Trying to keep my balance on a packed 66 bus this evening, commuting home after work, I noticed an old woman balance a full laundry basket on her hip as she paid her fare. As she passed me, I could not help but notice the black ashes smudged across her forehead. It’s that time of the year again, I thought.
The forty days and forty nights journey of Lent is now in full swing for many of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians (we eastern Orthodox start next week!). For those in or outside the Christian faith who don’t know: Lent is meant to be an exercise in atonement and spiritual development; a cleansing of one’s conscience before commemorating the death and resurrection of Christianity’s savior, Jesus Christ. Historically this was manifested through actions like abstaining from certain foods like meat and dairy (fasting), amping up prayer time, and giving more to the less fortunate.
Yet in our modern day Lent’s significance has, to an extent, been diminished: fasting becomes girl-code for dieting, off-limits food like meat gets replaced with imitation soy versions, and a general sarcasm permeates our societal air (search #lent on Twitter for some classic one-liners).
What has most struck my attention though is a different trend, one only made possible in the past few years: the status updates across our virutalsphere of people pledging to give up, or at least decrease use of, social media addictions for the next 40 days.
This is fascinating to me because it hits at the heart of my questions about how our constant connectivity plays into self-reflection and improvement, two qualities meant to define the Lenten period. On the one hand, it’s fascinating that so many people think of giving up Facebook in the same way as giving up food – it is sustenance, it is a required part of daily life, it will be a true sacrifice to give it up. And yet too much of it can be dangerous and damaging. Much of me celebrates this awareness! In my life, at least, I know that experiencing and appreciating reality and relationships means logging off for long enough to focus, pay attention, struggle, and grow.
Take, for example, this now-famous video of a father shooting his daughter’s laptop with his 45 pistol, in retaliation for her rude comments about him on Facebook. Can you see the tragic irony of his outburst? While his daughter’s actions were absolutely disrespectful, his very dramatic solution of shooting her laptop – and posting of the incident on Youtube/Facebook -just goes to show how in an effort to be virtually connected with millions, we miss out on deeply connected with the handful of most important relationships in our lives. Caring about what others think – or in his case, trying to manipulate his daughter’s concern about her own image – complicates already complex emotions and stymies our ability to solve problems.
By all means, you’ll see that the girl is a brat and should be taught a lesson. But that kind of careful communication should be between her and her parents – not broadcast online for the whole world to anonymously comment on. If this continues to become a norm, I worry that we are going to become (and/or raise) people who no longer are capable of managing conflict.
So while a big part of my heart cheers on the Facebook Fast, I am actually going to suggest something slightly different than abandoning social media altogether (which I doubt most people would follow through on anyway). After all, Facebook is not going anywhere – it’s more and more becoming a normal means of communication. While there is immense value in logging off entirely, might it be even more valuable to learn to moderate usage instead? To use it for positive reasons? To spread good energy and support others who are too far for a direct talk or call? After all, Lent doesn’t ask us to withdraw from the world, but challenges us to live more harmoniously within it.
Whether you are a Christian or not, religious or not, I hope you will keep in mind your Facebook use over the next 40 days. What are you putting out into the world – gratitude or a lack thereof? How are you managing conflicts offline, within yourself and with others?
For sure, Lent is a very personal period of time, and there’s no need to broadcast our individual developments publicly – but for anyone who wants to build up a better world, remember that it can only happen if we each take that personal process within ourselves seriously.