The Internet of Suffering

In my lifetime I’ve seen the evolution of the Internet take us from a thing only computer geniuses know how to use to something any toddler with a smartphone can figure out. We went from dial up to wire up to wireless and we still want more, faster and better Internet connections.

Addiction seems a harsh word to use here. Isn’t that word “addiction” only for hard core drug users? Yet, we are starting to realize that this constant need to have Internet may not be based on a true need, but rather an unrestrained desire to scratch an itch that just won’t go away. We’ve all got the Internet pox virus.

From a faith perspective, the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. I use the Internet in my weekly study of scripture as I prepare for the Sunday sermon. I have books for this purpose, too. Yet it’s the Internet that I turn to religiously. On the Internet I find inspiration for sermon illustrations and I find insights into the scriptures from biblical scholars.

I also seek to better understand the world through the lens of the Internet and social media. Like so many others, it’s where I get most of my news. I read newspapers online and on Facebook I read and share things that have value and meaning to me.

Last week on purpose I took five days off from using the Internet. No email, no web browsing, no Facebook. This was an act of faith, a way to unplug from technology so I could plug into quality time with loved ones while on vacation. I am a better Christian, pastor, wife and mother when I’ve rebooted my internal computer by shutting the Internet down.

Getting back on the Internet and social media now after taking time away, I realize how vulnerable I am to being controlled by what I consume. Taking in all the news and scrolling through all the posts consumes a lot of our time and energy. It does something else, too. Too much consumption begins to warp our view of what’s important, of what’s true, and of who we are.

I realized that when suffering goes viral, it’s unavoidable. We can’t walk our dog or wash our hair without thinking about the latest trending news story. The suffering we are exposed to through the Internet, whether real or exaggerated, impacts us at an unconscious level. Catastrophes are everywhere all of the time. They replay in our minds day and night.

We know that living under constant threat is harmful to our wellbeing. The mental health of our nation is at risk because of the constant trauma we are exposed to on a daily basis. As a Christian, I wonder what is a faithful response to the suffering of the world, now that the details of global suffering are being tweeted and live-streamed for the world to see?

What I do know is this: The constant, nonstop watching, consuming, and viewing of the suffering of others is not helpful to anyone. Being “well-informed” is one thing, but we’ve got to know when to stop checking, clicking, tweeting and chasing the next thing. What can happen is that we become overwhelmed by the suffering and this information, instead of leading to change with positive outcomes to decrease the suffering, often can lead to numbness, hopelessness, despair, fear, anxiety, and situational depression.

What if there was a way to dial back our connectivity, to detox from this Internet pox virus? What if we looked at social media only on our lunch break? What if we focused our attention on the people we are in real life relationships with instead of spilling limited emotional capital on complete strangers and news stories that trigger us on the Internet?

What if we stopped feeding our Internet addictions and started feeding our souls, our deep longing for real connection and meaning. We long to be seen, to be known and to be loved. There is no shame in needing friends. But we’ve forgotten how to be friends. When our connections come through sharing, liking, tweeting and posting, it’s like drinking sugary sodas when your body craves clean, refreshing water. We need real friends and real love to quench our thirst.

Today I heard other pastors talking about how overwhelmed so many people in their communities are feeling, themselves included. One pastor said she has had to limit her exposure to the news and social media, and instead is taking more time for self-care. She says she does this to prepare herself for the difficult work ahead. I think that this hard-won wisdom and perspective is so helpful. Refraining temporarily from the Internet of suffering is not turning your back on the world, rather it’s preparing you to face the real world, ready to engage with your whole, best self.

What is a faithful Christian response to the Internet of suffering? Love your neighbor as yourself. Love yourself enough to unplug. Love yourself enough to go unwired, not wireless. Love yourself enough to look away from your screen so that you can look inward. Love yourself enough to trust that everything will not fall apart if you don’t like, click, tweet and post for awhile. Love yourself enough to experience not the suffering of the world, but the joy of the world…the joy right in front of you.

Experiencing joy, after all, is part of what it means to be human, too. We must not forget joy in these times of suffering. No matter what is going on, we are designed to delight in this beautiful world. It’s how we are wired. We find energy, hope, and motivation when we see that life continues despite it all. Beauty persists. Joy persists. Suffering will not break the sun.

Take daily breaks from the Internet of suffering. When we do, we can see that every moment of every day there is grace. And it is enough. These daily graces will prepare us for the work ahead, the work of healing, rebuilding, and restoring happiness, justice and liberty for all God’s beautiful children.

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