The Big Questions

In March of this year I happened on an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “The Empty Religions of Instagram.” The subtitle was telling “How did influencers become our moral authorities?” I am not from the demographic that this piece was written for, but I found myself nodding along as I read, struck by the author’s insight into what I’ve seen, what I’ve perhaps feared. As is often the case when you are nodding along thinking “yeah! people need to read this!” I found a mirror held up to my own life. How often do I go to social media for my soul, not even realizing that’s what I’m doing? How often do I get my own dopamine rush and look to my online crowd that I sometimes, and perhaps wrongly, call my “community” to console, praise, and approve of me.

I urge you to take a look at the article, but let me quote a couple of paragraphs to frame why I am writing about this today.

I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe. I have an overdraft on my outrage account. I want moral authority from someone who isn’t shilling a memoir or calling out her enemies on social media for clout.

Left-wing secular millennials may follow politics devoutly. But the women we’ve chosen as our moral leaders aren’t challenging us to ask the fundamental questions that leaders of faith have been wrestling with for thousands of years: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What should we believe in beyond the limits of our puny selfhood?

The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about our selves, posting about our selves, working on our selves.”

It was about two months later when I began reading a completely different genre than a newspaper article in George Saunders new book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. This book is like taking a graduate school course in literature, something I have longed for but never had the time to do. Saunders references other big questions in his introduction: “How are we supposed to be living down here? What were we put here to accomplish? What should we value? What is truth, anyway, and how might we recognize it?” He talks about the process of writing as a way of “training oneself to see the world with new openness and curiousity.” Saunders then takes us through several essays/short stories written by Russian authors with exercises and commentary mixed in between. It is a wonderful book.

But both these writers who come from completely different places and generations have me thinking about some changes I need to make so that I too can connect to those big questions in life, so that my writing doesn’t stem from a desire to please, but instead stems from a desire to challenge, to encourage, and to chase beauty. Why? Because my own observations are that those three things are lacking in our online discourse.

Quite frankly, I have become a lazy writer. I have become too reliant on quick responses and feedback that are abundantly supplied online, instead of pursuing the rigors of writing longer pieces with substantive content. And that is not fair to those of you who read or to myself. I sell both and all of us short.

So I am announcing, in an effort at accountability, that I am heading off of social media. While I won’t be deleting my accounts, and while this blog will automatically post to my facebook page, I will be heading away for an indefinite time. It’s time. I find myself increasingly cynical, discouraged, and dishonest as I observe my own interactions on social media. As much as I want to be a presence for the good and the beautiful, I fear I too often follow the crowd.

My real life communities and friends are where I can have the most lasting impact. My neighbors and coworkers, whom I adore, get less of me when my focus is on my next post. My family gets only half of me when I am focusing instead on those who don’t know me, yet ironically, I seem to care deeply what these strangers think.

I’m writing this as I sit in our cottage in Rockport. In the midst of all the beauty that is Rockport, I feel tired and I feel scared. It’s not only the writing piece. It’s also the significant challenges our family has faced this past year. Challenges that largely go unshared on social media. If I’m looking at the big questions, I find my mind worrying about the small questions: What if I lose the small audience I have? What if I just get distracted by something else? What do I hope will happen? I don’t know. I only know that the questions I ask are a minute fraction of what really matters, and the questions that both Leigh Stein and George Saunders ask are questions worth asking again and again….and again.

It’s time to delve deeper into the big questions. I hope you will come along for the journey.

Contrary to what you might have seen on Instagram, our purpose is not to optimize our one wild and precious life. It’s time to search for meaning beyond the electric church that keeps us addicted to our phones and alienated from our closest kin.

Leigh Stein

If you would like to keep up with my writing or communicate, please feel free to subscribe to the blog, email me at communicatingblog@gmail.com or through messenger.

The Echo Chamber of Social Media

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I have been caught in the echo chamber of social media for a long time, but the last few months it has become significantly worse. All around me people rise up, whether on Twitter, Facebook or comments, letting everyone know their strongly held opinions.

But nothing is original.

