When I was in seventh grade one of my best friends was a boy named Marc. We both lived in Michigan but Marc’s family also had a house in Boulder, Colorado where they spent a couple months every summer. While he was in Boulder, Marc and I wrote letters to each other (this was way before the days of email or IMing) and I’ll never forget what Marc said in one of them. ““Whenever I get lonely, I just look at all the names in my address book and I feel better.”
I started thinking about Marc because of something my husband Gary said to me the other day. I have one of those smart phones and I was perusing emails and checking my Facebook updates while we were driving together down the highway. And Gary said, “I don’t really get the whole Facebook status updates thing. Why do you do that?”
If you’re one of the people who have never been on Facebook—and if you are, where have you been living? At the bottom of a well?—at the top of the page of this online social media site, you are given a question and a blank to fill in…totally optional, of course. The question, up until a couple months ago was simply “What are you doing?” It’s recently been changed to “What’s on your mind?”(which is really making tons of Facebook devotees quite annoyed). This is the status update Gary was referring to -- I receive a feed of status updates from all my Facebook friends directly to my smart phone, so I can check on them anywhere and anytime. I can also update my status right from my phone as well.
“I don’t know,” I said. And then I remembered the story about Marc and his address book, which I told Gary about, then added, “I think Facebook is like that for a lot of people. It’s how we stay in touch, how we keep from feeling so alone, how we express our need for each other. And whenever we feel lonely or disconnected we can just check out our friends online, and like Marc, it makes us feel better.”
“But isn’t it hard to think of something to say all the time?” he asked.
“In a way it’s not so much what you say that matters,” I explained. “It’s just that you say something. It’s the act of trying to put yourself out there that matters.”
“It’s kind of a ritual then,” Gary said, beginning to get it. Gary, who works at a seminary and is the pastor of worship and the arts at a downtown Chicago church, understands the importance of rituals. “Kind of like confession or passing the peace.”
“Yeah, sort of. It’s like how you can laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep these days,” I said, paraphrasing Romans 12.
After this conversation I went back and re-read Romans 12. I’ve always been a big fan of the portrait of the church this passages paints. But truth be told, I’ve also sort of resented it at the same time. I’ve never felt like the reality of the way we live our lives in 2009 makes it possible to be a part of this sort of body of Christ. Look at the first thing we’re “urged” to do in Romans 12:1: “God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.” I don’t know if you’ve ever really tried to do that…be present and aware of the moments of your everyday, ordinary life—and placing those moments into the hands of God…but I have found it to be extraordinarily hard. My life is BUSY (with not only a capital B, but with all caps and italics)—and I feel like I am always rushing to the next thing—all good things, certainly, but racing around like a crazy person most of the time, nonetheless. I have a full time job in advertising, I sing in the choir at church and lead this affirmation/confirmation program. I have two teenage daughters who have lots of interests and a great need for parents to take an interest in their interests, as well as to provide them with transportation in the pursuit of those interests. I have a husband who has two part time jobs that add up to one long stream of work that never seems to end, and for us to have quality time together, which we both really want to have, requires creativity, stamina and an ability to wedge intimacy into the tiniest of cracks. And somehow, in the midst of all that, I’m supposed to stop and reflect enough to offer up my life to God? Yeah, right.
Here’s the thing, though. Facebook, strangely enough, is helping me do just that. Taking a moment or two to answer that little question it poses for me everyday, “What are you doing?” or “What’s on your mind?” draws me into a brief period of self-reflection. My answers aren’t always deep and profound, but I at least try to make sure they are honest. Many of them are incredibly mundane, like: “…it's snowing again??? Come on...” Or infused with boredom…and maybe even a tad of frustration: “…waiting for a meeting to start, staring at a speaker phone which sits like a idol to be worshipped in the middle of a fake wood table.” Some of them are more intimate and confessional and I end up saying something, out in the very public sphere of Facebook, which I might have a hard time saying out loud to a friend standing in front of me: “Lenora Rand is feeling jealous. Which she was trying to give up for Lent. Ah well.” Some of them are only thinly veiled admissions of pain or need: “Lenora Rand is having this weird eye twitch going on. Please try not to stare or if you stare at least say something humorous in a supportive kind of way.”
Others are recordings of simple moments of grace – moments, that without the prompting from Facebook, I might have just let slip by, unnoticed and unmarked. “Someone once said, ‘We are here to learn to bear the beams of love.’ Today with the family, it's almost more than anyone can bear.”
Micro-blogging these little snippets has had an effect I never anticipated—I’m more awake and aware now, more alert to “what’s on my mind” and what I’m doing in the moment. It has become for me a form of meditation, at times a kind of prayer, and always a way of connecting with my spirit, if only for a few seconds, in the whirlwind of my day.
But that’s just the beginning. As I mentioned before, not only do I put my status updates out into the world of Facebook, I get updates from all my FB Friends. Like a FB friend of mine from church, who has recently started using a dating service, wrote this one day: “Torri 's date last night turned out to be a convicted felon embroiled in a 5 year long custody battle w an ex he described as 'certifiably nuts.' go kiss ur spouses.”A FB friend from my workplace (someone I see only rarely in person) confessed that she: “…is ready to trade in her teenager for something nice, like a massage.”.”
When I read messages like this I often write a supportive comment back. And in the process I end up experiencing what I think the apostle Paul was writing about later in that Romans 12 passage: “Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down… discover beauty in everyone.” (The Message)
I’m sure when Paul was writing this letter to the Romans he never envisioned people following his instructions to offer up their daily lives, their eating and sleeping and working and dealing with bad dates and teenagers and boredom by typing a status update in a little box on a website. Neither did he, I suspect, envision people writing comments in response, feeling each other’s pain and sharing each other’s joys through a few brief words tossed into cyber space. Frankly, it isn’t something I envisioned happening when I signed up for Facebook a couple years ago, either. And I strongly doubt it was something Mark Zukerberg, the creator of Facebook, had in mind when he introduced it. But that’s what seems to be happening, perhaps because it’s what, in the midst of our way-too-busy, overbooked and speed-racing lives, it’s what we all so desperately need, In a way, it’s our version of what my friend Marc used to do by looking at the names in his address book. We do it because it makes us feel better.
I am also coming to believe, as Gary suggested, that this act of updating your status and reading others’ status updates can be, for many of us, an important ritual, a ritual of reflection, confession, assurance and passing of the peace. And for the thousands of people like me who participate in it each day on Facebook, it is very powerful. And even at times, quite holy. It’s how we have begun to see our lives more clearly and feel the grace in our lives more acutely. It’s how we’ve begun to feel closer to people we used to just whiz by. It’s how we’ve begun to feel less alone, and more known and cared for by others, and ultimately, for me, at least, even more known and cared for by God.