Friday, August 16, 2013

Social Media, Henri Nouwen and Loneliness

This year I spent nearly every waking hour with the 11 other people in my
program.  Even my sleeping hours were shared, since I had two roommates.  It was likely one of the least lonely times in my life.

st anthony
St. Anthony
Those who led the program wisely planned days on the calendar for us to seek silence and solitude.  These were not days to "get away" from each other, but rather days to practice an ancient spiritual discipline.  I turned off my phone and computer (warning family beforehand) and sought to be alone before God for 9 hours.

Solitude?  Isn't that considered a punishment?  Only sometimes.  I would like to consider the relationships between being alone and being lonely and between solitude and social media.

Being alone is not always a bad thing.  There is a difference between solitude that cultivates self-focus and loneliness and solitude that cultivates God-focus and changes us in good ways.  Henri Nouwen, in his book Out of Solitude, suggests that this tension is know to all of us:
Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our lives are in danger.  Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals. that without distance closeness cannot cure. (14)
This is especially true for Christians.  Nouwen continues,
The careful balance between silence and words, withdrawal and involvement, distance and closeness, solitude and community forms the basis of the Christian life and should therefore be the subject of our most personal attention. (15)
Aloneness that is less about looking inward and more about being before God, about listening and being still, this is the solitude we seek.  This is the solitude that changes us and our relationships with others.

With others
Without these spaces of solitude in our lives, Nouwen writes, we come to believe that "We are likable because someone likes us" (19).  Solitude teaches us that we are acceptable as we are, before God.

Social media, in contrast, teaches us to count "likes".  It furthers our preoccupation with our achievements by allowing us to construct our own images.  The following video explores the links between loneliness and social media.

A key point of the video is that we have sacrificed "conversation for mere connection".  Conversation exists in real time and is thus out of our control.  In contrast to email, text, chat, etc, we can't go back and edit what we have said to another in conversation.

At the heart of all this, and linking both Nouwen and the video above, is one small and uncomfortable word: vulnerability.  Conversations require a level of vulnerability not found in social media.  Furthermore, Nouwen argues that because solitude teaches us an inner freedom that does not seek to manipulate what others think of us, it opens the doors to intimacy.  The alternative is eerily insightful:
But underneath all our emphasis on successful action, many of us suffer from a deep-seated, low self-esteem and are walking around with the constant fear that someday someone will unmask the illusion [...] this corroding fear for the the discovery of our weaknesses prevents community and creative sharing.  ... and we are in serious danger of becoming isolated, since friendship and love are impossible without a mutual vulnerability" (20, emphasis added)
On some level, everyone is lonely.  To our peril we seek to dull the ache of loneliness with social networks.  Instead let us share the pain in mutually vulnerable conversation.

The ancient wisdom of solitude has probably always seemed a little crazy - no less so now.  Yet have we ever been more desperate for it?

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed watching the video. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Bethany! I'm going into a class on prayer in my seminary program and I am looking forward to practicing spiritual disciplines, like solitude and silence, which I do not choose to normally. I'm also taking a class on pastoral counseling where one of the assignments is inviting conversation with people, strangers and minor acquaintances, different people every week. I'm curious what will come from this effort to combat what you're describing as a widespread suffering from loneliness. I wonder if people will be willing to talk to me if I ask them "how are you doing?"

    Thank you again for sharing your reflections. Blessings, Susanna