Facebook, whether used for good or ill, is a profoundly formative presence because of the way in which it trains our minds to a certain rhythm, substance, and habit of thought.
One swift summer month has passed since I deactivated my Facebook account.
I’ll admit, I made the decision with a mind split evenly between resolve and reluctance. The flint-faced half was the stronger, that crisp, unbending inner voice reminding me how often I’d fretted over my busy brain. My mind had become so raucous that even the quietest of moments founds my thoughts racing with fears, worries, images, headlines, articles, ideas, many of them rooted in things I’d seen or clicked through online. Inner hush is something I think I was born to need, so native to my soul and my creative capacity that when I cannot command it, I get rather panicked. And resolved.
But the reluctant half of me felt a little lonely once that easy outlet for action and interest was shut. I felt disconnected from things. Life still felt hectic and busy and my mind raced right along. Except that loneliness cut deeper than usual. The long afternoon hours that occasionally make me regret the solitary nature of the writing life set me yearning to sing or dance or just talk to someone. I wanted to hop on Facebook. And I wondered, as I often do, if this was yet another instance in which my ideals were out of all proportion to normal life. Who was I to think that I could opt out of the social network? FB didn’t seem so evil in those first few days, but for sheer pride, I stuck it out a month.
I logged back in a couple of days ago, my month mark being passed, thinking perhaps my break hadn’t made much difference. I was rather excited. I scrolled for five minutes.
And I promptly deactivated my account again.
The sudden gallop of my thoughts, the five posts that made me anxious over everything I’d missed, the two that made me insecure at who hadn’t missed me, the next ten that set my thoughts spinning over a provocative headline, and the three after that sparking the old mix of restless desire and wistfulness that comes when I am confronted with too many good possibilities. I was so swiftly gripped by it all that I barely had a choice. It was self-preservation to close my computer and take half an hour to calm back down.
In the gradual quiet, gathered back to me second by second like raindrops gathering in a glass, I realized the difference that a month of hush had made. The sudden return of an inner cacophony made me aware of the quiet that had grown in my soul all month, a thing so humble and still I hadn’t noticed it until the contrast of the uproar made it plain. Returned to it, basking in it that afternoon, I began to examine the changed air that had come to my soul in my chosen quiet.
A quiet in which I could read my Bible in the dawnlight without the pinprick impulse to check my computer accosting me every five words. A hush that beckoned me to look out my window, learn again the different moods of the pines in the dawn and dark and halflight instead of turning to Facebook the minute I sat down, hungry to catch up with everything missed. A silence of possibility, in which loneliness or longing were channeled into letters written and spaces ordered and stories sketched instead of submerged in the painkilling run of the FB feed. A silence that slowed me, forging a safe inner space from which I could weigh my thoughts, consider my choices, know my emotions, before the press of the outer world provoked me to action.
That quiet was, I realized, a choice of mental sovereignty. A reclamation of the direction, rhythm, and source of my thoughts.
Facebook debates often center around the inherent good or ill of social media. I won’t claim either because I think that Facebook (and all social media and the Internet too) can be used profoundly for both. What I won’t go on to say, however, is that the online social world is a neutral force, a tool like any other to be employed without consequence to the person who uses it. Rather, I believe that Facebook, whether used for good or ill, is a profoundly formative presence because of the way in which it trains our minds to a certain rhythm, substance, and habit of thought.
Every time I use FB, I am submitting my mind to the rhythms and patterns of its universe. The realm of social, technological media is a kind of world, a space separate from the confines of our material existence. The rhythms of earth and body require me to sleep. The limitations of my physical sense mean that I can only hear so many voices, so many words at one time. But the online world is unresting. Rest, pause, stillness are antithetical to the nature of the internet which is to produce “new” information every hour of the day. So are moderation and even mental limitation. I can scan an almost incredible amount of information in an hour on the internet, and I need never rest on one page for long. There is always the next thing to scan, check, discover.
But every time I dwell in that universe, submit my mind to its laws, I am trained to its swift, unresting pattern of information. Facebook teaches me to desire constant surface stimulation. Formed by the thought patterns of machines, my own mind cranks along, unable to rest because it has been formed by a disembodied, unresting online atmosphere. But the constant stream of information isn’t forming me to think more deeply, to deeply contemplate, to have the long considered knowledge that becomes wisdom. Rather, its teaching me simply to glean information and then move on. As author Nicholas Carr wrote, “The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it.”
How do I apply a scrambled attention to the command to “pray without ceasing?” How do I reconcile the constant mental activity online with God’s ringing directive to “be still and know that I am God?” How do I choose the “one good thing” of sitting at the feet of Christ, listening, while giving my brain to the thousand articles and opinions paraded online? Really, how do I travel to that inner realm of my own, that place in which every story I have ever told, every poem written began, when my consciousness is held hostage to ever-changing feed on a screen?
It was questions like these that prompted me to experiment with a Facebook break in the first place. The longer I ponder them, the more I am convicted that I cannot use the online world without great control and inward caution. The internet may be a primary medium of influence in my age, but if I am shaped by it, submitted to its disembodied, distracting rhythms, I won’t be able to obey the central rhythms of godliness described in Scripture, rhythms that seem always to describe an inner silence, a rest, an attention without which it is difficult to encounter the voice and presence of God.
That inward quiet is mine to command. God waits to meet with me. Ideas for new creation seed and grow in the ever fertile earth of my imagination. But the choice of where I will send my thought and on what patterns I will form the atmosphere of my brain is up to me. I rule my mind. And at the moment, I feel that I must guard that sacred inner space against the unresting distraction of FB. It’s mostly because I am not yet strong enough to dwell often in the FB world without being profoundly formed by it. When I can sojourn there, shaping it to my own goals and desires for relationship, holiness, and beauty, then I will return.
But for this moment, here in my chair, with the candles lit and another cool, misty day staring in at me over the mountains, I’m glad for the quiet.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.