Facebook's "On This Day" as a Spiritual Practice

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.26.20 AM I don't know exactly when Facebook rolled out its On This Day feature, but it's become more and more a part of my daily social media routine. It's been (mostly) a gift to read what was important to me one, two, three or more years ago.

Reactions to On This Day are mixed. Many friends and colleagues have expressed concern that the feature can cause unnecessary pain, especially if people aren't prepared to be confronted by updates about a marriage that's now over, or about the life of a beloved person who has died. Also, Facebook updates are non-linear, haphazard even. Dismay over terrorist attacks mingle with reports on our pets. Grief visits us, but it can be nestled between Buzzfeed videos and a recipe for brussels sprouts gratin. Which is part of the beauty of the thing--profound moments mingled with the sacred ordinary. But it can also create emotional whiplash.

For people who simply don't want to go there, Facebook makes it easy to ignore On This Day. The feature can remind you every day to take a peek at what's there, but you can turn the notifications off. You can also block updates involving certain people and mute certain dates... though I suspect that's not foolproof at muting the sad stuff. I miss my dad, not just on his birthday or the day he died, but random days throughout the year.

I suspect many people use social media as a de facto journal to chronicle daily life. In that respect, it's good to have a way to go back and read... although I wish there were a way to skip easily to any date in your timeline, not just the current one. I also wish you could allow select people to view your On This Day--my husband posts rarely to Facebook but has wished he could easily access mine, especially for the posts about our family.

I believe On This Day is not just a reminder of past events. It can also be a spiritual practice, a way of "listening to your life." One of the most important practices for our family and for me is the examen, in which we talk about points of gratitude in our day. On This Day is a way of living the examen on a larger scale. Patterns emerge. Situations ripen over a series of days and months, and it can be illuminating to see a snapshot in time when we know the end of the story.

It seems to me there's a balance to be found between detachment and engagement. On This Day works best for me as a reflective practice when I've gotten into the right mental space. I might take a deep breath and spiritually prepare myself for what I'll see there, and it's mostly a delightful surprise. But if there are sad things waiting for me there, I want to be detached enough so I don't replay the heartache--I can acknowledge it and feel whatever new thing I need to feel about it.

But we don't want to be too detached either, examining our experiences as if we were a historian researching the past. Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt talks about contemplation as a "long, loving look at the real." Loving means not holding our experiences at arms' length.

There's also something to be said for the what we might call holy amnesia. I'm struck by how many annoyances and indignities I was very exercised about at the time, that I not only don't care about any more, but don't even remember. That's such important perspective--and it also impacts what I write today. Will the future me want to read this? Will the future me even care? Those can be helpful questions to keep things in proper proportion.

Do you read On This Day? How do you engage with it?

Day 3 of #BoredandBrilliant: Delete That App

BoredAndBrilliantSquares_headIt’s day 3 of the Bored and Brilliant Challenge! #BAB is the brainchild of the folks at the New Tech City podcast, who argue that boredom is essential to creativity---our best thinking comes when we allow our minds to be idle. Check out their website and the podcast.  You can also read my initial reflections on the project and reflections about the previous challenges. Today's challenge:

Your instructions for today: delete it. Delete that app. Think about which app you use too much, one that is the bad kind of phone time. You pick what that means. Delete said time-wasting, bad habit app. Uninstall it.

In today's podcast, New Tech City's host Manoush Zomorodi takes on her addiction to the game Two Dots. She interviews a cognitive psychologist to find out whether such games have cognitive value, helping our brains get better or smarter. (Spoiler alert: no.) She interviews the game designer of Two Dots and even brings in a friend for support as she deletes the app, including about 150 levels of playing history. She feels sick to her stomach.

I'm fortunate not to have an inclination toward game addiction. I've never had an interest in them. Social media, on the other hand...

This was an ironic challenge for me on this of all days. I haven't had Twitter on my phone in months, but was helping a friend with some social media stuff this afternoon, which required me to install the Twitter app. One step forward, one step back.

Another step forward: I deleted Pinterest right away. I don't use it that much on my phone, but every time I do I am all-too-aware that I'm avoiding something else. That app is nothing but technological empty calories and it was easy to get rid of. I also took the opportunity to get rid of some apps I don't use much, including some games that my kids used to play when they were little.

Once that bit of smartphone decluttering was done, I had no choice but to confront the big kahuna:


I don't have an inclination to overindulge in games, but connection? Conversation? New things to read and discuss? Yes please.

