A parent’s perspective
How many of us have made the mistake of comparing our family and children with some other family down the road or someone else’s children? My own late mother did it, I’ve done it and I’d say most parents have engaged in comparisons at some stage or another. When I was young, the shining example was Ann, who lived about five minutes away. Ann was the striking example of the industrious child. She was always cleaning and scrubbing, dusting and ironing. In my young mind, she appeared to be every mother’s dream. Of course, poor Ann had no idea of the lofty pedestal that she’d been placed upon. There was no way any normal child could ever aspire to be like Ann and even Ann couldn’t possibly have been as perfect as the image I’d created in my imagination. No doubt my mother had no inkling of my childish conceptions. I’m sure she was referring to this helpful, kindly girl in an effort to urge me and my siblings on to greater efforts in helping in the house. Her plan was doomed to failure as, when someone is built up too much, instead of attempting to follow in their footsteps, we often just believe that their standard is way out of reach.
In our present times, there isn’t just one Ann; social media presents us with thousands of Anns, in all sorts of guises, and that sense of not quite measuring up is pervasive. Ubiquitous public posts, often from one’s Catholic circles or contacts, paint images of domestic bliss. I’ve done it myself, posting up well-posed photographs of cherubic smiles, moments in time that appear picture perfect with no clue as to what was going on before or after. Most of us can view the airbrushed editions of family life we see on Facebook and Instagram as equivalent to the best photos in a family album. For others, whose family circumstances are a constant challenge, or who struggle with mental health issues or poor self-esteem, the constant status updates take their toll. One young woman I spoke with said that sites like Instagram just convinced her of everything she was missing out on, be it a wide circle of friends or a scintillating social diary. Of course we can’t expect people to stop spreading their joy just because it may contribute to another’s feeling of isolation or exclusion, but we can reflect on how much our social media presence mirrors our Christianity.
An article on the website of the Diocese of Burlington in the US has the thought-provoking title Being Catholic Online: Is there a theology of social media? It suggests that there is and quotes Pope Francis from his 2016 World Communications Day message, “It is not technology that determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”
It’s so easy for those of us who use social media to fall into the trap of a showy self-promotion. Are we genuinely using Catholic Twitter or Instagram or Facebook to spread an authentic Gospel message or are we more interested in followers and fans? The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference website offers some great principles for parishes on how to engage on social media that could apply to all of us. These ten tips include pondering before you post, thinking before you Tweet and thinking inspiration before sharing on Instagram. Often, we rush to respond or to post our opinion without thinking of how our words affect others. As it says in the guidelines, “You are what you share, be careful how you represent yourself online…” This is particularly important; are we seeking to foster friendships and unite people or are we ego driven, determined to have the last word on an issue even if we are creating division and ill will? It’s easy to forget that anything we post may not be easy to retract and contributes to how we’re perceived, perhaps even years later when some hastily posted comment becomes a source of embarrassment. Catholics should foster good friendships, not factions. Does it really matter if someone is in some particular Catholic society and their friend is in another? Christians should be known for their Christlike love of others so, issue that invitation, give someone a chance to be part of your circle and resist cliques that are centred on status, popularity and petty power plays. If you’re the person who feels inferior after checking up on social media, adjust your perspective and try to be more proactive. Instead of waiting for people to reach out, be the one who tries to build Christian communities, both on and offline. Watch out for events, book clubs, prayer groups and conferences and go a little outside your comfort zone by getting involved. Back in 2012, Pope Benedict XVI called for the “relentless chatter of the internet to be balanced by silence and contemplation”. Instead of stressing about how others act on online forums we can take his advice and seek out the sites which “can help people today to find time for reflection and authentic questioning, as well as making space for silence and occasions for prayer, meditation and the sharing of the word of God”.
With our eye on the true goal, what anyone else does, or appears to be doing, on social media will be very much a secondary concern.