The idea of taking a break from social media first came to me a couple of weeks ago in Zion National Park. Actually I’ve thought about it on several occasions, but it hit me with some urgency on that one particular day.
My sister knew of a place away from the crowds where we could see petroglyphs, and as I stood in front of the panel she’d led us to, trying to decipher the meaning behind the images so painstakingly carved into the sandstone, I tried to summon the real-life person who once stood exactly where I was standing. What was their motive for carving images into the wall? Were they making art or were they telling a story? (Or both?) Were they leaving news for others who might be passing by, or did they just feel like creating something?
Most of the images were straight forward, your standard deer or snake or human. Others were more fantastical. One image looked like a human lightning bolt. Several seemed purposefully out of proportion. A few even looked a little otherworldly with their cone shaped heads. In addition to the human and animal figures, there were lots of spirals and squiggly lines. I’m no expert at deciphering the meaning behind the images left on rocks hundreds of years ago, but still I tried. What were they saying?
I am not a Luddite. I do not intend to eschew technology. But being there, in front of that panel of images, I had an intense desire to experience an uncluttered mind, one that I imagined the original petroglyph artists to have had. No electricity, no diesel engines, no radio, no television, no internet, no social media. This is not to say that the people of that age didn’t have in-depth or complicated thoughts, but they did not have the constant barrage of information coming at them the way we do now. What was it like to not have that kind of input, that kind of noise? I’d like to know.
Then on Ash Wednesday, a poet friend posted on her blog that she was giving up Facebook for Lent. I’ve always respected the tradition of Lent and I’ve participated on occasion. In the food department I’ve gone through times of not eating meat or sugar or dairy. I usually came away from the experience having a better understanding of my body and my cravings.
My friend’s blog post inspired me, and I saw it as an opportunity to de-clutter my mind. After a couple of hours of stewing it over, I decided to give it a go. I cut myself off, without a post or statement of any kind making my intentions known. I just walked away.
This year Lent lasts for 46 days. I’m on day 17 as I write this. Do I miss social media? Yes, I miss certain aspects of it. My town is experiencing a bit of a political shakeup and I’m sure I’m missing some interesting dialog about it. I’m sure there have been wonderful poems/articles/photos/opinions/memes/stories/jokes/videos/rants that I’ve missed. I’m sure there have been opportunities for personal connection that have passed me by, like congratulating a friend on some success or offering a bit of moral support. I also miss the glimpses into the day-to-day lives of my friends and family.
Just like when I’ve given up sugar in the past, the first few days were the hardest. I had to resist my compulsion to go to Twitter when I had a few minutes to spare. I had to put aside thoughts of posting things. (Oh wow, what a beautiful sunset. I should take a photo and post it!) (I am outraged/enlightened/delighted by the article I just read. I should repost it on Facebook!) I hadn’t realized just how much of my thought space had been consumed by thinking about checking and posting my social media accounts. After a few days the compulsions began to diminish.
Without spending my time scrolling or falling prey to the endless reading of articles and online conversations, I began to have more time. Instead of spending twenty minutes here and there throughout my day on Twitter or Facebook, I’m filling that time with more focused reading and writing. I’m cooking more and listening to music and stretching. I’ve even picked up my long-neglected instruments a couple of times.
I’m still reading the news every day, and trying to stay politically informed and engaged, but I’m not so consumed. Reading and responding to everyone else’s outrage on social media is fun and a bit cathartic from time to time, but it might have been giving me the false sense that I was doing something meaningful. Now I’m acting more and talking about it less.
The biggest benefit I’m experiencing is the overall reduction of noise. Not the literal noise, but the thought-noise that had crept into my mind, the chatter I was hearing in response to all the conversations I scrolled past and read every day. I’ve made some space in my brain and I’ve been better able to focus on writing and reading. I’ve been sleeping soundly. I don’t feel quite as hurried.
It seems like humans, at least most of us, are wired for connection. We’re not meant to feel alone. Social media is a way for us to reach out to others and a way to be heard. I’m not giving it up forever. But this break has opened my eyes to the ways I’d taken it too far.
It’s been nearly three weeks since I stood in front of the petroglyphs in Zion National Park and I’m still thinking about the minds of the people who created them. What would it feel like to be alive without any exposure to media, to not know what is going on in countries halfway around the world? More specifically, I wonder if their uncluttered minds had room for spiritual connections that our modern, media-focused culture has managed to squeeze out. There really is no knowing, but by removing myself from social media for a while I’ve created the tiniest bit of space in which to ponder these questions. It’s a small space, but it seems important, the way wilderness is important, and worthy of protection.