To counteract this tendency, I used to delete my Facebook app every Friday during my tech sabbath and reinstall it on Monday. Sometimes I would forget to reinstall and go a week or more without it. Of course you can access Facebook through a web browser, but my password is long and complicated, which cuts down on that.

Then I joined Moms RUN This Town, my beloved running group, and they do all their communicating via Facebook, so I ended up needing Facebook on weekends.

But today I decided to uninstall Facebook again. It's rare that I need to connect with the group so urgently that I can't wait until I'm at a computer, and when I do, I have a workaround that lets me access it through the smartphone browser.

I am experiencing phantom app syndrome in which I go for an icon that's no longer there, but it feels quite good to have it gone.

How about you? Do you have "that app" you should really get rid of for the sake of your own boredom? See the Twitter discussion here.


"But Can I Watch Football on the Sabbath?" With a Nod to Brene Brown's Daring Greatly

medium_3009900665 When I speak to groups about Sabbath, I almost always start at the same place:

Turn to the person next to you and tell them one thing that brings you delight. It can't be work-related (though I hope you are delighted by your work!), and ideally, it isn't something that requires costly equipment or an exotic locale. This is something you can potentially do without much effort or expense.

After folks have shared with their neighbors, I suggest that their delightful activity might be a place where they're already practicing Sabbath without calling it that.. and/or it's an entry point to think about incorporating Sabbath into their lives. Sabbath, as Isaiah reminds us in the Old Testament, is to be kept as a delight, not a chore. The creation story in Genesis has this relentless refrain: it's good, it's good, it's good. This world is good. Our bodies are good, and made for pleasure. In my own tradition, the Westminster Statement of Faith says our primary purpose is to glorify and enjoy God.

That doesn't mean that every enjoyable activity brings us closer to the Holy, I suppose. And sometimes in my retreats and discussions, people look at me skeptically when I talk about the delight stuff. Shouldn't we be doing "holy" things on that day? Isn't Sabbath about prayer and Bible reading and all those religious practices? Can we really do whatever we want?

What about watching football on TV?

I'm never quite sure how to answer. For one thing, I'm not the Sabbath police.

For another thing, while I do find prayer and Bible study to be meaningful and important activities for Christians, and lovely things to do on Sabbath, I'm more of a Barbara Brown Taylor Christian, which means I do not see a big division between sacred and secular activities.

But does that mean anything can be a Sabbath activity?

I'm reading Brené Brown's latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, and she's helped me finally get more concrete with my answer to the football question.

[If you're not familiar with her work, the best introduction is her crazy-viral TED talk. By the way, she wants to be my big sister, doesn't she? Of course she does. She can do this, because there aren't thousands of other recovering perfectionists AND aspiring writers also clamoring to be her kid sister. No siree. Cough.]

Anyway, Brené Brown helps me answer the "football on Sabbath" question when she talks about numbing. She writes:

I believe we all numb our feelings. We may not do it compulsively or chronically, which is addiction, but that doesn't mean that we don't numb our sense of vulnerability. And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn't just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can't selectively numb emotion.

There aren't any checklists or norms to help you identify shadow comforts or other destructive numbing behavior. This requires self-examination and reflection... Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions that ultimately diminish my spirit?

For me, sitting down to a wonderful meal is nourishment and pleasure. Eating while I'm standing, be it in front of the refrigerator or inside the pantry, is always a red flag.Sitting down to watch one of my favorite shows on television is pleasure. Flipping through channels for an hour is numbing.

This is the key to Sabbath as well. Really, it comes down to intention. I can imagine times when watching football feels immersive and enlivening. Can such an activity also feed us spiritually? Don't know; I don't have the spectator sports gene myself. But I can see how getting caught up in a thrilling contest, in which athletes are performing to the best of their abilities and using their "fearfully and wonderfully made" bodies to their utmost, would be grounding and inspiring... and maybe even bring us closer to God. But I can imagine other times in which watching sports on TV feels mindless, when we watch out of habit or boredom, when we're not really there.

I think that's why some people see Facebook as such a source of unhappiness. In my opinion, there's nothing inherently numbing about social media. Used in an intentional and mindful way, it's a great source of fun and connection.