Everyone is echoing everyone else. As is usually the case, there are two sides and both are extremes. Nuanced opinion and thinking outside the box? That doesn’t happen in echo chambers.

Every once in a while, the echoes collide, creating a palpable dissonance, and then the echoes go their separate ways, making sure they land with what and who is most comfortable. No one ever changes their minds in an echo chamber. We change our minds when we connect over shared bread and real relationships.

Dialogue is best done in relationship, over breaking bread, over coffee.

This echo chamber is bad for our health. I’m convinced of it. I’m convinced that future research will show an increase in ulcers, heart disease, depression, and other stress related illness based on our being unable to turn off the chatter, remove ourselves from the echo chamber.

The echo chamber is even worse for our souls. My soul was in bad shape last week and it was directly related to the social media echo chamber. Because too many echoes create chaos. Information and beliefs are amplified out of proportion to what I can handle.

I am as guilty as anyone, probably more so. I participate in the echo chamber, getting caught up until my head aches from the sounds reverberating around me. Until I am so tired of the sound of my voice and my own opinion that I want to scream.

How do I separate myself?

It’s simple, but really hard. I turn it off. I turn off the echo chamber and I dive into real life and real relationships.So since last week, that is what I have done. The likes or dislikes of social media, the sharing of often useless information, the over abundance of opinions — I had to separate myself so that I could breathe, so I could think clearly. More importantly, I needed to hear God. When you are surrounded by such a cacophony of echoes, you can’t hear yourself, much less God.

Not surprisingly, only a week in to the separation and I can think more clearly. I get home and listen to Mozart and drink a London Fog. I read articles from all sides that I want to read, not those that are stuck in my Facebook face. I pray in ways that I can’t pray when I am surrounded by echoes.

I will not stay off line for long. I have good connections on social media and I know it can be used in great ways. Separating myself in this way is helping me see how I can better use social media when I do return.

But for now, the echo chamber has been banished from my heart and my soul, and I am a healthier person.

[And just in case you’re wondering how I posted this since I have supposedly left Facebook for a time, I have a little secret – I linked accounts so that it would automatically post.]

Friendship, Facebook, and an Impossibly Soft Couch 

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“I miss you and your impossibly soft couch,” my friend writes to me. I smile as I think of her and the hot mugs of tea we would drink as we would sit talking together. There was no clock in sight – time was unimportant. What was important was the friendship, kindred spirits meeting together on an impossibly soft couch.

Our living room couch is soft. As you sit, your body sinks into the cushions and you’re immersed in soft comfort. It’s hard to get up out of a couch like that. You want to stay there forever, especially if the weather is cold or rainy.

Our couch has witnessed a lot. It has witnessed tears and joy; sleepy teenagers and tired adults; long talks with good friends and oh so much laughter. Our couch has also witnessed disagreements, passionate and heated arguments, and stomach-aching laughter.

All of those are easier on this impossibly soft couch. Whether it’s disagreements, arguments, stories, discussions over world events and politics, or secrets shared from the heart – an impossibly soft couch is where these things go down easy.

Facebook is not an impossibly soft couch. Facebook is a hard, electronic, computer or smart phone screen. Facebook witnesses all the same things that my couch witnesses – but it’s not soft and so it doesn’t always end well. You cannot snuggle into Facebook and come out okay. In fact, there are times when you end up so shaken that you have to give yourself a long break.

During the election season in the United States, Facebook was at its worst. From outright lies that were posted to ferocious arguments and accusations, Facebook saw it all. It was not impossibly soft, it was not comfortable, and it left me in need of confession and soul-searching.

Post-election Facebook is looking as though it will follow the same pattern. A pattern of misinformation, explosive allegations, and general meanness. I don’t think that we as a human race will make it through unscathed. I think we will sustain wounds and broken relationships. It will not be a “social” network as much as an “anti-social” network. We are all becoming more like trolls and bullies then any of us ever wanted or intended.

I don’t have a lot of answers except to say that you are welcome to my couch. You are welcome to come and sit awhile. We may disagree – and that’s fine. We may argue – that’s fine too. On my impossibly soft couch, it will go down easy.

