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

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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?

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

  1. linda

    Hi Dan,
    We are inundated with tremendous amounts of information daily if we allow it. We can limit it. We can take mental health days where we are not on electronic communication all day or perhaps for several days at a time. We can schedule our Internet use for limited times of engagement such as 2 or 3 times a week.

    Does this put us at a disadvantage? I don’t know. Do we need to know every tidbit of information dispensed each day? I don’t think so. If we catch the news once a week we have generally heard most of the news disseminated that week by the news sources.

    Do we have to be on facebook every day, answering and reading every post? No, I don’t think so. If we miss something, we appologize and say that ‘I’m sorry I missed that. I read facebook once a week’

    Are we out of the social loop? We might be out of contact with people who live a distance from us, but hopefully we still talk and interact with people who we encounter more regularly in our area or community where we live and our kids live.

    Will we be poorer for not having daily contact with the ‘movers and shakers’ in our country or in other countries? I don’t think so. Hit and miss connection works too.

    How effective is communication when someone comments ‘I agree, you’ve got that right’ or ‘have a good day’. Is this the kind of communication we are looking for? They don’t have time to comment any further. A one liner is all they have time for. They have a hundred sites to visit that day on the Internet. Is this what we do also? Communication is more than this. This is not communication.

  2. akaGaGa

    I was on facebook for a brief few months when it was the only way I could communicate with a granddaughter. When she got access to a phone, I deleted my account.

    As Linda implies, the one-liner of electronic communication is not real communication. Better to have a small handful of real friends in the real world, than hundreds of facebook friends on the internet.

    You ask, “With a constant connection to other people’s heartbreak always within reach, to where do we flee?” I can only respond with the answer that is usually shrugged off as too simplistic, too other-worldly, and no help at all. Nonetheless, we can and should flee to Jesus. If we do, and do it sincerely, then perhaps we’ll be better able to deal with the heartbreak of an evil, fallen world.

  3. Ah Dan 🙂

    First, I *am* sorry for your loss – even if they were not acute pains, there is still that jolt of disconnect.

    I have a cellphone, but a “dumb” one; an old flip phone that I use when I need to make a call to see someone face to face, and for family members to reach me. I use Facebook as a way of staying connected to friends – either people I know from face to face time in life, or -like you – folks I’ve connected with as part of the blogging community; all followers of Christ that I’d like to meet face to face but geography and circumstance prohibit. The TV in the living room is on almost all the time for my blind father-in-law on old TV shows or westerns; when he turns it to a news broadcast, I leave the room.

    I manage to take in my fair share of news – that which I need to know about the world at large – even without watching it. For the rest of the answer? I get away from the computer when not actively writing. I meet friends for coffee, or drives in the country.

    You raised many good points. Thanks for sharing.

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