Twitter is stupid. Change my mind…in 280 characters or fewer. To that I add Instagram; Netflix; Snapchat; and, hypocritically, Facebook as being more or less worthless. Present a meme to convince me otherwise [i].
Our reliance on social media has been amplified to beyond epic proportions since the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown began. This is a terrifying thought, considering that our reliance of social media was already of epic proportions. Consider the wise fulmination of Anthony Esolen in his essential book, Ten Ways to Destroy the imagination of Your Child:
Where is there a single spot either of beauty or of visual and auditory quiet? Nowhere at all. But who wants quiet? Go to the fast food restaurant: televisions there too, providing noise. Look at the ticker at the bottom of the screen: you cannot help yourself, you must look. The Giants lead the Eagles, 16-13. Do you care that the Giants lead the Eagles? No, but you notice it, and a thousand things like it, minute by minute, day after day. Suddenly the volume on the television rises. Is it a report on a mass murder in Oklahoma? No, that was last week. This time it is a commercial for something called male enhancement. You don’t really want to hear the warnings the drug company must issue, but you hear them anyway. Noise, all noise. (p. 206)
Esolen wrote this some ten years ago. Since then? Oh, how it falls short! We don’t even need screens at restaurants or children’s clothing stores; we clutch them everywhere ourselves — even children as young as one year old. But we keep the screens and subsequent noise in the stores nonetheless, just in case some poor old-world soul such as my wife walks in with our children and requires Finding Nemo to distract the kids, lest their imaginations start to work. It is said humans have an attention span of some eight seconds, which is shorter than a goldfish’s. Kudos to the hero who focused enough to monitor the goldfish for so long. No, we are disquieted everywhere, and in everything.
Enter the amplification of COVID-19, amplification being too calm of a word. Whereas before it was optional, our lives must be connected to screens and noise now. Stay out of the parks and trails for your health’s sake. Park yourself inside and stay connected by the terror of digitized chaos. We are told it’s OK to binge on Netflix or ESPN Classics to assuage our fears. After all, life is stressful enough, especially when constantly analyzing the following: What are the numbers of those affected by the pandemic? How does that compare to an hour ago? What about my own region? My own country? Italy? And Sweden, are they OK? I once met someone from Sweden — maybe I can look him up on Twitter? Oh, wait, I have to get back to my online job. A short check of Facebook first. There is a meme about toilet paper. That was so three weeks ago. But then there is a video with nurses dancing. I thought hospitals were supposed to be swamped. Here is a YouTube video explaining why they are not…
It gets worse, egregiously, when considering our spiritual practices. What Mass shall I watch this Sunday? Let me browse the options. This priest had only 17 views last Sunday; it must not be as good. It’s 7 P.M.; shall I pray Vespers with a Facebook group? Maybe I can live-stream adoration, too, as I pray. What is the best prayer app available? It would be neat if we went on Zoom and said a rosary with relatives later this week. The children would like that; they are quieter when staring at a screen. Shall I try a communal online choir session? Do live-streamed blessings work from a distance? Let me look it up. I do not like the singer of this Mass. I will ask my online friends if they have a better option. Yes, this pandemic certainly is increasing our attention to prayer… Substitute “prayer” for noise, distraction, and spiritual desolation.
There is no disputing that the rise in our online and technological use with COVID-19, often by necessity, will have lasting spiritual consequences if unchecked. Technology, morally neutral as it is, can weaken our wills at a traumatizing rate. Without our wills in check, we cannot freely choose to do God’s will, which Christ says is the entire purpose of the spiritual life — “My meat is to do the will of Him who sent Me” (Jn. 4:34). Yet the weakening of our wills is precisely how technology can gain control of our lives.
We gain a certain pleasure in using technology, even for morally neutral tasks. There is gratification in the immediacy of checking a text, finding an answer to how many people have COVID-19, what year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs, the pros and cons of Hemi engines, or jumping on Twitter to share Easter greetings — and what could possibly go wrong with Catholics sharing news of Easter blessings on Twitter? It is all harmless enough, and on the surface beneficial. Yet as we increasingly engage in this electronic world, unchecked by normal human interaction and activity, accessing the online realm becomes as involuntary to life as breathing.
If so, I beg, try not to do this. Try not to check that text immediately, or see how many likes a Facebook post has garnered. Try not to look up the next random question that enters your mind (to be forgotten eight seconds later). Try to pray not with an app, but with a real Bible that can be touched and smelled. It suddenly becomes a cross, embarrassingly weighty to embrace — a cross that requires a laborious, Fr. Ripperger–approved media fast to correct. It will hurt, perhaps as much by its shame as by anything else. Let it be painful. But let it be done, as far as possible. Literally, where there’s a will, there’s a way, if any freedom of the will remains. Social media make for a powerful medium, but they are not a replacement for life. They may aid, for a time, but they will not bestow true recreation, relationship, or worship. Enter the silence.
I return to Esolen. He states that “[p]eople whose eyes cannot rest on something as beautiful as a stretch of sea and sky can hardly be expected to dwell upon an imaginary sea or an imaginary sky” (p. 207). When we re-emerge in weeks, or months, from our isolation, will we be able to dwell upon the sea or sky? Or will we need to look up how many gallons of water the sea holds? Will we speak comfortably with relatives? Or will the pull of that phone resting in our pocket be overpowering? Will our kids rest peacefully in the presence of Christ at Mass? Or will they, after being engaged only in watching live-streamed Masses, find themselves unable to “be still” and know His presence? If there is a slipping in control of our wills due to technological absorption, now is the moment to root it out immediately.
To conclude, there must be great attentiveness to prevent the presence of social media consuming us in these stressful days. Our wills must serve God alone, and with freedom, not slavery. I offer a closing word from St. Theresa of Avila:
If you give [Christ] your will in any other way, you are just showing Him a jewel, pretending to give to Him and begging Him to take it; and then when He puts out His hand to do so, taking it back and holding on to it tightly. (Way of Perfection, ch. 32)
Enter the silence, be still, and God will grant peace. You will not change my mind on this — not in 280 characters, nor any meme.
[i] An obligatory qualification: There is no judgment upon anyone here, lest I rightly be called a hypocrite. William Hazlitt says that the “only vice which cannot be forgiven is hypocrisy.” I just looked up that quote, in under 8 seconds.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of four. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.