I 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:
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.
This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.
My false self and private self is the one who wants to exist outside of the reach of God’s will and God’s love—outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves—the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.
All sin starts with the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge, and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.
Now, given the above excerpt, it would be very easy at this point to get drawn into a discussion about the nature of sin. But I want us to resist that temptation and just think a little about what this false self is and how it manifests itself.
I’m sure most of us have, at some point or other, found ourselves in a situation where we felt “forced” to act in a way that did not reflect our truest and innermost convictions: we felt we had to wear a “mask”, as it were, in order to hide our true selves and put forward a more socially acceptable, conforming persona. This type of experience is, I think, just a hint of what Merton means when he speaks of the false self.
What happens in such situations? What happens is that we are afraid to let ourselves be simply as we are before others, because of shame and fear: shame over the inherent badness that we’ve been taught to believe is at the core of us, and fear of being rejected and disapproved of by all the other shiny, happy people who are clearly so much more acceptable than we are.
So, instead of being content to let our light, however faltering, shine in its own peculiar way, we instead covertly attempt to buy approval by pretending to be something we aren’t. In other words, we trade our true identity for the fleeting currency of passing favour.
This happens in homes, schools, youth groups, workplaces and churches the world over. But, perhaps more than any of these places, it happens on social media.
If I spend an evening with you in person, you are going to hear my every comment, laugh, and snort of derision; you will see my every gesture, frown and raising of eyebrows. In such a setting, even with the most sustained effort, it’s hard to keep some hint of my actual, true self from being at least glimpsed by you.
By contrast, social media allow us to present a highly curated view of ourselves. We decide what is revealed and what remains hidden; which aspects of our life and character we want the world to see and which aspects we would prefer to cover up. The fact that we mostly do this unconsciously does not alter the fact that we do it. Indeed, I would say the fact that we do it unconsciously means we are all the more likely, in doing it, to be unwittingly lulled into presenting a carefully crafted and altogether unreal picture of ourselves. We are each of us, at some level, suckers for approval, and social media entice us to constantly seek such approval by posting and sharing things that will garner the maximum number of likes, shares, and comments.
If you feel condemned by what I’m saying here, don’t be: I’m just as guilty as you are. I use social media as much as – if not more than – most, and so am perhaps more at risk than many of falling into the trap I’m seeking to highlight.
But does all this really matter that much?
Well, if Merton is right and the false self is an illusory person who cannot exist, then in offering an artificially curated version of myself to you on social media, and in doing so in order to gain affirmation for that constructed persona, I am pouring energy into nourishing that which is false, ethereal and unreal. Which means I am, by the same token, denying that which is real and substantial.
The ultimate danger, I think, is that in using social media to try to convince others that we are something we aren’t, what we may really be trying to do is hide our true selves from our own view, so that we become a shimmering chimera not just to others but to ourselves as well.
I am not against social media. Far from it. I have used Facebook, Twitter and the like extensively and have benefited from them immensely. But please, let us use these tools wisely, without fear – and above all consciously, thoughtfully and without artifice.
[ Image: Christina Saint Marche ]