Finding our true selves: Social media and silence

8 mins read
Social media

This past June, I flew from New York City to the Midwest for a college friend’s wedding. At the reception we dined and danced in a Pinterest-perfect barn in rural Indiana. Feeling restless, I broke from the sweaty crush of the dance floor to walk into the cool sunset over the soy fields. As I deposited myself into a chair, I sunk into a dense block of air that not only sounded but felt preternaturally quiet. My Manhattan-tempest-tossed body braced itself for the barrage of sound waves that seep through even the most peaceful parks and churches in the city. But none came. As my soul sought stillness, my body sunk into a tangible silence. I listened for some sound disturbing the air around me, but even the wailing of the wedding band’s jazz was filtered through a thick curtain of quiet.

In the prophet Elijah’s encounter with God at Horeb, I wonder if God’s presence had not first been preceded by tempest, earthquake and fire, would Elijah have even heard God in the “light silent sound” (1 Kgs 19:12)? Would he have heard the presence of God in silence if he hadn’t been bombarded by nature’s cacophony? Or can we who, like Elijah, are tired and in need of encouragement seek to find some consolation in this story of the Lord’s presence?

We live in a cacophonous world saturated with both physical and mental noise. Studies show that “noise” — a term technically referring to excess sound in our environment — can cause physical illness. Obviously, noise pollution can cause hearing damage and sleep trouble, but noise also can harm our hearts and our cognitive abilities.

Even as we are besieged by physical noise, our increasingly busy digital world surrounds us in an environment of mental noise. We live our lives immersed in a digital atmosphere, which writer Hal Conick calls a “a deafening roar of smartphones and social media.”

Studies show that smartphones exacerbate our already noisy inner lives, luring us into their distracted pace of life and that smartphone owners interact with their phones an average of 85 times a day, particularly at crucial junctures such as waking up and going to sleep.

Although the connectivity of smartphones seems to be a benefit for productivity and creativity, it more often functions as a deficit, as the phones distract users from their present tasks at hand. Simply the presence of our smartphone can be harmful, as it is a small window into the world outside our present. Psychology studies measure impact of simply the physical premise and proximity of smartphones on user’s attention, productivity and contentedness, but these studies less often focus on how they prevent our ability to listen. If we are constantly immersed in noise, we cannot hear ourselves, one another or God.

If we constantly are immersed in the noise of the tempest and fire, we will never hear God’s voice in the sound of silence. But, perhaps, the noisy world we live in can, like Elijah’s tempest and fire, highlight the inner noise we live in and exacerbate our inner hunger for God’s voice. Perhaps we can use this noise to remind us to dive more deeply into God’s utter silence that calls to us.

Social media and listening

At first blush, social media platforms appear as simply additional social gathering spaces: Facebook is another living room, Twitter simply another lunchroom. Studies show, however, that the digital world is not another space where the same human relationships are enacted. Instead of being a space where we listen and encounter, social media often corrupts our social circles into extensions of our own self.

Studies suggest that there is an inverse relationship between emotional intelligence and empathy and the use of social media, particularly Twitter. Rather than learning to encounter our friends and neighbors as other humans with whom we can enter into distinct relationships, social media sees them simply as extensions of our own main narratives.

A cursory scroll through Twitter or Facebook comments will clearly indicate to even the casual user that this medium is bad for our ability to ask questions. We forget to listen and remember that the account presenting themself is a person just like us with their own story and ideas.

But, despite the rather evident harmful effects, we keep picking up the phone; we keep opening the apps; we keep looking for a space of listening in the noise. Or at least I do. I clearly crave the connection that social media touts.

But as seekers of God in the midst of the world’s noise, how do we reroute this desire for connection to something more eternal, bread that will truly satisfy it?

True and false selves

In his book “New Seeds of Contemplation,” Thomas Merton distinguishes between our true selves and our false selves. Both are broad terms and represent broad facets of our identities, intertwined like wheat and tares.

The false self is, in some ways, the idealized version of ourselves, the person we imagine God is interested in: the better, more perfect, more — let’s be honest — “in control” version of ourselves.

But our true self is who we are right now: the imperfect, vulnerable, dependent muddled soul. The one who is broken and relies on God to save her. This is our true self. But our true self is not the flaws that eat away at our hearts like cankers: the corrosive forces of gossip, envy and anger. Our true self is the self we find in humble prayer before God — ala the tax collector. Our true self is the one who inspires us to charity we didn’t know we had within us.

The false self feeds on our vices to make us believe that our “goodness” resides in some future personality: When we stop being late, when we never swallow our tongue in social interactions, then we can get busy with this project of sanctity.

