What I Learned from Not Being on Facebook
I decided that my three month sabbatical should also include a Sabbath from Facebook. At the beginning of June, I posted the always original “Keep Calm, I’m on Sabbatical” image, and I signed off.
What has surprised me about these three Facebook-free months is how little I can say is different about my life because of this break.
I am an apathetic Facebook user. I was a late adopter, really only signing up in order to facilitate church communications. And frankly, that’s what I love most about this tool. But then again, there are few more fascinating questions for me than how we communicate and invite faith in a changing world. If I wasn’t on leave from the church at the same time, I might have found the lack of Facebook to cause more of a change, at least in my working life. As it is, for better and for worse, any differences to be found in logging off have been imperceptible.
On the one hand, I had hoped that disconnecting might free up mental and physical time, naturally creating a sort of spiritual wilderness where I would easily draw closer to God because I am liberated from so many of life’s distractions. Instead, I realized that:
a) Distractions will find you, Facebook or not (and in fact, I would have to do a lot more than log out of one communication tool to really reap the benefits of disconnecting)
b) Of course God has never found it beneath the Divine Self to use those distractions to speak to us both loudly and clearly.
So, with or without social media, thanks be to God for the people, opinions, news events, celebrations, check-ins, and even the electronic alerts that insist on breaking in to my inner sanctum of peace and quiet to tell me there is a whole loud world out there brimming with the voice and activity of God!
More significantly, I had hoped that being logged out would be medicine for my greatest spiritual pitfall: my insatiable hunger for others’ affirmation. It turns out that if my ego isn’t being fed by Facebook, it will seek out any number of other places to be told that I am something special, and it will find just as many signs that I am falling short of some unattainable set of standards; that I am not, in fact, enough. I think of the prophet Isaiah saying to the people of Israel so many thousands of years ago:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Even several millenia before social media existed, the world still offered an unending barrage of opportunities to fill up on junky messages. We continue in good company when, today, we opt for the spiritual work of finding that good and delightful food — the measure of our lives in Something or Someone greater than just the world’s admiration. Not surprisingly, that spiritual homework doesn’t lessen simply because we forego social media for a few months.
On the other hand, I did worry that being off Facebook might raise my FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) hackles in a way that I expected to be challenging. I thought it would be hard not knowing what is going on in people’s lives. I thought I would feel guilty about not supporting my friends in their sharing of special family moments, their creative and artistic endeavors because I wasn’t “liking” or “sharing.”
What I have found instead is that of course Facebook is not the only way, and certainly not the most effective way, of connecting and supporting. My dear friend Jen went off Facebook several years ago, commenting to me that she enjoyed not being alerted to her friends’ life events over social media, because then when she actually saw or talked with them, she could hear about their significant happenings in person. It forced her to ask what was going on in their lives, in their family’s lives, because she couldn’t assume that a newsfeed had already told her.
Over the course of the lovely series of friend and family encounters I have gotten to enjoy this summer, there hasn’t been even one time where I have regretted that I didn’t know about something online prior to being able to hear about it in person. (Furthermore, the off-line grapevine continues to be remarkably effective at transporting news of any immediate import!) And in fact, I would say that, ancient and seemingly outdated as it may be, conversation must still be the way connections are forged most strongly.
The number one argument in favour of Facebook is that it allows us to stay connected to people who live at a distance, those we rarely if ever see, and yet, this summer has afforded me enough re-connections with those far-flung people to remind me that our relationships with one another are resilient and are sustained by much more than merely the habit of constant, immediate (and ultimately superficial) feedback of Facebook.
Did I log back in come September? Yes, with the same measure of apathy I brought to it in the first place. I often forget to look at my newsfeed anyway, and when I do, I get easily frustrated by the volume of advertising that gets in the way of finding out anything of import. I do remain ever hopeful that a blog, a picture, a sermon, a verse or learning opportunity shared on my page, or my church’s page, might touch another life with a whisper of God’s love. I give thanks for that whisper so routinely offered back to me — both on- and offline.