‘Tis a Gift to Communicate Simple: When Facts, Opinions, and Dismal News on the Internet Overwhelm the Soul


Two friends of mine died recently, one a college friend and the other a high school friend and neighbor.

I last spoke to the high school friend at a reunion, and she blessed me immeasurably with comments she made about her conversion to Christ and what helped empower it. The college friend I knew from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and he was part of a special time in my own personal spiritual growth. I can’t recall whether it was through Facebook or LinkedIn that we reconnected, but we did drop a couple lines to each other over the last couple years.

The high school friend died of cancer, seemingly a victim of genetics, as her entire family is gone now, most claimed by that disease. The college friend, despite his close involvement with international students and his devotion to the Lord, took his own life and left a wife and teenage sons behind.

In the aftermath of those deaths, I was surprised by my own sadness for people I was once closer to, even though our connection had faded over the years like many do.

Something is happening to us as people. A malaise has swallowed so many. I go back to that “powerful delusion” referred to in Scripture, and I wonder if we are in the grip of it.

It may have something to do with how we communicate.

For many, Facebook has become the primary means of connecting to people. I would not have it that way by choice, but the majority have elected to live vicariously through the social media giant, and it is nearly impossible NOT to be on it if one wants any regular connection to others at all.

Internet, Facebook, sadness, and depressionBut in being on Facebook or LinkedIn or some other public Internet connection space, one hears nonstop from others of the demise of a dear pet, a mother’s progressively losing battle against dementia, a broken marriage, motorcycle accidents, sudden lack from financial misfortune, the latest horrific decision by the people who govern us, and the little personal doubts that plague human existence.

With all due respect to my two recently deceased friends, in an earlier age it is likely I would not have heard of their passing. Dare I say this? A mercy exists in that ignorance. I wonder if it is a mercy once given by God but now gone missing thanks to social media and Internet technology.

It’s not that I don’t want to know. We all want to know. We all want to feel a part of the human network. We all want to express our sympathies and get our chance to console, pray, and support.

But I wonder if it’s too much communication delivered by too sterile a means for us to incorporate into our being in a healthy way.

Women tend to be more connected than men are. In a given day, my Facebook wall consists more of female commentary than male, even though I probably know more men than I do women. I don’t think it is any coincidence then that women over 35 seem to be increasingly despondent or willing to act out. The number of people on psychoactive meds is skyrocketing, and women mostly are driving up those numbers. I wonder if the burden of personal communication delivered so impersonally through the Internet is proving too much for their psyches to bear.

This does not NOT affect men, though. I wonder if my college friend, who fought depression most of his life, found the waves of bad news assailing him so often and so easily to be fuel for his inner sadness.

As I have thought about this topic (which many readers will note I have explored in one way or another before), a study came in right as I decided to write this post. NPR commented: “Facebook Makes Us Sadder And Less Satisfied, Study Finds.”

While the gist of the study says Facebook creates an illusion that other people’s lives are better than ours, which leads to despondency, I think there is much more to it than that. I believe that for any good news we receive through the Internet, some people respond more powerfully to the bad news. When combined with the instant national and international news access we “enjoy” in an Internet age, all the trouble in the world comes right to our doorstep. Once it was merely CNN on the Internet telling us about mudslides in Peru, but now it’s that guy we lost track of in junior high school but who is now a Facebook friend telling us his wife was just diagnosed with MS. And that gal we met at a friend’s party Facebooking to tell us her home is being repossessed. And that guy who reads our blog posting the latest bad news out of D.C. Or that woman who is a friend of a Facebook friend who is compelled to send the latest proof that we are in the Last Days and we better watch out because it’s going to get worse and worse and worse and worse and…

The cure, says the NPR article, is to return to face-to-face communication.

I wonder if that’s a “stuff the genie back into the bottle” sort of pipedream, though. If anything, scheduling time for a face-to-face seems impossible, especially for anyone with children who have piano lessons, soccer games, 4H, Scouts, and a bazillion other activities to attend so they can be found worthy of acceptance into the best colleges and our efforts as parents will be vindicated.

I wonder if we have reached a time in human history where there is too much communication, and that in the wrong form, one which we were never meant to handle.

All the trouble in the world. And right there before us. 24/7/365.

I keep wondering how we pull back.

I don’t carry a cell phone. People are aghast when I say that. I get chucked into that “anachronistic weirdo” category people now have.