Dialogue is best done in relationship, over breaking bread, over coffee or tea — and on impossibly soft couches. 

Earthquake Hits Genovia

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The top news story from all major news sources today is the earthquake  in the Kingdom of Genovia. The earthquake, measuring .2 on the Richter scale, was felt while plans for the New Year’s Eve Annual Gala, put on by the Royal Family, were underway. Multiple locations were affected, with the most destruction found in a parking lot full of Porsches and Mercedes near the Royal Palace. While no one was killed, many lost their precious vehicles  and the government is asking for aid for the many victims. “Our small  country is in shock. We just can’t believe that an earthquake would come so close to New Year’s Eve and hurt our celebration this way! It’s so terrible that this has happened! Genovia never did anything to deserve this” said the Foreign Minister of Genovia, tears streaming down his cheeks. He went on to say that he felt the people mocking the country for its response toward such a small quake did not realize that his fellow Genovians are like the “Princess in the princess and the pea – we are extremely sensitive and should not be mocked.” Indeed, social media like Facebook and Twitter were alive with the hashtag: #bigGenovianbabies and #SendadiapertoGenovia, adding insults to injury.

The United States, Russia and Iran have decided to press the pause button on their political differences and have pledged support to Genovia, calling for a joint meeting to discuss emergency aid. An unnamed source was heard saying “Of all the bad things that have happened this year, this is the baddest!”

It surprised no one when Agrabah said “Good Riddance! They got what they deserved.”

Internet sympathy for Genovia quickly spread with people spontaneously posting videos of themselves singing the Genovian National Anthem and displayed selfies with signs declaring “We LOVE Genovia and Princess Mia.” Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls have been quick to express financial and emotional support for the Kingdom. One candidate spoke of the affection he felt for the wealth of the country while another declared that “This should teach the people what is really important! If mean-spirited people think they are babies then I’ll be a baby with them!” So there.

Princess Amelia [Amelia Mignonette Grimaldi Thermopolis Renaldo] also known as “Mia” to her friends, is said to be safe and in a secure location. She is rumored to be asking after her cat – and no one in their right mind can blame her for that.

So we ask you to stop and remember those good people of Genovia already.

Meanwhile in real news, the war in Syria is now going on five years, outpouring of sympathy for refugees is rapidly fading, Iraqis from Mosul and Qaraqosh continue to pray that they can return to their homes, and people are rightly outraged and grieving about a young kid being killed.

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It happens to the best of us — We pass on things that we don’t really read; things that are false or completely ridiculous. We are quick to believe sound bites instead of waiting on more substance. We join the throngs of commenters and opinionators, immediately adding our thoughts on whatever the matter is – even when we don’t know anything about the issue at hand. We care deeply about the sound of our own voices and want to make sure that we are heard. And too often we end up caught in embarrassment and remorse.

And I can be the worst, so this coming year is my year to be more careful about all of this – more careful about what I read, what I share, what I write, and what I believe. If I let social media control what I think and what I don’t think I’m in a really scary place. Social media is amazing. I use it all the time. But it’s also a big, dangerous beast that needs taming and we are the only ones who can tame it.

So in this last post of the year, as I close out 2015, I have a wish. That is this: that we all be more careful  of what we read and what we share in 2016 and by doing so, tame the beast.

PS -If the country of Genovia sounds familiar here is why.

Short Sunday Thoughts: On Politics and Facebook

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Dialogue is best done in relationship, over breaking bread, over coffee.” From On Sharing Bedrooms and Dialogue

As I think about the next year in the United States, I look back on something I wrote in the past, and I pray I will stay true to that conviction.

“We all have strong convictions that could lead to ugly. Human reactions, emotions and interactions are complex. And there are some things that I won’t discuss online, not because I lack conviction but because the potential for misinterpretation is too high…”

And this from my friend Tara:

“…I don’t need to battle over politics because I have a massive fight on my hands as it is. 

The battle to walk closely with Him day-by-day. 
The battle to be salt, to be light. 
The battle against my own sin and depravity. 
The battle to love my neighbor well. 
The battle to act justly; to love mercy. 

