Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Social media

On the false self and self-disclosure in the internet age

6988270931_5bf6a75fd7_oI first heard the name of Trappist monk Thomas Merton a few years ago in an article by the late Michael Spencer at The Internet Monk. Being at that point a stranger to the idea of contemplative spirituality, I registered mild interest and moved on. In recent years, thanks to the work of Richard Rohr and others, the idea of a quieter, more reflective form of spiritual practice has gradually endeared itself to me. (Though, lest anyone should think I’m now an accomplished contemplative, think again: I’m very much a novice at the beginning of the journey.) So it is that I’ve finally got around to reading some of Merton’s work – namely, his 1962 book New Seeds of Contemplation.

This book is so brimming with rich, thought-provoking insight that I stopped highlighting it after I realised that I was highlighting just about every paragraph.

One of the topics Merton often touched on in his writing was the distinction between what he called the false self and the true self. I’d like to share with you a short section from New Seeds on what he means by the false self, and then consider how this plays out in our lives and, in particular, in our engagement with social media:

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On social media and the purchasing of worth

Social mediaI have clearly been somewhat quiet lately on the blogging front, for which I apologise. All I can say is, sometimes inspiration can’t be forced; you just have to wait for it and be ready when it comes.

Anyway… I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Facebook and other social media.

Or rather, to back up a little, I’ve been thinking about our addictive tendencies as human beings, and how social media taps right into them and exploits them.

I’d like to quote from a couple of authors before bringing this brief reflection back to the specific topic of social media.

First, in his book Addiction and Grace, Gerald G. May writes that “all people are addicts… to be alive is to be addicted.” I happen to strongly agree with that view. My contention is that those who don’t agree with it are simply not yet aware of their own particular addictions.

Second, for the past ten years or so, one of my favourite writers on things spiritual – and one of those who have most influenced me – has been the late Brennan Manning. (If you don’t know of him, do yourself a favour and get acquainted. You could pick any of his books as a starting point and not risk disappointment.) His book Abba’s Child has a chapter titled “The Impostor”, in which he sets out to describe in detail the notion of the “false self”. This is the artificial self that we are subconsciously compelled to present to others in an effort to gain approval and acceptance. In doing so, we tend to bury the real us – the true self – and thus we end up working increasingly hard to manage and hide the growing gulf between who we are deep down and who we sincerely and desperately want everyone else to believe we are.

Here is a sentence from the aforementioned chapter of Abba’s Child:

Living out of the false self creates a compulsive desire to present a perfect image to the public so that everybody will admire us and nobody will know us.

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Social media and gullible Christians

When perusing my Facebook feed earlier today, I came across one comment thread in which a commenter shared his knowledge of supposed behind-the-scenes information linked to recent global events and well-known personalities, and a status update providing spurious information about ATM fraud.

This is hardly the first time I’ve come across such information on Facebook – in fact, it’s more or less a daily occurrence. And today, as usual, the common thread linking these two posts is that they had both been made by Christians.

Which leads me to two questions:

1. Why do so many Christians love a good conspiracy theory?
2. Why do many Christians appear to be so gullible?

Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn.

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Continous partial attention

Canadian pastor-blogger Darryl Dash has a post up about “continuous partial attention”, which he defines as follows:

We’re never completely tuning in to one thing because of the other stimuli competing for our attention.

  • It’s checking in on Facebook while the professor lectures.
  • It’s pulling out the smartphone while on a date with your wife.
  • It’s tweeting in the middle of a sermon.
  • It’s missing out on what’s here because we’re wondering what’s going on somewhere else that we’re missing.
  • It’s never being able to pray because we’re too distracted.

What’s lost is the ability to pay attention, to sustain thought, to be fully present. And that’s a shame when it comes to our most important relationships, not to mention our ability to think and pray.

In his post, Darryl wonders whether this could be one of the greatest pastoral issues we’re facing today. I think he could be right. This obsession with constant social media connection encourages us to lead fragmented lives where we are never fully present in the moment. I fear, in particular, for today’s young people, many of whom appear not to know how to disengage from the noise and chatter of the virtual world. This will surely take its toll in their future real-world relationships. Meanwhile, many parents sit idly by, and some even give their kids smartphones as early as five years old. This is madness.

(I blogged about this in an earlier post, More connected but further apart than ever.)

More connected but further apart than ever

Yesterday, I came across this short video that really strikes a chord with me:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of technology, and I’m just as connected as the next person. I have a smartphone and a tablet, and I make fairly heavy use of social media and the internet in general.

However, call me old-fashioned, but I also believe in the value of, and the need for, face-to-face engagement. Real relationship and communication require us to be 100% present to the person or people we are with, at least some of the time. Trying to have a conversation with someone who has one eye on their smartphone is an exercise in frustration, because they are not fully present. Their body is in the room but at least half of their mind is elsewhere. The message being sent to us is that any text, tweet or update they may receive is guaranteed to be more important, more interesting and more worthy of their attention than we are.

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