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Advent Reflection: The Gifts and Challenges of the Connected Life

by Mary Beth Coudal

 
Candles at the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem.
Candles at the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem.
Image by: Sushil Bhujbal
Source: Mission Stories
Stained glass window at the Taize Community in France.
Stained glass window at the Taize Community in France.
Image by: Chris Heckert
Source: Mission Education

Quiet down before God, be prayerful before God. (Psalm 37:7, The Message)

The time of Advent reminds me to wait, wait, wait. Yet my social-media habit encourages me to hurry, hurry, hurry. This December I've found these modes--of waiting and of hurrying--are at odds. While I am happy to be connected to so many friends and family through social media, I fear my round-the-clock digital connectedness is distracting me from a deeper relationship with the people in my life and with God.

Constantly Distracted

I am connected to friends and family through Facebook, Twitter, email, and texting, so I am never alone. I am beginning to wonder if this constant social media chatter is drowning out my ability to listen to the "still, small voice" of God, which may require solitude and communion. For example, during Advent, in years past, I would attend a Wednesday night Space for Grace candlelight service. Now I do Advent by scanning devotional emails on my smart phone as I walk from the subway.

It's worth considering that if I detach from my smart phone and all the tangles of social media, I might notice the Christmas lights, the beautiful diversity of New York's people, and the wonders of the season. I might begin to anticipate the birth of Christ. I might duck back into church for candlelight and quiet.

Away from the immediate gratification of Facebook and Twitter, I might regain a healthy solitude to feed my soul. How do social media impact my soul? "Does it (digital media) grow your soul?" asked William Powers, author of Hamlet's Blackberry, who paraphrased Kurt Vonnegut's favorite question. I am not sure.

Social media has contributed to my short attention span. I am not alone. One of my coworkers confessed that she has begun to feel the onset of ADT, attention deficit trait, making her feel there is a "traffic jam in my mind." Symptoms of ADT include "distractibility, restlessness, a sense of 'gotta go, gotta rush, gotta run around,'" (from Hamlet's Blackberry, wherein Powers quotes Edward Hallowell, who first described the syndrome.)

Contemplating Christmas

I definitely feel this traffic jam in my mind this Christmas season as I already feel required to rush, shop, decorate, cook, and party. This Christmas craziness seems magnified by a persistent hum--the ringing and dinging of smart phone, emails, posts, updates, and tweets.

I feel compelled to respond to every ping. "Yes," I want to hastily reply, "Yes, I am alert. I am working. I am ready. I hear your question. I have the answer." Then, I hit "Reply All." But instead of tapping "Reply All," what if I hit "Advent All"--a button to remind me to pause, reflect, wait?

The journey to Christmas Eve requires patience and contemplation. It is no coincidence that Christmas lands right after the longest, darkest night of the year. The soul, too, requires a long night's journey to its center, even longer than I could describe with Twitter's 140-character limit.

So, like a lot of my friends and family who are in love with social media like Twitter, I am struggling to find balance.

For inspiration, I consulted with the poet John Clare, a 19 th century English farmer who was briefly a Primitive Methodist. He said, "It is with religion as it is with everything thing else, its extreames (sic) are dangerous & its medium is best--enthusiasm begins in extravagance, degenerates into cant & hides at last into hypocrisy.'" (Quoted in John Clare's Religion by Sarah Houghton-Walker.)

So if I replace the word religion with social media, I discover that it is in moderation--the medium--that I best find meaning. I don't have to fast from digital media, but neither do I have to allow my extravagance to "degenerate into cant and hypocrisy."

Deepening the Spiritual Journey

Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR disaster response executive, appreciates his smart phone for helping him stay in touch with his family when he travels. Through Facebook, he's reconnected with cousins he hasn't seen in 35 years. "Still, there's no email as meaningful as a hug!" he says.

While social media increases our need for speed, in this holy season of waiting, we need to slow the digital connection down, quiet all the online chatter, notice the beauty of the season, and connect more deeply with those whom we encounter in our daily lives.

While social media can be a gift for hummingbirds like me who flit from task to task; it can also be a place for the dedicated woodpeckers to chip away at long-term projects. Woodpecker or hummingbird, for all of us, social media is a useful tool that, at times, we must unplug from in order to enter into moments of quiet. At these times, we can reflect on our spiritual journey and our connections to one another.

Resisting my urge to check my smart phone on my walk to work this morning I noticed the smell of pine trees and the smiles of strangers. In this Advent season, an ordinary daily walk can become extraordinary. And as I quiet down, I become grateful.

Mary Beth Coudal is the staff writer for the General Board of Global Ministries. In her free times, she blogs about social media at The Connected Life, http://gettingmyessayspublished.wordpress.com/ . She writes the daily tweet through Twitter for New World Outlook magazine under the moniker, NWOMag.

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Date posted: Dec 09, 2010