But now that no phone is NOT a smartphone plugged into an endless stream of human misery, when is there a time when we are free of bad/sad news? With a constant connection to other people’s heartbreak always within reach, to where do we flee?

The Catch-22 is that if we are not plugged into modern means of communication, how do we even arrange that rare face-to-face connection? You have to be in that social media loop if you want to connect at all.

Dropping out is its own little death. It’s consenting to social irrelevance, as if you once existed but no longer do. To opt out of social media is to become a face on a milk carton, relegated to the world of the mysteriously vanished.

The old Quaker/Shaker hymn is “‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple.” The follow-up line is “’tis a gift to be free.”

If we are to find a place of mental health as a society, I think that at some point we have to go back to simple. That NPR article claims that face-to-face is the only medicine for what ails us. Freedom from the digital communication onslaught is only found with communication of the old, old kind. The new kind seems only to be damaging us as people. We have to go back to the old ways.

But the cost of dropping out is that no one else may follow.

Now who will go first?

That Dreadful Silence


Beyond the recent lack of posts here at Cerulean Sanctum, another series of silences continues to blanket the American Church. I’ve written about them before, but I want to address them again, if only to keep the topics fresh in people’s minds. These issues matter. Our lack of conversation in the Church about them on any sort of national level bothers me to the extreme. What we don’t talk about says as much, or more , as what we do.

It would be fine if I could ignore these problems, but I can’t. The main reason is that they  confront me personally every day.

I live in what is called penturbia by demographics experts. My neighborhood straddles that fine line between rural and suburban, with a leaning toward the former. My neighbor across the road harvested his corn last week. That tells you a lot of what you need to know, though most of us on my road are not reliant on farm income for a living.

Greater Cincinnati has maxed out growth in its northern suburbs (which used to be farmland 20 years ago), and the big push was supposed to be toward the east, where I live. That push was starting before the economic downturn. The big news was the announcement of a WalMart coming to my little town. That WalMart hasn’t come is now the new talk.

Today, I drive along a road with an increasing number of homes for sale. Worse is the rise in homes left to the elements, abandoned.

Few things disquiet me more than an abandoned home. Once, a family lived there and filled that house with life. Now it sits like the dessicated remains of a bug sucked dry by a spider. Abandoned houseGrass grows wild. A window blind hangs half open like the eyelid of a corpse. And inside, nothing but cobwebs and emptiness.

The dead shells of homes litter my road, and I wonder where the life that filled them vanished to.

What bothers me more is that no one seems to wonder with me. I’ve heard no sermons on this, read no blogs on this topic. No one in the Christian community has brought up the subject of families that are here one day and gone the next. No one asks how awful it must have been that someone up and left a house behind to decay. No one asks whether anything could have been done to keep that house filled with life.

Concerning the homes on the market, I wonder how many For Sale signs were stuck in the ground reluctantly. I wonder if there’s a family out there that had to chase jobs to a more economically stable state. I wonder if they are being bled dry by owing on two mortgages as their home here sits unsold month after month. I wonder if the breadwinner chased a job, even though it pays less, and now that unsold home is an albatross that more than undoes the gain of a move. I wonder how many families would have been better off staying put, but the panic of unemployment forced them into a decision that ended up working against them in the long run. I wonder how many marriages will end because of that “rock, meet hard place” decision.

I overheard a conversation on a cell phone two days ago. A middle-aged woman was talking to someone about a young man who lost his job, chased a job to another state, lost his job there, was paying two mortgages, lost his wife, lost custody of his kids, got buried in child support payments, then killed himself. I wonder if that conversation is becoming more common.

And I wonder why no one seems to care that it might be.

Our county fair was last week. It’s a big deal around here. Kids get the whole week off from school because so many have animals and 4H projects they show. Again, this is still a place where people make a living off the land and its bounty.

I ran into several people I know there who were part of a group my son and I belonged to. I use the past tense because none of us seemed to know what happened to that group. It just petered out, another institution whose well went dry.

When I look at the social fabric of this country, I can’t help but notice it’s threadbare and full of more and more holes.

My family has not had a good track record of late in maintaining ties in small groups. And that loss is not by our choice, either. Groups just seemed to wither and die. Where we used to be highly connected, we now are a part of only one small group, which meets erratically.

While that is a Christian group, I’m beginning to wonder if finding some connection in a group that has no pretenses toward anything religious is the answer. At the same time, even entertaining that thought bothers me. Many of those groups are dying just as quickly, if not quicker.

