Learning to be Here: Reflections on a Facebook Sabbatical and Being Present

Recently, I opted to take my first ever legitimate sabbatical from Facebook. For two weeks, I deactivated my account and deleted shortcuts to the site and applications on all of my devices. This move was part of a larger effort I’ve been making to be more present in my new life in Chicago and less mired in thoughts about all the people I love and lives I’ve lived in places far away. One friend suggested that when I came back to the social media world, I might share what I learned in my endeavor to be more present—so on the off chance that this might be helpful for someone else, I’m sharing my reflections.

Did my break from Facebook change my outlook on life/social media/the present? Well, yes and no. I thought about Facebook a fair amount over the 2 weeks I was skipping out, but I never got the sense I was really missing anything. I did discover that if you’re inclined to waste time on the internet, there are 1001 other ways to do so and frankly, I’m not even sure Facebook was where I wasting most of my internet time to begin with.

On the other hand, in my last 3 days before my sabbatical, I posted roughly 15 times, at least 3 of which were about quitting Facebook. By contrast, I rejoined the site 3 days ago and—as of this writing—haven’t posted a status update yet. Though I know I was an extreme case, I seemed to have become someone who operated under the idea that “I think therefore I Facebook.” On my time off, I often had thoughts or experiences that would normally have resulted in clever long-winded social media posts. Without that option available to me (okay, there were a few instagrams…), I was left to appreciate these moments all by myself, or else share them with select friends via text, phone call, or in person over beer or coffee. God forbid.

The work of making this switch, I realized, is the work of recognizing that each moment is valuable for its own self. It’s just as valuable if the whole world doesn’t know about it and what it means to you, or even if no one knows. To think otherwise—to buy in (consciously or unconsciously) to the myth that “it isn’t official unless it’s Facebook official”—is to undermine the very value that you’re trying to name by sharing about the experience.

Related to this, two other practices I engaged in in the absence of Facebook were a daily journal and no [non-worktime] to-do lists. My daily journal is just that: a small notebook in which I dedicate one page for each day and write down/draw what happened, big thoughts I thought, impressions, feelings etc. The goal in starting this journal was to recognize that each day was full of life—and perhaps stop mulling over what a fuller life or different life might look like. There were some days, especially recently, when I was too busy living to even fill that one small page. I’m taking that as a good sign.

My abstinence from to-do lists also had an unexpectedly revelatory effect. Without being able to decide in advance and carefully control the parameters of productivity for my day, I was forced to ask myself whether a day could be good and valuable even if—in fact—nothing productive happened at all. Could a day be valuable just purely for itself, without necessarily having any impact on anyone else or any other day? Honestly, my enneagram type-3 personality wants to shout “NO!” but, I think that impulse is both wrong and dangerous. Understanding life is a gift means recognizing that every moment you get is a gift all by itself. Not having a to-do list forced me to recognize that I could experience each moment and each day fully only if I’m willing to trust that all the other moments and days will take care of themselves.

Another practice I took on was to refrain from all spoilers. In some ways this is probably a bit unique to me—I don’t know anyone else who spends as much time reading about movies, books, tv shows, etc. My running line when people ask if I’ve seen or read something is, “No, but I’ve read about it.” I haven’t given this up entirely, because my trivia team would kill me – but I have opted out of knowing what’s going to happen before I experience something. There’s so much information available to us these days that it’s easy to try and control things by knowing about them in advance. Without these life spoilers, you have to take each moment as it comes. And even though it can be scary (especially for a type-A control freak like me), it’s yet another way to realize the value that each individual moment carries as it delivers your own uniquely unfolding life to you.

Whether it’s because of these practices, or just the changing of the seasons—I do feel like I’ve turned a corner in the past few weeks. For awhile I’ve felt like my life was basically a game of Mao. Mao is a card game where only the leader (Mao) knows the rules and other players learn the rules and how to play the game by losing repeatedly. When I first started playing Mao the summer I lived in Guatemala in college, it frustrated me like crazy to not know and understand everything. But the thrill of figuring it out and finally learning how to play made it one of my favorite games ever.

These last couple of weeks, as I’m enjoying a new season (Fall was always my favorite as a kid) that wasn’t even a part of my life in Texas, I can feel my life in Chicago beginning to come together. There’s so much I still haven’t figured out, but I am making friends and learning my job and, piece by piece, building a life here. And just like in Mao, it’s not just about winning the game—figuring out how to play is pretty amazing too.

All of this processing and living over the last few weeks has helped me realize that there is nothing wrong with my life now and there is no where else that I should be instead. The truth is that I had a very good, beautiful life (though not perfect) in seminary and in Austin. That life, such as it was, is gone. It’s not off in Texas waiting for me to come back—it doesn’t exist anymore. And so what’s hard isn’t me being in the wrong place or even a not-as-good place—it’s just grief for what is gone. And grief deserves its space and time to be felt. Grief is how you know something was important and valuable and that it happened and that you loved it.

But I’ve been reading this book called Finding Voice with my supervisor and it’s really helped me to keep perspective on this whole transition process. It’s really for people in their field ed/SPM internship (Paul Hooker – I highly recommend it!), but since my context is also time-limited and based on being new to ministry, it’s proving very valuable. There’s one chapter about appreciating where you are. The author talks about Jesus sending out the disciples and telling them, “whatever town or village you enter, stay there until you leave” (Matt 10:11). It seems obvious but it’s harder than it sounds! Still, this is my practice and my living: to let myself, finally, leave Austin behind and be fully here in Chicago—and to stay here until it is time, once again, to leave.

So am I totally done with social media? Clearly not. Connections across the world and the systems that make it possible are important and valuable things. I’m grateful for what Facebook and other sites allow me to have in terms of long distance community. But I’m also grateful for what’s right in front of me and I don’t want to miss it. As always, everything in moderation and if I lose sight of that, I’ll take another step back.

In the meantime, I’m following Dorothy’s lead:

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

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2 thoughts on “Learning to be Here: Reflections on a Facebook Sabbatical and Being Present

  1. Many good insights in such a short time, Layton. I stopped making ‘to do’ lists several years ago and felt amazing freedom. Still do.

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