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Three cures for the ‘selfie age’

This blog was originally posted by a Coracle board member, Soren Johnson, at this site.

Here is a bit of non-news: Americans today are decidedly overwhelmed, self-absorbed and hyper-social. We download apps to monitor our breathing, sleeping and our every move. We are overscheduled. We pull out our smart phones at every pause rather than subject ourselves to solitude.

So, in conversations with priests and lay leaders over the past few months, I conducted an informal survey: What are the top three remedies to counter our “selfie” culture and what author Brigid Schulte calls “the overwhelm”? 

The results are in. If I could, I’d happily launch an app to track one’s daily progress in these three areas. These remedies offer us a repair kit — if applied for 10 minutes every morning, as a weekend retreat, or even during your commute — that will tilt the scales away from “the overwhelm” and self-absorption and toward a better life.

1. Silence. I recently had to borrow a friend’s car for several days. The sound system had gone out, and each monastic drive revealed to me the extent to which I have grown accustomed to a droning background din of music and words.

This ought to be alarming. Silence, after all, is the precondition for hearing the voice of God. Even the best marriage falters within months, if not weeks, if the spouses do not turn down the static to look one another in the eyes and truly listen. Likewise, the craft of growing in the faith requires large swaths of silence — not as an end in itself but as a means to quieting the heart and inviting the voice of God.

“(God) transcends the social,” writes Mark Bauerlein in a penetrating, recent First Things essay entitled “Prayer in the Facebook Age”: “and you must seek Him beyond the medium of ‘share’ and ‘like.’ In solitary prayer, the secular pleasures dissipate, and the successes of social media melt into nothingness. You drop your social self.”

Dropping our social selves requires silence — even Jesus made time for it. The menace of “overwhelm,” selfie culture and boredom are all curbed by silence.

2. Gratitude. The state of grace is also a state of gratitude. Nothing lances the lie of our so-called busyness, tedium or selfishness like an examination of gratitude — a thoughtful and honest review of what, in fact, the Lord has entrusted to us. The more honest this examination, the more Our Lord will appear to us as He truly is: a God of untold generosity.

St. Augustine depicted sin in a telling turn of phrase: incurvatus in se — “curved in on oneself.” Like an ingrown toenail, the absence of gratitude festers. An act of gratitude — a thank-you note, a call, a “thank you” — brings about the opposite.

A recent study shows that turning one’s head downward at 60 degrees to check a smart phone exerts 60 pounds of pressure on the neck — we are incurvatus in se, you might say, when we look down and away from others. In a posture of gratitude — with our heads upright and our eyes connecting with others — our necks bear only the 10-12 pound weight of our heads. Our bodies seem designed for gratitude.

3. Humility. Over and over in my survey, the “Litany of Humility” was cited as the remedy par excellence to the roiling self-importance and narcissism of our age. People swore by it. Like former addicts citing the cure to their freedom, they extolled this 200-word prayer. Some admitted that when they fall off the wagon — neglecting this prayer for a few days — the relapse is ugly.

“From the desire of being praised, deliver me, O Jesus,” goes the prayer. “From the desire of being approved, deliver me, O Jesus” the prayer continues, penned decades before “likes” and “fans” and “connections” entered the parlance and became so-called metrics of our status. And just in case the message hasn’t yet struck us like a two-by-four, the prayer continues, “That others may be praised and I unnoticed … Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.” However, the prayer’s author, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, mercifully builds in a kind of reprieve. In asking Jesus to “grant me the grace to desire it,” he allows us to glimpse the fact that such a desire is, in itself, a “grace.” We can’t achieve it on our own. Jesus must grant it. This desire is a gift for which we must pray.

More silence, more gratitude and more humility: Jesus, grant me the grace to desire them.

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