Guest blog by Nathan Hunt, co-host of discipleshipandethics.com
Just over a year ago I was lonely and discouraged.
Stranded in a new city with no friends, an unreasonable amount of work to do on my thesis, and a couple challenging months into marriage, I spun my wheels in search of connection. Though I rarely posted or interacted with the comments swirling through my feed, I sat longer and longer staring at Facebook.
In several of his works, Henri Nouwen draws a distinction between loneliness and solitude. Loneliness, he says, is a place of isolation where the compulsive self vainly searches for validation. “Who am I?” he asks in The Way of the Heart:
“I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by my world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money...The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failing and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same — more work, more money, more friends.”
Or in the world of the millennial — more likes, more shares, more comments. But today’s post is lost in the algorithms of tomorrow’s trend, and affirmation without genuine connection could hardly be more fleeting.
So I found myself, for the first time really, in a sustained battle with anger. This anger was not so much the direct result of my time on social media, so much as my anger and time on social media were both reflective of the broader state of loneliness and disconnection into which my heart had fallen.
Again, Nouwen helps me make sense of the spiritual-psychology underneath all this.
"These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of a secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. What else is anger than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. And when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated."
If loneliness is the outcome of connection stripped of love, then solitude is its opposite: the choice to disconnect in order to commune fully with Love.
Without any real thoughtfulness or fanfare — and so, I assume, by the grace of God — I pulled the plug. For the next eight months, I was completely removed from social media and began the slow transition from loneliness to solitude.
And what a liberation it was! It may be that for twenty-first century people, enmeshed in financial and familial connections and responsibilities, simply removing ourselves from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts is the closest we can come to the desert of the monastic fathers.
Three things happened for me almost right away.
I discovered that a large part of my self-representation was functioning through this digitized, one-dimensional version of myself projected through my “profile.” I realized that even though I wasn't a heavy user relative to many, I still stressed about how I was viewed, the kind of "witness" I was having, how frequently I stuck up for justice, mentioned Jesus, proved that I was still outdoorsy, etc, etc. Leaving Facebook, I was freed to simply be Nathan through my body — through my words and actions in physical presence with others.
I was released from believing that Facebook politicizing and opinion-sharing is authentic (or essential) engagement with the struggles of human beings and this world. I focused instead on showing up physically at political demonstrations, in relationship with the marginalized, or a hurting friend's side. I gravitated toward deeper research than trending articles and embraced real conversation.
I found myself engaging more directly with friends and family (though I still have a lot of work to do on this one!). I sent more personal emails, made more phone calls, chatted on Skype, tried to initiate more coffees.
Facebook can be a tool for good. I’m happy to acknowledge that -- in fact, my organization is currently winning significant rights for homeless people in Denver thanks to a viral Facebook video. But for my personal life, it increasingly failed to cultivate genuine relationship, wasted my time, and raised my stress levels. Most importantly, Facebook entangled me in worldviews that increasingly conformed my mind and behavior to patterns other than Christ’s. As a tool of discipleship, it only led me further from the cruciform life I crave.
Eventually I came back.
My wife and I wanted to share wedding pictures. I wanted to let people know about a new website and blog I was launching (shameless plug). My job wanted me involved in communications.
But I have not come back the same.
Facebook has not held the same grasp over my identity. My compulsive checking and rechecking has almost faded completely. And my solution to loneliness and self-affirmation seems to rest much more consistently in a different Source.
But the siren song is loud. The noise of the political season fought hard to draw me back into old patterns and contrary habits.
It may be time to disengage again, if only to reconnect with this world and the source of love.