This summer, while on sabbatical from my work as a minister, I decided to disconnect from social media. Completely. Like, not even trolling. Those who know me know how monumental a decision this was for me. I’m usually on Facebook like paparazzi on a Kardashian. I had several church members seriously doubt if I could do it, and several more concerned about my mental state if I actually did it. “Will you be OK?” “What will you do?”
Fair question. Email and social media take up a good chunk of my time and attention. I spin this by saying it’s part of my ministry. I often learn more about a church member’s circumstances through their Facebook posts than through our face-to-face interactions on Sunday morning. Through my “likes” and comments, I can offer support, encouragement, prayers, and reminders of God’s presence.
That’s the official answer to why I was on Facebook so much. The unofficial answer? I was afraid of being bored. My generation was the first to be introduced to the personal computer, which provided the life-changing option of a second screen (beyond the good ol’ boob tube). Two shiny, flashing things to hold my attention? Hello, multi-tasking! In college, it wasn’t unusual to find me with the TV on, typing on a computer, reading a book, and sometimes playing a CD in the background. It’s amazing I ever graduated.
But now, my brain is conditioned to focus on several things at once. Checking Facebook, sending a text message, watching Netflix, writing a sermon…often at the same time and in that order of focus. Because of this, I don’t calm easily. My mantra is, “Be still…but first check that notification.” I knew, going into sabbatical, that for my time away to be fruitful, I needed to remove some of the distractions that keep me from settling. So, for three months, no Facebook. No work email. No groan-inducing puns. No comments on my woeful Reds. My screen went blank.
Almost immediately, I was bored. “Well, NOW what do I do?” my over-functioning brain said as it ran in circles like a dog chasing its tail. No dings or chimes. No little red numbers on my apps signifying someone wanted my attention. No chance to comment on cute baby pictures or friends’ running logs.
When I once complained to my step-father that I had nothing to do, he responded, “Only small minds get bored.” I took it as an insult at the time (come to think of it, it probably was!) but now I sense a deeper truth there. The creative side of my brain had atrophied due to years of bombardment from numbing stimuli, so that when that switch was flipped off, my brain took a while to reorient, like a person groping their way through the dark until their eyes adjust.
But when I did finally adjust, something sparked inside me. Here’s the best way I can get at it, thanks to British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who wrote this about boredom and children: “Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching toward a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which is real desire can crystallize…the capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for a child.”
Or a multi-tasking, screen-using, social-media addict like me. With social media no longer an option, when I came to a stopping point in my day, I didn’t have the option of filling that void with a news feed or status update. I just had to sit with lack of something to do, which was very unnerving for this “go-go-go” guy.
You probably don’t remember the big-budget movie from 1989 called “The Abyss.” There’s a scene where Ed Harris is preparing for a radically deep sea dive, and in order to prepare, he has to fill his lungs with a special liquid that will allow him to breath at dangerous depths. As his lungs fill with the fluid, he starts thrashing about like he’s drowning, unable to breathe. At one point, he loses consciousness. But a few seconds later, he revives, breathing at a normal rate with this special liquid in his lungs.
For me, boredom was that liquid. At first, as it filled the space within me, I started thrashing about, fighting back against what felt like suffocation. But once I let the boredom fill me, I started to breathe. I mean deep, deep breaths, the kind you take when you come up for air from an underwater handstand, or when you leave a musty conference room and walk out into a sunny day.
My boredom drove me to recapture some of the creative focus I had lost over years of multi-tasking. I started writing again, voraciously. I devoured books like they were slathered with BBQ sauce. I went to worship, spent time with my family, traveled, goofed around. I did some cool things. What I didn’t do was pull out my phone every five seconds to check for updates. I didn’t fall down click-bait rabbit holes about hidden messages in “Avenger” movies or the 10 ugliest celebs without makeup. I didn’t take pictures of what I saw in order to post it on Facebook. I actually SAW what I was seeing. Without the stimulus of social media, I was able to think my own thoughts, instead of commenting on someone else’s. I was able to be present in the moment, not pre-occupied about how this would play to my “friends.” And – thank God for small gifts – I was able to avoid all political commentary. Lord, help us.
I’m back from sabbatical now and back on social media. As much as it may sound like an attempt to rationalize (or “rational lies”), it IS a ministry tool for me. But with my Facebook fast under my belt, I’m better able to draw lines around my social media usage, leaving time in my life for the things I’ve rediscovered that truly feed me or help me take a step forward in my faith. As Phillips said, in that empty time I can feel my hope being negotiated as I both wait for something and look for something. What is that something? Well now, I guess I’ll just have to be bored a little more to find out.
 Phillips, Adam. On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life. 1998.