Catholics have this thing called Lent. Yes, yes, I know, they’re not the only ones, but they do it up like nobody else, actually giving up something that brings them pleasure for 40-odd days. That’s every single day, no “cheat days”, no starting over, just straight-up personal sacrifice. Or that's the ideal, anyway. Growing up in a Lutheran house, all we had to give up for Lent was one extra hour a week to go to church on Wednesday evenings, and even that was strictly optional. Seems rather paltry in comparison.
Maybe not all Catholics take their Lenten sacrifices so seriously, but I happen to live with one who does. I’ve seen the struggle up close, and I’ve developed an appreciation for this old ritual. Every major religion prescribes some type of fasting and I think they're all onto something. Making some kind of personal sacrifice for some relatively lengthy amount of time makes people better - more selfless, more focused on the things that matter. So, while I'm not Catholic, I've decided to embrace the Lenten sacrifice this year and give up social media (by which I mostly mean Facebook) for the next 40-some days.
Recently, the Catholic and I spent a couple nights watching movies about how screens and technology are taking over the world. The first, World of Tomorrow, is a short animated film that is a terribly depressing and also occasionally hilarious picture of humanity’s eventual technological devolution. The second is Werner Herzog’s documentary, Lo and Behold, about the actual, real-life history and future prospects of the internet. If you have Netflix, go watch them, at least the first one. If you don't have Netflix, read this a.v. club review of World of Tomorrow, which includes a couple clips and an overall summary. Though I warn you that it may plunge you into a deep pit of existential despair about the state of humanity.
Snow people after watching the above mentioned films.
I had already been considering giving up facebook for a while; watching these two films solidified that decision. Scrolling through facebook might not be directly leading to the downfall of civilization, but on a daily basis it is contributing to a reduction in my quality of life. While I do appreciate seeing personal updates from people I care about on facebook, I end up spending more hours than I want to admit looking at stupid memes, getting outraged (momentarily) at the latest bit of dumbfuckery from this administration, watching videos of how to make bacon-wrapped cream cheese peanut butter cups, and clicking through quiz questions just to prove how Minnesotan or find out which Golden Girl I am. None of this is really worth my time, time that could be so much better spent - writing, reading, making music, playing with my son, having conversations with my partner, staring blankly out the window at the actual world.
Lent begins with the Ash Wednesday service, during which parishioners get their foreheads smudged with ashes and are reminded that “to dust they shall return”, that someday they too will die. Some of us are reminded of this every day, regardless. A bird flies overhead and caws and you think "shit, that bird is going to die and so am I." Or your newly walking child comes to you and lies his head on your leg and smiles up at you with all the love in the world and you think "shit, even he is going to die someday" and hope to hell it doesn't happen to him before you. Or you realize you've spent an hour looking at stupid shit on facebook and think about how that could have been your last pathetic hour on earth.
So, maybe the ashen reminder of death isn't strictly necessary, but sometimes the ritual is. I could give up facebook anytime (says the addict), but using the centuries-old framework of ritual personal sacrifice to wrench myself, at least partly, away from this digital world feels infinitely appropriate. I think I can survive for 40-some days without social media. In fact, I think I’ll be a better person for it. And if that isn’t the point of outdated religious rituals, I don’t know what is.
Until Easter, then, the facebook app is deleted from my phone and the site is verboten on my computer. I’ll report back here about how it goes.