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Social Media: Are We Excarnating Ourselves Online?

February 18, AD2014

\"Joel

Mystery: from Latin mysterium or Greek mystērion. Various definitions suggest something secret, private, or not easily understood.

We all probably know someone whose life seems to be lived completely online. Always at the top of our Facebook news feed: pics of my new haircut, what’s for dinner tonight, my weight loss updates, before and after pics of our latest redecorating project, where we’re going for date night, what we’re eating for dessert right now, my every political opinion, you wouldn’t believe what’s my boss just said, shout out to my BFF who is awesome, the occasional mini-rant about life in general. You get the idea – it goes on and on and on. There is no mystery.

Each of these “updates” is not necessarily bad in isolation. However, when it becomes part of the litany of What’s Up With Me, one might begin to wonder if anything is off-limits. It is rather easy to stray into overshare, because each one seems innocuous. We have done it ourselves. Actually Lisa, but whatever. This is not about pointing fingers. Being at home all day with three children five-years-old and younger can make one long to reach out for some adult interaction in any way possible.

That’s when it’s time to pause and reflect a bit. Is this real human interaction or just a pale substitute for it? Maybe it is time to schedule a playdate or an outing with some good friends. Enjoy one another’s presence. Share some good conversation and laughs, the kind of stuff one just cannot quite get online.

One might suggest that in ages past, people simply wrote letters rather than Facebooking, Tweeting, or Instagramming, so the dynamic has not really changed, only the medium of communication. However, the differences are significant. Letters are usually one-to-one communication rather than a broadcast of personal information. They are typically used to reach out to someone about whom the writer cares very much, but cannot easily visit in person.

A handwritten letter even has something of an incarnational quality. Sitting down and picking up a pen to put words on a page is a very intentional act. The penmanship of the writer is personal and unique. The paper and envelope, which might be specifically chosen, even have a physical presence; the recipient actually holds and feels them. There’s even the smell of the ink. A personal, handwritten letter is a multi-sensory experience that respects our nature.

That physical dimension is precisely what social media misses. It does not have the same personal touch or tactile experience of a letter. The laptop, tablet, or smartphone always looks, feels, and smells the same regardless of the information one is consuming through it. The sensory experience of presence is all but eliminated. Besides, do we really want others to learn everything they know about us through the same portal they read political news, get sports scores, and view Internet porn? Surely, we are worth more than that.

What are we doing to ourselves as we learn to settle for this type of communication? Bit-by-bit, we are removing others’ primary knowledge of us from the experience of being with us. We are slowly excarnating ourselves.

The Church has something to offer here in the sacraments, which cannot be received virtually. A physical encounter must take place. Our actual presence is required, along with that of a minister. Through the sacraments, God pours out His grace in us while cooperating with our senses: the pouring of water in baptism, the words of absolution in reconciliation, the holding of hands and speaking of vows in marriage, anointing with oil in several of them. Seriously, who doesn’t love the smell of chrism?

The Eucharist takes God’s respect for our sensory nature to an even greater level. Jesus Christ makes Himself mysteriously, physically available for us to consume under the appearance of bread and wine. Nothing virtual about that. In fact, it is the most intimate personal encounter we can possibly have.

Think about what a sacrament is: a sense-perceptible sign of an invisible spiritual reality. God did not have to lower Himself and take on flesh to effect our salvation. But the Incarnation is what He chose; that is the mystery. Jesus Christ was born, ate, drank, walked, spoke, wrote, preached, hugged, healed, suffered, and died. While He walked the earth, Jesus was the sacramental presence of God. Jesus then left us the Church as His enduring, physical presence. The Church is the sacrament of Jesus.

It follows then that if a person is comprised of both body and soul, the body is holy because it is effectively a sacrament of the person. When we allow so much of our lives to become virtual, when we regularly disconnect who we are from our physical presence, we are effectively saying that none of that matters.

Social media is not inherently bad. In fact, it is neutral – it is just a tool. It all depends upon how we use it. We can use it to evangelize what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI described as “the digital continent.” We can use it to keep in touch with family and friends who are dear to us but we no longer see regularly, perhaps due to geographical separation. Both of those are decidedly good. What we cannot allow is our virtual activities and relationships to take the place of real, physical, in-the-flesh ones. Substituting pixels for presence disrespects our nature.

How do you draw healthy boundaries around your virtual activities? We welcome your suggestions in the comments.

© 2014. Joel and Lisa Schmidt. All rights reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Joel and Lisa Schmidt co-founded The Practicing Catholic, an antidote to the perception that piety is boring or that the Church is filled with “sour-faced saints”. In their writings, the Schmidts provide witness to the adventure of living an integrated Catholic life ... not just on Sundays. For more about the Schmidts, please see their individual bios (Joel's bio; Lisa's bio).

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  • Mary Anne Cole

    Thank you so much for writing about this issue. I have been having thoughts and feelings about this for some time. I so appreciate getting to know others and keeping in touch with them via the Internet (email, Fb), but I really miss personal, direct communication. I feel pressured by Fb to spend my whole life on it. If I am not careful, I will not have time for fact-to-face encounters with others. There is no adequate substitute for a real hug, handshake, smile, sound of voice, etc. I refuse to write intimate personal information on Fb which broadcasts it to the whole world. I save that for personal encounters with others. When I have to choose between Fb and personal encounters, I neglect Fb.

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  • David Peters

    Joel and Lisa I really appreciate this article. You have addressed a topic that we all need to look at. It’s true that social media removes the element of presence, and that God gives us His presence through the sacraments. Social media also allows people to build their own communities (in a virtual sense), when family and churches should be the foundation of our “community”. I think we become too isolated when we think we are connected! Thanks for sharing your insights.