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Learning to use social media well

Maybe it’s just me, but I have this total love/hate relationship with social media. I’ll have a week where I spend far too much time on Facebook, reading through discussion threads and even occasionally participating. But then I’ll get so fed up with myself for having invested (read: wasted) so much time there, that I completely disengage for weeks on end afterwards. I guess you could call it a bit of a Facebook hangover.

In general, I try to avoid interacting on social media. Lately it seems like an increasingly angry place, particularly when it comes to cultural, social, and political issues. Gone are the days of cute baby pictures and grumpy cat memes. But I also know that as Catholics, we don’t have the luxury of disengaging fully. It is our moral duty to pursue, promote, and extol the common good. The Catholic faith is not a privatized, individualistic means of working out our salvation, it turns out, but a faith lived and experienced in community. We come to receive the Eucharist in the Holy Mass together, after all.

But how do we engage on Facebook (or other platforms) in an era of such confusion and polarization, without completely losing our minds? And, is it even worth it?

It’s important, I think, to recognize both the limitations and influence of social media. On the one hand, platforms like Facebook and Instagram remain very poor substitutes for face-to-face, authentic engagement with another person. They offer a level of anonymity that allows for behavior that most people would probably be ashamed to exhibit in person. Worse yet, it is in one sense a form of make-believe — none of your interactions are actually happening in the real world. People would do well to take the time they’re spending on social media, and invest it into their parish community or neighborhood.

But all of that being said, we can’t deny that the digital continent wields a tremendous amount of reach, and potential influence. Before my conversion to Catholicism, I didn’t know any Catholics in real life. The only information I had was in books, and online. So, I came to really appreciate the small handful of Catholics with a strong web presence, who made the tenets of the faith accessible to me when I didn’t yet have a parish community of my own. Therefore, it makes sense for Catholics (who wish to do so) to live their faith publicly, online, and thus engage the larger culture. It should certainly not supplant in-real-life evangelization and community, but it can be an addition (or, as in my case, a precursor) to it. You never know who is watching and listening in to your discussion about the sanctity of life. You don’t know who is admiring your Catholic lifestyle. God does the real work here, of course, but we can certainly help plant the seeds.

And really, who better to confront the problems facing our culture than the very Bride of Christ? There is an enormous need for Catholics on the frontlines, upholding the dignity of the human person, demonstrating what the love of Jesus looks like, and doing the long, hard work of the Gospel. We live in a throw-away culture where now even people, created in the image and likeness of Christ, have become expendable. Yet as Catholics, we possess the truth about the dignity of the human person, and therefore are able to have our respective communities’ best interests at heart, even when it comes to shaping public policy. We are incredibly blessed to have the social teaching of the Church, marked by things like subsidiarity and a preferential option for the poor. (Participation in community is another!) If we don’t offer truth, beauty, and goodness to the world around us, who will?

Of course, this means that we need to educate ourselves about what the common good actually is. It seems like social media platforms these days are filled with little else besides emoting and arguing. Most people are well-intentioned, but may still not possess accurate information. (Sound familiar? This pretty much sums up half my Facebook feed!) So, we have to know our Catechism, be familiar with Sacred Scripture, and understand the reasons behind what our Church teaches. That way, if a controversial subject like gay marriage comes up in conversation, we can respond with both charity and truth. We can ask good questions, like what is the nature of marriage, and what is the state’s interest in marriage. We can explore the idea of love, and whether or not there is an objective property to it — and if someone claims there isn’t, we can consider the implications for society when love is merely a passing feeling. They say that more is caught than taught, and that is certainly true, but in order to participate well in a productive discussion, we must also have knowledge of what we speak.

Finally, and I know this is kind of obvious, we must first and foremost remain close to Jesus. Attending Holy Mass, spending time in prayer, and participating in parish life are really the only ways to keep the right focus in our topsy-turvy world. We won’t be troubled by the inevitable person “who’s wrong on the internet” because, ultimately, our life is not lived there. We have other, better things to think about and do. Plus, how can we be assured that we’re thinking correctly about something when we are not walking closely with our Lord? This is also crucial to drowning out the ever-present noise that threatens to invade our very souls. The peace of Christ must first dwell in our own hearts for us to be of any use to the rest of the world!

During Lent, my goal was to spend less time on social media. Maybe a better goal for me, though, would be to learn to use it well.

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