The false self feeds on control; the true self is built on surrender to the God who is present in the here and now. We find our true selves not by our own making and manufacturing, but by listening to the God who has made us. Our true self is built not on our speaking, but our listening.

Social media and the false self

Social media, unfortunately, plays right into our weaknesses of our false self by operating on our narcissistic image of control. We carefully sculpt our self-image. We craft our own image carefully. This is inherent to the nature of social media. Every public action is — in some way — calculated. This is a morally neutral activity, as there is a certain amount of public saving face and facade that exists in most cultures. But, as Merton points out, the danger here is confusing our facade, our carefully built mask of armor, as the real thing. To live at this level of deception is to risk crippling our authenticity.

To exist in social media is to exist in the realm of the false self. We interact with our own projected image and other’s projected images. We are unable to interact with someone’s own true selves. Because we are interacting with someone’s controlled image rather than their true, authentic self in real time, our social interactions are never quite as satisfying as we would like, which Adam Alter addresses in his book on social media addiction, “Irresistible.” So we keep returning to the sites, seeking the relationships they are, once again, unable to deliver to us.

Not only are we divorced from our own selves, we are sundered from one another.

Not all social media is inherently evil. But it certainly seems that a lot of apology must be undertaken to assert how it can be good. God certainly can be salvaged out of most social constructs, and God can be found in all things, the Jesuits tell us, but there are certainly some segments of life that are so bent to the purposes of our false selves and shallow world that great efforts must be expended to redeem them for the purposes of true relationship and human flourishing.

I am certainly not alone in my social media skepticism and my desire to use it less. I bring up Thomas Merton’s idea of false and true selves because my “ideal self” is the self that uses social media much less, who doesn’t log onto Facebook, who doesn’t check Twitter, who doesn’t waste precious time. Many New Year’s resolutions reveal others have the same wish. Social media functions for us often, in the words of St. Paul, as the evil that we do not wish to do but keep doing.

When I reflexively open up Instagram or type in Twitter’s address on my browser, I extend the noise inside my own heart. Picking up my phone continues the barrage of sound waves and prevents me from escaping into the quiet. But I recognize that the urge to pick up my cellphone is an action of searching.

As I sit on the train and seek to distract myself from the present, as I reach for my phone to avoid an awkward conversation, I am seeking something. What is it? The phone provides an avenue of escape from the unpleasant reality. The phone provides an escape into the ideal self — the one who is not enduring boredom or a monotonous conversation — the false self. Our true self is the one who is able to be open to the reality that presents itself, even if it is painful or grating. Our true self is found in the silent acceptance of what is around us.

Silence: Finding the true self

In quiet, we find our true selves. In the silence, we do not find emptiness but an invitation to listen. The silence contains our true selves, because our true self is not a construct we control but a response to the God of love who made us and calls us to himself. Our true self is dictated by the Creator who calls to us. We are truly, as Thomas Merton says, not ourselves by ourselves. We need someone to call us into existence. We are not individuals, but creatures who exist in communion, who come to being in response.

I haven’t deleted my Facebook account, nor have I deleted my Twitter. But each time I feel the compulsion to check either one, I have decided that my true self will not rest in the far-off mirage of my “ideal self.” Rather, I will seek to listen. For if we are to find God, one another and even ourselves, we must have silence.

This begins in small, practical steps. So I challenge us all today: When you feel the itch to pick up your phone today, stop yourself and, instead, listen for the voice of the God who yearns to speak to us in the silence of our hearts.

Renée Darline Roden writes from New York.

Making an effort
Retraining our instincts to pick up our phones takes a serious effort. It helps to have a physical object in reach that you can reach for instead of your phone, such as a book, a breviary or rosary.

If this feels a bit like the recovering alcoholic holding a can of San Pellegrino at a house party, then, Adam Alter would tell us, it definitely is. Behavioral addictions were recently added to the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-V manual as a recognized psychiatric disorder, just like addictions to alcohol, nicotine and other drugs. Alter sums up behavioral addiction as patterns of behavior done for the sake of a desired reward but which eventually become unlikeable, miserable and harmful. The addict may no longer like doing the behavior, but they persist in doing it. His summary reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s famous complaint.

We don’t choose the good that we should do, as St. Paul says. We don’t choose the bread that will satisfy. Our world has always asked us to live on the surface, but our God asks us to cast out into the depths of our own hearts. Who are our authentic selves?

We will never know if we do not break through the cacophony of our own interior and exterior noise and begin to listen.

This begins in small, practical steps. So, today, put down the phone for a bit and listen.