What makes Facebook a challenge is that, unlike a football game, there's no end to it. We can start out enjoying the relationships we cultivate there, but when we spend too much time scrolling through people, we start to numb out. I'm a big fan of technology, and as FB friends know, I'm a chatty FBer. I've also thought a lot about how to use it in a way that's good for me. So I've put all kinds of boundaries around it, whether it's using lists or only signing on a couple of times a day (and not at all on most weekends).

What do you think about this numbing stuff? Have you read Daring Greatly?


I haven't said this recently: thank you to everyone who has read Sabbath in the Suburbs and recommended it to friends. If you haven't already, I'd be most thankful for an Amazon review.

photo credit: laverrue via photopin cc

Five Ways to Make the Most of the 30 Days of Thankfulness

medium_4785273938 It's November, the month of Thanksgiving, which means that folks on Facebook are celebrating the 30 Days of Thankfulness. Last week a friend me asked if I knew the origins of this practice. I don't know where it started, but I'm touched that she would associate it with me. The 30 days is a burst of positive energy in an often snarky and cranky social media universe...



My friend Marci has decided not to participate because of the potential for bragbooking. I'm sympathetic to her concerns. My next book looks at technology and digital culture from a spiritual perspective.  As I research, I'm finding various studies suggesting that Facebook has the potential to decrease people's happiness. One person's gratitude is another person's braggadocio. We end up comparing other people's outsides to our insides, or as I saw it expressed somewhere, everyone else's sizzle reel to our blooper reel.

But I'm not sure the answer, for me, anyway, is to sit out the practice altogether. After all---and Marci points this out herself---gratitude is a spiritual practice.

Where's the challenge in being thankful when you're on top of the world?  It's considerably harder to see gratitude in ordinary life as it chugs along. And when things are downright crappy, gratitude can be transforming, the tiny candle you wrap your fingers around to keep the darkness at bay.

Social media is here to stay. People are welcome to dip in and out of it, or take long breaks, or hide the gratitude posts that make them crazy, or whatever they need to do for their own mental and spiritual health. As someone who takes tech sabbaths every week, I believe you're under no obligation to consume social media the way other people do. But it is a part of our lives. So it seems worthwhile to practice engaging with it in ways that are hospitable to others and gracious to yourself.

So here's how the 30-day gratitude challenge can be helpful and not an exercise in bragbooking. I offer these as someone who studies social media and digital culture, and as a pastor who has taught and practiced the Ignatian examen (a practice of gratitude and discernment) for many years.

1. Go beyond the obvious. At the women's retreat I led this weekend, I gave them an icebreaker question to answer in small groups: "It's just not Thanksgiving without..."  But I specifically told them, "You can't say 'family' or 'my grandkids.'" I hope this caveat invited them to share something more specific and personal.

My friend Kristen posted a great moment of thankfulness this weekend: "Hair - as a fresh 'do can literally change you. [My hairdresser] has been a steady presence in my life since 2004 when I wandered into the salon where she worked. 9 years, 2 salons, 4 jobs (me), 5 kids (hers plus mine) and countless haircuts, highlights and hairstyles later - I'm proud to call her friend and stylist extraordinaire."

No bragbooking there. Just a touching tribute by a fabulous, sassy gal. Kristen's update invites me into gratitude for the folks who provide services for me and the friendships that can develop.

It also makes me consider getting highlights. Again.

2. Think small. The examen is meant to be a daily practice. And often our most grateful moment is not the biggest headline of the day, but the moment that took our breath away. Maybe you got a huge raise at work (I know, in this economy? hey, it could happen), but the breathtaking moment was the act of kindness you saw in the line at Starbucks. Gratitude can be a trickster.

3. Be specific. "I'm thankful for my health" may be true. And for someone who's battled cancer, or recovered from an injury, that's huge. But consider how your update sounds to a friend whose health is a source of stress, or who's in a chronic struggle with an illness. Instead, how about a specific thing your health allowed you to enjoy today? I'm thankful that I could pick up my big kindergartner today without my back going out.

4. Violate the Zaxxon rule. At the end of every Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, the host and guests share "what's making us happy this week." The idea is to recommend interesting movies, TV or books to the audience. During an early episode Stephen Thompson gushed about the Zaxxon video game he'd recently purchased. Later the group realized that it wasn't the best "what's making me happy," since it's not like everyone can go out and buy a Zaxxon machine. They instituted the Zaxxon rule to keep them accountable to share stuff that other people could reasonably partake of.

When it comes to gratitude, we should violate, rather than follow, the Zaxxon rule. That cuts down on comparisons. I am grateful for the flame of color from the Japanese maple in my front yard. That's very particular to my situation. You don't feel bad for not having a Japanese maple in your yard, do you?

5. Confront the bragbooker. Do it publicly only if you can do it lightheartedly, otherwise in private. Is it crazy to think we could do this, in the spirit of authenticity and friendship? Maybe. I realize this is hard. But if my posts are providing a stumbling block to someone, I want to know it. We're all works in progress, folks. We can help one another along.

Are you participating in the 30 days of gratefulness? Why or why not?


photo credit: MTSOfan via photopin cc

Facebook Does the Wrong Thing for the Right Reason

Last week I listened to the debate on the radio show Q, "Is the Internet making us smarter or stupider?" Lots of great stuff I'm still chewing on, but one thing caught my attention. One of the panelists talked about the problem of recency, which is a bias toward the most timely information. We tend to value the most recent inputs more highly than older information, regardless of whether the new information is more important---and whether it's even correct.

There are a lot of problems with recency, but many of our social media tools and programs thrive on it.  The panelists talked a lot about how Reddit tried to identify the Boston Marathon bomber and ended up getting it wrong. One panelist suggested a system by which users can only "up-vote" a comment once an hour, to try and slow down the flurry of information that comes in faster than it can be checked.

I've been complaining for several days about Facebook's changes to its newsfeed. Rather than displaying the most recent updates, it will re-display an old status update, provided there are recent comments on it. Which means that a post from 20 hours ago shows up again, even though a) I have already seen it and b) I didn't comment or follow the post to begin with.

It occurs to me that Facebook might be trying to offset the recency effect. Perhaps they reason that a post that's still being commented on days later needs to be seen: there's still energy there;  a conversation continues to take place. Granted, the execution needs some serious tweaking---at the very least, there should be a "seen it and done with it" button---but it's a decent impulse on their part, not to automatically prioritize the most recent thing as the most noteworthy thing.

Where do you see recency at work in our digital culture, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?

Herd Immunity and Community on Facebook

Sometimes I think I'd like to write a book about the impact of technology on our spiritual lives. We have books about the psychological effects, but no book (that I know of---please correct me, for the sake of my workload) that looks at technology from the spiritual perspective and considers the negative AND the positive in a very deep and significant way. Earlier today a friend sent a message on Facebook, expressing sympathy over the death of our Fat Kitty. I appreciate her being in touch, and I know she went through the same experience last year, so her message has special resonance. She's a good friend, not just on FB but in my physical world. At the same time, there were so many kind messages last week that I wasn't "keeping track" of who had and hadn't commented. I was cared for in the immediate aftermath of losing our cat, just not by her specifically in that moment.

Same with birthdays---I received dozens of Happy Birthday messages on my birthday. I read each and every one of them and they made me smile. Together they became a significant source of happiness on that day. But I would not have been able to tell you who did and did not wish me a happy birthday.

I think we all kinda get this. Unless I am moved to write something really creative for someone's birthday---and maybe even then---my greetings just blend into the happy din of well-wishes. And if I blow off the birthday thing altogether, few people would notice my specific absence. But what if everyone blew it off? There's a sense of social compact there. I'm thinking about herd immunity---the idea that vulnerable folks are protected from infectious diseases by virtue of the vaccinated people around them. Herd immunity depends on people "following the rules" and participating in the system. But there's a sense in which each person's small act adds up to something that's good for the whole.

I see two sides of this. On the one hand, I'm certainly not arguing that Facebook is better than, or a substitute for, physical relationship. (When I say physical I don't mean sexual---I mean physical in the sense of involving our bodies: ears and voices in conversation, eyes and faces in our reactions, our taste buds in sharing a meal together, our hands as we touch and hug one another.) For birthdays I'm a big fan of greeting cards and try to send them to my nearest and dearest---Facebook is no substitute for that, nor for a phone call, a gift, or time with the person. So the Facebook greetings become problematic when we think that's somehow sufficient to create really deep bonds of caring.

(There's also the matter of the freeloaders! These folks never comment on people's birthdays, yet they get to bask in the love as people express appreciation for their Facebook tribe. :-) )

On the other hand, the birthday greeting I leave on Facebook comes with no ulterior motive, because I don't get anything out of it. I just get to be one tiny part of the love bomb---not its instigator, nor its leading lady. For the martyrs and the showoffs among us, this is a good practice of humility. It's not a self-aggrandizing act that announces to the world Look what a good friend I am! (I mean geez, the site reminds you.) It's just a small act of kindness that, when combined with everyone else's act of kindness, makes a person happy. And there's something lovely about that from the perspective of creating community in humble ways.

I'm still working on this, but what do you think?

Should I Give Up Facebook?

Temporarily, that is. Next week I will be on a writing retreat from Tuesday-Saturday. I'll write more about that later; suffice to say I'm all agog for this opportunity to get started on the book in earnest.

The place I'm going has Wi-Fi, which is such a mixed blessing, of course. It will be great to FaceTime with my kids and with Robert, who is making this whole thing possible. And I will peek into e-mail every so often. But what about Facebook? It can be a gigantic timesuck, but it's also a lifeline to friends and family. I created a bunch of lists in FB which reduces the amount of time I'm on it, so I'm not worried about squandering my time away. Still, part of me wants to go whole hog and stay completely off social media while I'm gone. It is a retreat, after all, albeit a working one.

I was lamenting to a friend that there was no way to temporarily suspend a FB account and he said, "Sure there is. Just have Robert change your password. That way you can't get in." He's an evil genius!

So... what do you think? Should I tell Robert to lock me out?

What would you do?

Friday Link Love

Today I'm off to a presbytery training on congregational transformation. So in lieu of a long blog post today, I'm going to share some links that I've collected this week and found interesting. The Coming Decade Will Be About Trust

I think the next decade will be about trust. This is the only decade in history that will be formed wholly by Gen X—we are so small that our age of power is brief. But research from sources like Tammy's Erikson's book, What's Next Gen X?, shows that the most pronounced traits of Gen X are no patience for veneers, hierarchy, and BS-laden idealism. Gen X will oversee a decade of trust.

What do you think? I agree about the BS detector. Some interesting thoughts in her post about what it means to be transparent.

The Anti-Social Network: Is Facebook Making Us Sad?

The researchers found that their subjects consistently underestimated how dejected others were–and likely wound up feeling more dejected as a result. Jordan got the idea for the inquiry after observing his friends' reactions to Facebook: He noticed that they seemed to feel particularly crummy about themselves after logging onto the site and scrolling through others' attractive photos, accomplished bios, and chipper status updates. "They were convinced that everyone else was leading a perfect life," he told me.

I'm not sure I buy this. Yes, some people seem to have it all together on FB. (Heck, maybe I seem that way to other people.) But I think there are just as many examples of people using Facebook to kvetch and vent about their lives.

Any folks out there willing to run through their newsfeeds and tally up positive vs. negative statuses?

Comfort Kills

Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading positive psychologist and the author of the book The How of Happiness, told me a funny story about her parents. They emigrated from Russia when she was a child and often go back to visit. When they come back they always say: Oh, America is so boring! Everything is so easy: you drive to the supermarket, park, get beautiful and fresh groceries for a reasonable price, put them in your car, and drive home. In Russia the same shopping trip is a huge challenge. Not only do you have to go to ten different stores to get what you need (and half of them are probably out of stock) but you also might get mugged on the way there. There's mafia everywhere. They say it's a "high" to be there.

Conclusion 2: Lack of comfort brings excitement, comfort brings boredom.

I'm a little concerned that the article glamorizes what it's like to be poor. Still, I tend to agree that in general, "We live in a society where comfort has become a value and a life goal. But comfort reduces our motivation for introducing important transformations in our lives."

Be More Successful by Planning for Frequent Failure

Every day we try to do well and minimize our failures. The problem is, we're going to fail frequently no matter what. Rather than trying to minimize the quantity of failures, you should try reducing their impact. Here's why...


And lastly, a book recommendation. At our training today we will be discussing Building the Bridge as You Walk on It: A Guide for Leading Change by Robert Quinn. I've read a lot of books about leadership through change, and while this wasn't my favorite, I liked it in spite of myself. I didn't like this term "the fundamental state of leadership"; it seemed clunky and obtuse to me, so in my mind I substituted "authentic leadership." Quinn argues that leadership is more a state of mind than a set of activities. This is a book that fosters self-examination, with each chapter concluding with probing questions and self-assessments. I've decided to focus on one chapter per month over the next several months to see what that gets me. I also like the dialectical nature of Quinn's leadership attributes---for example, "reflective action." Too much reflectiveness and you never get anywhere; too little reflection and you can become capricious.

I'm eager to see what the other pastors in the training have to say about it.