The Kingdom isn’t so much about how I vote (or promote my vote on-line) – the Kingdom is more about the way I love and live and act toward the lost and hurting around me.”

“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Ephesians 4:1-3

I’m Not Sure I Know How to Write Anymore

You think a lot about writing when you commit to writing everyday. But as I think about writing, nothing captures what I’ve felt recently more than this post by Robynn. She wrote it right after coming back from India but it’s pertinent to how we’ve both been feeling so the timing is perfect. I think the question becomes – when is it time to give yourself a break? When do you need to free yourself from words and cameras and be present in the moment?

Both of us are asking this question and pose it to you. We’d love to hear from you through the comments. 

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I’m not sure I know how to write any more.

It’s been a long hiatus. I really haven’t written since early in November.  Although I’ve missed the routines and rhythms of writing, I’ve also enjoyed the freedom to just live and enjoy each moment –instead of secretly thinking how I might frame this split second up with words, how I might dress it up for a reading audience, how I might squeeze meaning out of it for my own good, but also for the good of others.

It’s sort of the same thing with photography. There are times I want to capture the now with a camera. I want it on record, digitally, that this thing happened. Relying on memory is no longer sure. My mind becomes fuzzy on the details. Over time my perspective magnifies certain details and erases others. I can’t trust it. I want the photograph. I want something tangible that I can look at remember the smells and sounds, the emotions and agonies of that one moment in time that I once lived through.

Other times the camera gets in the way of my enjoying that same moment. It dangles, an annoying appendage from my wrist, or it sits precariously against my cheekbones and my nose and it spoils my eye’s view. I can’t see what’s happening because of what I’m seeing through the detachable metallic intruder, my camera. I can’t relax and experience that particular point of time because I feel this nagging urge to capture it on my camera. The temptation exists to set things up for the sake of the camera. To live in such way that life is more photographable! As ludicrous as it sounds…I find it to be true.

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Our son bought a new camera for our trip to India. He captured his experiences on film. He journaled through pictures. But there was one day while we were in the city of Varanasi where he didn’t have his camera with him. I asked him if he had forgotten it. He shook his head and replied, “No, I didn’t want it to spoil my experience of this place.” He wanted to be there, in the city of his birth, in the land of colour and texture and noise, in the chaos of life that is India….he didn’t want to miss it, he didn’t want to hide behind his digital device.

For me, sometimes, writing is a little like that.

However writing does force a certain deliberation, an intentionality. When I write I become more contemplative. When I contemplate, I tend to be more thoughtful, more purposeful. I like that.

So I have missed writing. I have missed my interactions with Marilyn, my friend who never censors but tweaks my words and edits my commas. I have missed the comments readers leave. I’ve missed the discipline of it. To be completely contradictory I’ve missed the meaning that I often see in the midst of my mundane when I’m forced to write.

I’m back. I’m writing again. It’s time. I’ll try not to let it get in the way of my living. And I’ll try not to live in such a way as to promote my writing. I’ll write again, naturally and with sincerity because it brings me joy, because I have a few things yet to say, because there are a few people still listening.

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This post is about more than writing so what about you? Do you struggle with being present in the moment? Struggle to find a balance between living life in person and living life online? Social media has been a gift for so many of us who have moved often and frequently, a gift of connections we thought we’d lost. But how do we balance living in the moment with those next to us with connecting through writing, photography, and social media interactions?

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Time to Engage

I write this from Goa, India where a fan helps to dry out the high humidity, evidenced in the sweat on my face, and a tiny baby frog hops away from my luggage towards the door of another’s room.

To say that the journey was eventful is an understatement but the “It’s 2am in the Mumbai airport” post will need to wait.

Right now it’s time to engage with all that surrounds me: engage meaningfully and engage with purpose. There are times when we need to forget social media and fully engage and so I ask for your grace.

I look forward to occasionally posting pictures and sound bites through the Facebook site, so feel free to head over there through the link on the right. And perhaps another blog post but overall I’m here and it’s time to engage.

With love to you.
Marilyn.