I believe we Christians are too isolated within our ghettos, yet at the same time I wonder about the viability of the ghettos we’re in. And while the other guys’ ghetto may look good, perhaps it’s more sick than ours.

So, I wonder if we Americans have reached a place of no return. I wonder if it’s indeed possible to recover what we have lost—and we have surely lost our vitality, if not our hope. Yet.

And more than anything else, I wonder why we don’t talk about these issues in our churches. I wonder why those Christians with a national stage say nothing. I wonder if we devote so much time to fighting the culture wars because they are easier to fight than to answer the questions I’ve raised here in this post .

Perhaps we are all just a little more afraid than we care to let on. Only this can explain the dreadful silence.

Dying of Thirst in the New Social Desert


My neighbor told me a few weeks ago that he bought his fifth-grade son a cell phone. As my neighbor is a bit of a Luddite and has resisted such things in the past, I was surprised. What surprised me more was his reasoning, which was nowhere on my radar screen.

Seems he bought the phone because his popular son had seen that popularity dwindle to zero.  And that sudden dive was strictly because the son was out of the texting loop. No cell phone meant no connection to the social structure of today’s tweens and teens. In reality, the boy had ceased to exist.

This last year has seen a sea change in social connection here at the Edelen household:

1. A Christian small group we were a part of for eight years ceased to exist. One by one, families dropped out until there were just two, each unsure what to do going forward. That group now no longer meets.

2. Another Christian small group we are a part of has now decided not to meet during the summer. That it also seems not to meet during the winter holidays means it’s  meeting only half the year now. Given that scheduled meetings are only twice a month anyway, that translates into about a dozen meetings a year total.

3. The writers group I am a part of has had its meeting schedule disrupted from the last Monday of each month to whenever we have enough submission work to warrant a meeting. The meetings have grown more and more sporadic as a result.

4. The worship team at my church attempted a regular practice schedule, but work responsibilities, involvement in outside sporting events for children, and on and on have translated into two practices in the last six months.

5. The Audubon group I’m a part of (as treasurer) had no scheduled events for spring and nothing scheduled so far for summer, the first time that has happened that I can recall.

The irony of all this is that many of the people in the groups mentioned above have joined Facebook in the last six months. We seem to have no trouble meeting in cyberspace.

I know that I’m kind of a crank on this subject, but do a handful of less than a hundred word comments on Facebook constitute social connection?

We all know this passage:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
—Hebrews 10:24-25

I can’t read that passage and not shake my head. We seem to be becoming the some mentioned, the ones we are cautioned against.

When an 11-year-old boy vanishes from the social network of an elementary school for no other reason than his lack of a cell phone, something is horribly wrong. A dry, weary place without waterWhen we begin  to retreat into electronic worlds, abandoning the real one, we have, perhaps, reached that point of no return.

A child who merely wishes to put together a game of Kick the Can finds no playmates in the real world. Either the play is regimented according to schedule (organized kids sports) or relegated to an online world (Neopets, Webkins, et al.). Without a cell phone, even a child becomes a non-entity.

In recent days, I have considered seriously whether to begin extricating myself from the online system. While that will effectively make me invisible in today’s world, I wonder how much more of this we can take before we are no longer a society. If most communities go from face to face to virtual, I believe we will lose the very cues by which we understand each other.

Yet some are preferring this distant means of interacting. Tweet me, baby.

I don’t believe the new thing is better. While it may serve some basic purpose in communicating brief bursts of info, those brief bursts are increasingly ousting the longer forms of communication that define us as human beings. We are preferring them to meeting together face to face. We no longer assemble.

Our faith in rapid bits of impersonal communication may very well be creating a new social desert. Twitter’s 140 characters  cannot replace genuine interaction, though, despite how much some laud it.

I don’t have an answer for this. My thoughts on the subject swim against an increasingly powerful stream that is sucking everyone in. Going against the flow means becoming even less “connected,” even if that connection is all smoke and mirrors anyway. At least a mirror reflects something, even if it’s just an illusion.

You’d think the Church in America would have something to say about this. It has: satellite churches that beam the televised service to different substation halls. And people are eating that up. Rather than getting together during the week, some Christians prefer to connect online. So much for the real definition behind assembling.

Our society is already at that “every man for himself” stage. If we lose what little genuine community we still have, I don’t see how that will ever turn around.