If you’re like me, you’ve had just about enough of the weird fog and fug that has become social media—those personal-information-devouring echo chambers of sound and fury signifying nothing. An hour spent on Twitter is an hour wasted to disorientation and mob reasoning as participants, lodged in their respective echo chambers, expose themselves to the lightning-fast dissemination of bad information, ugly snark, and bellicosity which many users feed upon like sharks to chum. They grow more and more aggressive with each swallow until they finally must turn upon another with jaws wide open and eyes rolled back, all-unseeing, intent only on the bite and the bloody kill.
Facebook is only marginally better, but that’s likely because it doesn’t move at the same speed.
It wasn’t always like this. Seven or eight years ago, one could sign into Twitter with the same warm intention one might feel when entering a local Irish pub; one could anticipate spending an hour or two in lively conversation (and perhaps even a vigorous “cyber brawl” within an exchange of ideas) and still part friends til next time. Around 2014, though, in the lead up to the 2016 elections, that began to change. Now, the place is toxic and too often even a well-intentioned discussion begun in good faith can quickly devolve into a mad feeding frenzy, leaving everyone wounded and no one the better.
Because that’s true, I’ve been spending less and less time lollygagging on social media. Previously, I have written about my “Sabbath Rest” from these outlets and the good it has done me to remain offline from sundown to sundown come the vigils of Saturday eve. The retreat has been so beneficial that when I confused my days last week, and bade a Sabbath farewell to friends on Friday instead of Saturday, I mostly stayed offline anyway.
In that luscious time away from the screen, I have been rediscovering The Cloud of Unknowing, and the “contemporary English” edition I am using has reintroduced the anonymous fourteenth-century author of this classic as spiritual seeker who takes a bit of a line through Groucho Marx; he (or she) is uninterested in being noticed, celebrated, included with, or even discussed by the social kingmakers or pundits of the day. In the preface, the author writes:
I do not intend this book for everyone. I do not want clever clerics and self-appointed critics discussing it. I would prefer they never see it. I did not write this book for them and do not want them involved with it.
Well. That’s the voice of someone who is all too aware that anyone can, with the best of intentions, misinterpret, mistake, or misrepresent a text, but that opinionated persons with an audience and a thirst for attention might do all three as a matter of course, simply because they’re feeling puckish, or peckish, that day and looking for a little love.
The saddest thing about social media is that it thrives on precisely that, by the way: the understanding that all human beings are really looking for is a little love—that so many of our Twitter and Facebook posts, so many of our daily check-backs are rooted in the simple search for approval, fellow-feeling, and finally, validation, all of which are only facsimiles of love.
It’s a rueful thing to admit because I have had my days of tweeting to excess, but it’s even worse to consider this: in an era of high suicides and a recognized “epidemic of loneliness,” an era of fractured families, distant relatives, distracted coworkers—an era where paying a therapist to explore our thoughts and actions is considered better form (and more sophisticated) than going to Confession—we are content to work out our sins and neurotic tendencies in public, post by post, and make do with the button-clicked facsimile of real love.
What does the author of The Cloud of Unknowing have to say about that? Plenty, it turns out, and all in a readable style well-suited to the short-attention-span theater it plays to today:
The kingdom of heaven is your heritage, and God asks you to claim it. Do not hesitate to make that claim. Forget the past and press on to the future.
[God] wants to be your only love. Look toward God and let him act beyond your ability. Your job is to keep the windows and doors of your soul open, but screened against insects and vermin.
Pay attention to how you spend your time. You have nothing more precious than time. In one tiny moment heaven may be gained or lost. . . . God does not ask for more than we can handle in one moment.
All virtue is a gift of God, and two virtues, humility and love, include all the others. When we have these two, we have them all.
We will make mistakes in judgement. Be cautious. Judge yourself before God as much as you want, but leave others to the judgement of God.
Lest I myself unwittingly misrepresent the book, please understand, The Cloud of Unknowing is not a collection of pithy sayings, nor a book of proverbs. It is a serious treatise on contemplation, meant to be read straight through, not picked through like Bartlett’s Quotations. But I offer these lines—among the many I have underlined as I am reading—as a means of enticing the reader to explore its pages, and to consider contemplative prayer as a worthwhile and beneficial alternative venue to social media as we pursue authentic love.
Because we deserve more than facsimiles of love. We deserve the real thing, on earth as it is in heaven. And even on social media, if we can remember to show it to others.
The book begins, by the way, with a prayer that feels nearly perfect in its simplicity:
O God, all hearts are open to you.
You perceive my desire.
Nothing is hidden from you.
Purify the thoughts of my heart
with the gift of your Spirit, that I may love you with a
perfect love and give you the praise you deserve.
233 characters. I would dearly love to see this writer on Twitter.