Published March 17, 2018 in the Ames Tribune
By Eileen Gebbie
Early this year I read this passage in the book of Proverbs (chapter 4, verse 23, from the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of the Hebrew Bible):
More than all that you guard, guard your mind,
For it is the source of life.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Over the last year, I had felt more distracted and bombarded by information and stimuli than ever before in my life. When I needed to focus the most—writing sermons—I would find myself in a loop of reading what I’d written, changing a couple of words, then checking Facebook, Instagram, my email, or my phone for the latest “news flash.” I’d then return to the sermon, feeling surprised that it hadn’t particularly progressed.
I firmly believe that paying attention to someone is the best way to demonstrate love. Yet, at home I was also distracted from my family, wondering about what I should be posting online next and how many likes or comments I was receiving when I did. I had built up a public Facebook page with about 1,400 followers and a public Instagram page with about 200 (I never really got into Twitter and I am way too old for Snapchat). I read articles about how to hone my online identity so that my “brand” would be distinct, and how to best leverage the technology and audiences unique to the two platforms.
My goal, in drawing users’ attentions to my posts, was to redirect that attention to God and my faith, which is my public role. I wanted to especially be an advocate for fellow women and my queer community, as well as people of color, the disabled, immigrants, refugees, and people who aren’t Christian. The Bible makes clear we are to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger—the most vulnerable members of any society—and these are contemporary equivalents. I wanted to also represent a branch of the Christian family tree that takes the Bible seriously, but not literally, because we do not believe the Bible is the same as God. And, I wanted to represent a church that welcomes doubt and disbelief alongside faith, hope, peace, and love.
But the process left me with anything but faith, hope, peace, and love. I’m not a neuroscientist but I believe the studies that show “getting likes” causes a dopamine response, one that sets us up to seek more, more, and more. And if we don’t get more, we tank. When this happened to me, I would lose the focus and energy that I needed to use those platforms in the first place, and to build beloved community for the healing of the world.
So when the season of Advent began (the four weeks before Christmas), I took a social media Sabbath. I didn’t post a thing.
And I didn’t miss it.
In fact, with my newly reclaimed attention, I was able to ask myself a few questions about my habit. Among them was, “Will I, on my deathbed, regret not posting?” Of course not. In fact, I now regret the amount of time I spent posting. Time lost to reading, writing, reflection, real time interaction, exercise, play, and prayer. Time I gave away to the enormous financial gain of shareholders, in support of platforms that have been infiltrated by reactionary trolls and bots, including foreign adversaries intent on sowing discord among us. I had rented out my time and my brain to the profit and poison of a few rather than the liberation of all.
So when I read that passage in Proverbs, I knew I was done. I closed my Facebook and Instagram pages.
I know that for some people this might lead to a feeling of being disconnected or out of the loop. I’m finding the exact opposite to be true: I now exchange email with family and friends, with time in between to ponder and consider their messages and the lives they’re living. I have the time (and attention span) to read professional newsletters from online media, as well as newspapers. I’m connecting in a direct way with those I love and who love me back, and with peers, mentors, and scholars. I’m absorbing the insights born of the reading, writing, and reflection of all these people, and not just reacting to headline sensations, hateful posts sometimes directed at me personally, or stories that might actually be fraudulent.
Now, for full disclosure, I should say that I am still part of the team that runs my church’s Facebook page and Instagram account. I know that people who are “church shopping” scour social media and I don’t want to lose the opportunity to connect with them. I love my church and want to invite more people into that love, into that genuinely connective way of life. The New Revised Standard Version’s translation of that same Proverbs passage reads:
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life.
Free having to perform for social media, I am now guarding my mind so that it may be open and creative, not narrow and reactive. I am keeping my heart so that it may be generative, not exhausted. My life is attuned to loving in real life, not liking online. It is the only way I will stay whole enough to be a part of healing our fractured world.
Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ.