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ASK MISSION CENTRAL: QUESTION TWENTY-FOUR
How can we maintain good emotional health in a media landscape that can be emotionally exhausting?
In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster describes a kind of meditation that is oriented toward “the events of our time” and an attempt to understand them. He says, “This form of meditation is best accomplished with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other!” (pp. 31-32). When I first read these lines years ago, they gave me a new way to think about engaging the news, and media in general: Not as a distraction from spiritual life, but as an opportunity for prayer.
“Media” is a slippery word. Most broadly, it simply means all the ways meaning is made present to us from afar. If something is present to us right where we are, like the voice of a friend or sunlight on our skin, it is immediate. Otherwise it is mediated, whether that medium is a physical book, a sticky note, or a smartphone screen. But the “media landscape” of your question seems to be more specific, so I will focus on two overlapping forms of media that can be quite exhausting: news media and social media.
Engaging these forms of media as a kind of prayer remains the most helpful paradigm I have found for staying healthy in the process. Even so, I often find myself tempted to less thoughtful forms of engagement, doomscrolling, and distraction. Of the many challenges that today’s media landscape poses to healthy engagement, today I’d like to explore three that regularly surface in my own experience:
- Divided purposes
Each of these challenges has emotional and spiritual ramifications, so in our next post (Part 2), I’d like to also recommend three disciplines that can help us guard our emotional and spiritual health while we engage a diverse array of media:
- Asking why
- Balancing our media and embodied-engagement diet
- Scrolling with Jesus
As we attempt to make our media habits prayerful, we give the Lord an opportunity to work his purposes into our apps, screens, and conversations. He can change our engagement with media from aimless or destructive to thoughtful and even spiritually fruitful. That’s the kind of experience with media that we won’t regret.
Richard Foster’s recommendation of taking the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other hearkens back to a time when our experience of both came primarily in the form of reading words on printed pages. Now, for most of us, news comes across a screen more often than a page. Perhaps just as significantly, our experience is no longer divided into discrete categories such as “Bible” and “newspaper.” Instead, we engage media platforms that mix multiple content categories into extremely diverse streams. This change in our model of consumption leads to a sense of divided purposes in our engagement.
For example, like many digital citizens, my first step into a news story often comes on social media. But when I hop onto Facebook (yep, I’m still there), I’m not necessarily looking for news as such. As a quick experiment, I signed in while writing this post and cataloged the first seven items in my feed:
- Date night photo
- Art project photo
- News article about the situation in Ukraine
- Baby update
- Ad for a spiritual direction program
- Inspirational mental health post
- Funeral post
This raises the question: Why do I open the app? Depending on the moment, I might desire entertainment, a way to touch base with friends, a sense of connection with extended family, or an awareness of recent events beyond my immediate circle. However, by using a platform that mixes all of these things together, I end up doing all of them poorly.
To be honest, I don’t usually consider purpose explicitly before signing on. There’s more of a vague mental itch that says, “I think I’ll hop on Facebook.” In other words, I’m responding to an urge rather than pursuing a specific goal. Many health studies show a strong relationship between executive function—our ability to direct ourselves toward the fulfillment of specific goals—with overall health. Conversely, urge-driven behaviors supply a superficial reward, but not a long-term sense of fulfillment. In this way, Facebook is like the bag of jelly beans I keep going back to in the kitchen cabinet. I feel the itch, and I scratch it, but what have I accomplished?
The recent brouhaha about the so-called metaverse has underscored the tension of mediated communication of all kinds: What does it mean to connect to someone when you aren’t physically present with them? This tension has been with us since long before digital technologies emerged; it is at least as old as the written word.
It’s important not to resolve this tension with a one-sided solution. Saying, “All mediated communication is evil” rings hollow; I don’t know anyone who successfully avoids all media. Even the Amish write letters to each other. Similarly, we should raise an eyebrow at anyone who preaches, “All mediated communication is great! The more meta, the better!” The challenge today is how great a share of our communication occurs at one end of the spectrum, where we have little to no embodied interaction with our counterparts in the exchange. How many of your Facebook friends have you seen in person in the past year? Even before the pandemic, the fraction was small for me. Our relationships have become disembodied.
This disembodiment, if not a sin in itself, is often the occasion for sin. The anonymity of the internet gives a false sense of license to speak cruelly. Echo chambers develop and become difficult to escape, lacking the textured diversity of real-life neighborhoods. We can’t make eye contact with our conversation partners, draining our talks of the energy and rapport that sustain emotionally healthy relationships and help us act and speak with empathy.
Henri Nouwen once shared the quip, “Community is the place where the person you least want to live with always lives.” But we can dodge that person more and more easily if our interactions are limited to disembodied platforms and tools. And if we dodge them altogether, we end up missing out on true community, where we are confronted with whole persons, warts and all.
The delivery format of our media experience now often works at cross purposes to deep and thoughtful engagement. Studies show that we process information differently when it is on a screen than when it is physically produced, such as on a printed page. Screens are designed for speed, not for depth.
Even the visual structure of browser windows and tabs encourages briefer engagement. In this blog post, every section is dotted with links to relevant sources and related resources. But if you open one of them, you no longer have the original page open in front of you, unless you do some tricky dragging of windows or are enjoying the blog on a dual-monitor set-up.
Years before Wikipedia came into being, my family owned a complete set of World Book encyclopedias. The articles were cross-referenced, meaning that—for example—the article on the Civil War said “(see Lincoln, Abraham)” the first time it referenced President Lincoln. This tipped off the reader to look for a related article in the L volume. On lazy summer days, you could see me with a dozen different volumes spread around me, bouncing back and forth between them. Even that tactile experience was part of my early discovery of the love of learning. I was surrounded by the subject matter.
Even though it is possible to do a similar deep-dive on Wikipedia today, most of us are tempted to abandon ship on an internet-based intellectual inquiry long before we’ve learned anything of complexity or substance. It’s so easy to get distracted by an ad, a post irrelevant to the topic, an incoming notification, or that mental itch telling us to jump to something else.
The way we click and scroll forms a mental habit. More concerning than any one news story or idea that we understand only superficially is what our pattern of engagement is doing to us. As we skim and then click away quickly, we begin to lose the habit of thinking deeply, as well as the attention required to think charitably. This mental erosion comes in steps that are, alarmingly, gradual enough to escape our notice. How can we love God with all our mind, and our neighbors as ourselves, if our minds are aimlessly atrophying?
So that’s the bad news. In our next post, we’ll look at three ways for us to respond to these challenges.
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