What we need most at the end of the day…

In a recent Times article, the reporter Emma Goldberg wrote about how the rise of social media and influencer power has made it such that young people, in particular, find their livelihood, success and sense of self inextricably entwined with an online presentation. She wrote, “With personal branding, the line between who people are and what they do disappears. Everything is content.” A strange, exhausting new twist in being human is that each day, each of us must decide how much of ourselves, our family life, thoughts, work, photos and feelings we will share with strangers online. Goldberg quoted Tom Peters, a marketing writer, who explained that, we are each “head marketer for the brand called You.”

To reduce ourselves to brands, however, is to do violence to our personhood. We turn ourselves into products, content to be evaluated instead of people to be truly known and loved. We convert the stuff of our lives into currency.

This new way of interacting with the world is driving institutional dysfunction, personal anxiety and the hollowing out of ourselves…Klein confessed that social media had made him hungry for validation. It offers us, he said, a steady drumbeat of “You exist. You are seen.” This longing to be seen and validated is universal, but this desire has been co-opted by technologists to capture more and more of our time and attention…

I have gotten letters from time to time from readers declaring me their pastor, and of course, I’m flattered and grateful. I hope to be of help to them, yet I cannot be their pastor. I cannot hold their hands and pray over them in the hospital. I cannot grieve with them after the loss of a loved one or rejoice when they land a job. A pastor and the work of local churches more broadly are tethered to a place, an institution and a particular people, with all the complexity, hilarity, struggle and mystery of their lives.

What we need most at the end of the day has nothing to do with influence or brands. We need quiet beauty and enduring truth that we share with those who walk this journey with us…

—  Tish Harrison Warren, from “The Temptations of the ‘Personal Brand’” (New York Times, January 29, 2023). Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

Crisis? Go Watch the Rain for 10 minutes.

It rained one morning this week. I moved back to Texas last year, in part for the rainstorms. Here, it rains decisively, gloriously, like it really means it. It explodes, pounds, roars, thunders and then, suddenly, moves on. I stepped on my back porch, not wanting to miss the show.

I sat, silent, smelling that indescribable rain scent and stretching out my hands, palms open in supplication, the same position I use in church to receive communion. The physicality of the experience, the sensual joy of sounds, smells, touch and sight, was profoundly humanizing. In a very real way, I am made for that. I am made to notice the rain. I’m made to love it.

But digitization is changing our relationship with materiality — both the world of nature and of human relationships. We are trained through technology (and technology corporations) to spend more time on screens and less time noticing and interacting with this touchable, smellable, feelable world. Social media in particular trains us to notice that which is large, loud, urgent, trending and distant, and to therefore miss the small, quiet importance of our proximate and limited, embodied lives…

Both Richtel’s article and another article released the same week by The Times highlight the emerging trend of people having romantic relationships with fictional characters, rather than human beings. There is evidence that teenagers are consuming more pornography, even as fewer are having sex. In a piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson highlights the growing concern that screen habits are displacing beneficial experiences for kids, noting that compared with the early 2000s, teenagers are less likely to “go out with their friends, get their driver’s license or play youth sports.” They are also less likely to get enough sleep.

“Children today spend less time outdoors than any other generation,” the National Recreation and Park Association reports, “devoting only four to seven minutes to unstructured outdoor play per day while spending an average of seven and a half hours in front of electronic media.” I realized recently that I can identify more apps by sight than species of trees.

We are made to enjoy the physical presence of other human beings. We are made to enjoy rainstorms or sunshine or walks in the woods. We are made to enjoy touchable things. We cannot escape or overcome this need through technology. Our attempts to do so go against the grain of our deepest human needs and longings…

In the same way, I think we are finding that there is something essential and mysterious — dare I say, holy — about human beings interacting in person and with the natural world that simply cannot be replicated in virtual reality.

So what do we do? In his book “Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing,” Andy Crouch writes, “Perhaps the two best beginning moves, for those of us swaddled in affluence and intoxicated by our technology, are into the natural world — the world of stars, snow and rain, trees and deserts — and into the relational world — the world of real bodies and heartbeats, hands and faces.”

Just as people have worked to revive slow, unprocessed and traditional food, we need to fight for the tangible world, for enduring ways of interacting with others, for holism. We need to reconnect with material things: nature, soil, our bodies and other people in real life. This doesn’t necessarily have to be big and dramatic. We don’t have to hurl our computers into the sea en masse.

But we do have to intentionally resist the siren song of digitization, which by and large promises far more than it can deliver. We have to be cautious and wise about introducing devices into our lives that fundamentally change how humans have interacted since time immemorial. We have to plunge ourselves primarily into the natural world and embodied human relationships, with all the complexity, challenges, inconvenience and pain that entails.

Go watch the rain for 10 minutes. Go on a walk with a friend. Get off social media and meet one neighbor. Keep your kids offline. Put your hands in the dirt. Play an instrument instead of a video game. Turn off your smartphone and have dinner with people around a table. Search for beauty and goodness in the material world, and there, find joy. The way back to ourselves, as individuals and a society, runs through old, earthy things.

Tish Harrison Warren, from “We’re in a Loneliness Crisis: Another Reason to Get Off Our Phones” (NY Times, May 1, 2022). Warren is an Anglican priest reflects on matters of faith in private life and public discourse.


Photo: Ahmed Nishaath of Manipal Lake, Udpi, India via Unsplash.

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