establish sustainable rhythms of work and play.
  • We challenge one another and know it is safe to take certain risks.
  • We make the lives of those around us better through service.
  • We honestly evaluate how we are doing and make course corrections as necessary.
  • We celebrate small wins and big accomplishments.

I wrote these things down at the start of 2017. We had been in Waco for six months. While most of our values were pretty clear, it was helpful for our family to write them down and to think about what I wanted to pass along to my children as the years passed. The true/false list helped as well, not only when evaluating how we’re doing, but also when making decisions.

Living our values and our priorities begins with our family, which is why “peace at home” is a critical marker for how we are doing. “Peace” involves each person and the entire unit. We have to evaluate how we are doing physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. And peace begins with me.

One of the questions I ask each week is this: “Is your family happy and thriving? Can you help them in any way?” This requires that I act as a peacemaker. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict. The Hebrew word for peace is shalom. Peace, in the Jewish and Christian traditions, suggests completeness and wholeness. As God’s agent, I am called navigate conflict peaceably and seek the good and right in all circumstances. That’s not always easy.

If we have peace at home, we’ll be secure in one another’s love. We will know that we are loved. And from that place of security, we can find courage to be the people God has called us to be.

We go through seasons where we are busy. To be busy is acceptable. To be in a hurry is not. We want to be good stewards of the life we have been given by God; we want to use our talents in a manner that is pleasing to God. This relates in obvious ways to the next two evaluative statements. We have to say no to many things so that we can be free to say yes to the best things. We also have to take a wide angle view of life, seeing that there are many seasons we pass through, and therefore we must build in rhythms of work and play. We begin small, week by week. We practice sabbath. When it is time to work, we work hard. When we grow tired, we plan for a break.

My two children are different. Both, in their own way, have moments when they try to play things safe. They need to be nudged, pushed. So does Molly. So do I. Therefore, we encourage one another to take risks from time to time, to do something creative, to open ourselves to the possibility that we will fail. We remind one another that it is safe to fail, for there is no failure that will cancel out the love we share and the love we know that is ours in Christ.

Our faith leads us to value service, and we want the world to be a better place because we passed through. Therefore, we remind one another that we are helpers, and pitch in when we can in ways large and small. We do good works. We are also generous with our resources, including our money.

I apply this principle to myself first. I’m a servant of my wife and my children. I want them to experience joy and success and the good things life has to offer, and I am willing to give of myself in order to increase their chances of growing, thriving, and finding success.

We don’t always get it right. So when we are missing the mark, or when we outright fail, we begin anew. God’s mercies are new each morning. We learn from our mistakes and correct course. We start over, if necessary. For this to work, we have to be honest. An old proverb says, “When the horse is dead, dismount.” If our present course is the wrong one, we face it together, and change direction.

When we do get it right, we celebrate. Whether it is a small victory or or a big win, we party. Celebration is a discipline; joy is something you can grow. I want my children to experience life at home as a place of happiness, encouragement, and fun.

Whether you are a married or single, have a big family or no children at all, you might find it helpful to define your values, to think about how to live a life you intend. Your children may be grown. You may be old. But there is still time left. Live your days well.

The Devastating Effect of Book Burning

Burning books is an inefficient way to conduct a war, since books and libraries have no military value, but it is a devastating act. Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism. People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society. Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe. The deepest effect of burning books is emotional. When libraries burn, the books are sometimes described as being “wounded” or as “casualties,” just as human beings would be.

Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.

– Susan Orlean, The Library Book

Must Secularism Increase?

On a recent flight I finished reading Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in Distracted Age, which is a really smart book that addresses ways modern American evangelicalism has been shaped by the forces of a rising secularism, and outlines how Christians can respond.

Noble’s analysis draws on the philosophical work of Charles Taylor, who in his mammoth, classic work A Secular Age examines our movement in the past five hundred years or so from living in an enchanted world where most people took God’s existence for granted, to now living in a disenchanted world, where thoughts of God are almost unnatural. Modern life places us in a “default mode” where God is obscured. Taylor calls this “the buffered self.” Modern rationalism, materialism, and scientism form in us ways of thinking that marginalize, if not outright exclude, the spiritual.

As Noble explains the challenges “a secular age” presents for the church and Christian witness, he makes an offhanded remark: “Rather than reverse secularism (which I don’t think is possible until the Lord returns), our task is to identify the harmful outcomes of secularism and reject them.”

While I agree with the task Noble identifies, my larger question is this: Must secularism increase? If it cannot be reversed, can it be checked? And if it can be checked, is it then possible that it could, in fact, be reversed? Theologically speaking, is our only eschatological option one that sees Christianity becoming further embattled (as Noble seems to suggest)? Or is it possible for Christians to realize, once again, that we have the resources to be patient, to wait on the Lord in the midst of the grandest of cultural and intellectual challenges?

Taylor’s observations in A Secular Age show us that the world over a five hundred year span has become less religious, at least in a formal sense. And much of our intellectual and cultural undertakings are now conducted without an acknowledgement, or even a quiet acquiescence, to God or “gods.” But it should be remembered that it took us centuries to get here. Ideas have coalesced in such a way as to cut out the realm of the spirit from public and intellectual life. It has not always been so.

And it may not be so forever. God is steadfast, faithful, and constant, and Christians have all the time they need to continue working out our collective calling as disciples of Jesus. Who is to say what America, not to mention global Christianity, will look like in another five hundred years?

It may be the case that our epistemology, or way of knowing, may shift in such a way as to make room for the concession that there is more to reality than the material. This premise, if accepted, may shift the paradigm, exposing cracks within the prevailing hegemony that dominates intellectual life. And whether by a slow, rising tide or by the in-breaking of a torrent, our way of thinking and experiencing reality may shift. Suddenly, it may not be secularism that is Christianity’s greatest challenge, but rival spiritualities.

In either case, the calling of Christians will remain constant: to continue giving faithful witness to the reality of God as revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not only in our preaching, but in our habits, demonstrating holiness in heart and life.