Social Media and the Sluggard

If you’re a regular reader of these pages you know that I often look at new and social media in the same light that I do art, film, and so on, questioning whether there are some problems we need to be aware of.  To wit.: a friend recently shared this rather lengthy, but very much worth-reading article from The Atlantic, which asks what anyone who uses social media asks themselves, at some point, if they are honest.  Namely, are sites like Facebook actually making us feel more lonely? As a jumping-off point for a bit of reflection, the question is extremely useful in the broader consideration of whether social media actually makes us lazier than we ought to be.

What do most individuals put out on social media sites like Facebook about themselves, as opposed to their simply commenting on the events of the day? As the author of The Atlantic piece points out, most of us tend to share happy pictures of ourselves, family and friends doing wonderful things.  The net effect of this, intentional or not, is to say, “Look how wonderful things are for me!”  Rarely does one see pictures of babies waking up covered in their own excretions at 3:00 a.m., and screaming until the entire house wakes up, for example.

There are certainly people who use their social media accounts to one-up other people, by saying, “Isn’t my boyfriend/job/lifestyle/car/etc. more fabulous than yours?”  There’s even a half-joking hashtag on Twitter, #BeJealous, which is quite literally daring people to despise the person using it.  The intent may be humorous, but unless what is being talked about is so awful that it is clearly meant as a burst of humor – e.g., “Fixing a hair-clogged drain #BeJealous” – sometimes we can’t help but indeed feel a bit jealous, and perhaps a bit less well-disposed toward the person who made us feel that way.

Going to social media to find some support and comfort can be a good, temporary means of pouring balm on our wounds when we need it.  Yet the more time people spend focused on their unhappiness via social media, the more unlikely it is that they will act to improve their life.  They will become more and more sluggish, the more they find an audience willing to indulge them in their unhappiness.

I should point out that we are not talking here about people suffering from clinical depression, who need to seek professional help. Rather, I mean the kind of people whom Kyle Scheele talks about in his book, those people who need to find a way to turn off the television – or indeed, the social media platform – and actually interact with the people whom they live and work with, instead of criticizing their life or the people on it (or not in it.)  For there is a definite escapist element to social media which can reinforce some of the worst aspects of our personality, if we are not on guard against it.

It seems many people are creating a world of broader but shallower friendships in social media, as The Atlantic piece rightly points out.  We spend more and more time talking to more and more people whom we do not actually know, about all sorts of things. And in the process, perhaps imperceptibly at first, we are spending less and less time in the company of people whom we do.  For those already susceptible to this sheltering aspect of social media, i.e., people who are shy or lonely by nature, it may at first seem to be a wonderful outlet, but this is only the case if they use it as a tool to create with and build upon, rather than as a substitute for human relationships.

Life has its wonderful moments, but quite a good deal of the time it is simply a slog.  And like that fact or not, social media is simply no substitute for action on what needs to be done in life, however unpleasant or difficult it may be. We do not win any real points in the human race by having more followers, or more posts, than someone else, but rather by the quality of the relationships we develop, and the people whom we help and interact with in real life.

Social media can connect people who can aid and encourage each other, but it can also encourage lethargy, envy, and self-absorption. Taking a step back every now and then, in order to make sure your real life is in order with respect to the people actually in it, is a good thing.  Indeed, it is going to be more beneficial than reinforcing the tendency to sluggishness which all human beings have, and which can be reinforced by an over-dependence on social media.

Detail of “The  Sluggard” by Frederick, Lord Leighton (1890)
Minneapolis Institute of Fine Arts

Review: We Put a Man on the Moon

I’ve never met motivational speaker (and now author) Kyle Scheele, nor seen any of his presentations.  I had never heard of him until about a year ago, when we started following each other on Twitter, thanks to a mutual friend and former housemate of mine who introduced us.  In fact, even after that the only thing I could have told you about Kyle was that he was a husband and father, and had invented some sort of app for putting mustaches on pictures of babies.  At least, I think that’s what it was, since I do not worship at the temple of Apple.

So a few months ago when he emailed his list of contacts asking for financial support to get his first book published, I thought: why not? It’s not a large investment, and he seems like a good fellow.  He didn’t strike me as the sort of person who would be publishing a tome full of expletives and tawdry stories, and it was always possible that it might be an entertaining book.  Or, worst case scenario, it would be a forgettable first effort, which I could always discard the next time I lugged over a bag of donations to a local charity.

As it turns out, We Put a Man on the Moon is a book I definitely intend to keep.

Kyle has a gift for making the reader laugh out loud right from the start, even before you get to the actual first chapter.  No spoilers, but if you are one of those people who flip past the preface and acknowledgement sections of books, don’t do that here.  By the time you begin to read the substance of his work, he has already effectively softened you up, so that you feel comfortable and chummy with him, rather than wary or suspicious of what a motivational writer is going to tell you to do.

Kyle raises a very interesting question which I can very much relate to: the idea of one’s life as an unfolding story, where there is as much or as little meaning to the thing as you choose to put into it. In the examples he gives, Kyle repeatedly shows how the type of story you choose to tell about yourself ultimately comes to define who you are. He also challenges the reader to look at themselves in the mirror and ask, is the story you are telling really YOUR story? Or is it the story that someone else caused you to espouse as your own?

The book tells some superb, very humorous, stories about Kyle and people he has known, and how they went about telling the stories which made them who they are. However the laughter is really a way for us to get comfortable with the idea of what those of us of a Papist persuasion like yours truly would call an examination of conscience. For there are serious stories here, too, about people who suffered greatly, and yet still managed to have terrific stories:

When you start to think of your life as a story, like a movie or a book or something told around a campfire, it causes you to live differently. You don’t let the sources of pain be the end of your story, for one thing. Instead, you let the pain be the impetus for living a better story, let it move you to action. You let the pain be the beginning of a newer and far richer story. Oddly enough, the pain often becomes something you are thankful for because it was the first step in a journey that takes you far beyond the story you used to live.

The depth shown in this kind of thinking is wonderfully balanced, by laugh-out-loud stories about strange things like collecting earthworms, or selling t-shirts in the middle of the street, or prank-calling the White House.

Just as he is not afraid of making us laugh, or think carefully and seriously about the path each of us is on, Kyle is also not afraid of tackling that sacred cow, technology. Television, the internet, and social media are all wonderful things, and the author is certainly not opposed to any of them. Yet as Kyle points out, no man on his death-bed, surrounded by family and friends, asks everyone to pause in their goodbyes so that he can tweet about it.

The world would have us be lazy, for that way we can allow our own lives fall to rack and ruin – and we can see where that has brought us as a society.  As Kyle found out when he decided to take the advice of some of his friends and slow down a bit, most of these friends were up to…nothing at all. And he points to something which regular readers of this blog know is something of a mantra for me: the end of your formal education is no excuse for not continuing to educate yourself.

“As I dug deeper,” he writes about his ‘take it easy’ peers, “I found out that [TV and video games] were pretty much the extent of their non-work activities. They don’t read, they aren’t actively trying to learn any new skills, and they don’t really have any long-term goals they’re working toward.”  Soon enough, he realized that he was losing the thread of his own story, and needed to get back to work.

What Kyle is reminding us in his book is that we have two choices in life: we can do our best, or we can do someone else’s best. Yet oftentimes someone else’s idea of what is best, is not really what is best for us.  For in the end each of us has to live our own life, and be responsible for it.  And that means, inescapably, that the stories you will tell about yourself, and which others will tell about you, are truly yours for the making.

The Author, having a read of “We Put a Man on the Moon” by Kyle Scheele