Tag Archives: Connection

Faith in A Digital Age

This is a series of classes I created for my congregation in January and February 2019 that I captured digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class. Below are links to the eight sessions that the class covered.

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully

Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

 

Dating and Relationships in a Digital Age

Session 7: Dating and Relationships in a Digital Age

This is the seventh part of an eight-part series on faith in a digital age. The outline of the series is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully

Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

In 2010 a relationship that I thought would last suddenly ended. I had been married for thirteen years, had two kids and suddenly I found myself a single dad and for the first time since my early twenties having to enter the world of dating and relationships again. When I reentered this world, I found that it had changed dramatically and one of the big portions of this change was the introduction of dating platforms like Match, eHarmony and many more. I would find the right person several years later and I have been happily remarried for the last couple of years but as I was thinking about the scope of this class, I thought it was important to revisit this time and think about how the digital age has changed the way we think about relationships and connection. How do we find friends, date and build the connections we need to have a good life?

In the past we met most of our friends and relationships in life through the communities we were a part of: school, church, neighborhoods, hobbies and groups of people who shared either a common goal or beliefs. Occasionally a friend or a relation would play matchmaker and connect you with someone who they felt would be a good possibility for a partner or you would meet someone at a bar or dancehall or other common gathering place, but even there you had some context for the person you were meeting. Our social networks were the places where we met people. If you lived in a smaller community you may have known everyone who was a possibility to date or to be friends with, it was a smaller pool but you knew all the fish swimming in it. In a city like the one I currently live in, Frisco a suburb or Dallas, where not only is the population larger but people also come home, close their garages and may not interact with their neighbors it can be difficult to form connections. Many people spend longer at work and retreat to home and may not feel like they have time to be connected with a larger group where they can be in a relationship with.

As we discuss dating platforms, I’m going to draw an analogy from social media and its world of connection: there is a difference in the level of connection I have from someone who I interact with on a daily basis and a friend who may know me predominantly through social media. I may have several hundred Facebook friends from the places I’ve lived, schools I’ve attended, congregations I’ve served, my time in the military and frequently people who I’ve interacted with once or twice. The pool of connections is broader but it is also not as deep: I have more contacts but many of those contacts are fairly weak connections. As we look into relationships that begin on a dating platform you are beginning with a broader pool of candidates who may be possible connections but the initial connection with any of them is much weaker than even a person you meet one time in another way. One of the differences of beginning that first meeting is that you have less shared connection and investment as the relationship begins.

With online dating you do have a broader pool and that can be a positive thing, especially if you are a person who is for various reasons forbidden from forming relationships in the places you spend most of your time. As a pastor, for example, I spend most of my time working with the congregation I serve but for many ethical reasons I am not allowed to date people who are a part of the congregation I serve. There is the possibility that you will meet people who you would never meet otherwise. The other reality is that many people feel permission to be more vulnerable interacting through a dating site and initially conversing through messages and texts rather than the awkward interactions face to face that we may have. We are all seeking connection with another person, we all want to be loved and valued and desired and sometimes it is easier to take a risk when you are interacting with people who seem to be in the same position of seeking a relationship or a connection.

With the larger pool you will encounter rejection and you will be ignored sometimes. There are times where you will send a message to someone or several people and wonder if any of them are still on the site or whether their profiles are just remnants leftover from people who once were seekers. I know that I can be a little naïve, but I ended up in one situation where I was chatting with someone and then they invited me to another site which I quickly realized was an adult site and I let them know that wasn’t what I was looking for but there is always the possibility that we can go looking for love and find something different, people who are using the site for commercial reasons. People can find and stumble into things they wouldn’t otherwise.

As we discussed in our discussion of email, we employ sorting methods because we are overwhelmed with information and we do the same thing with the broader pool in online dating. We frequently evaluate people very quickly to see if they might be a possible connection and the most common method of sorting is based on photographs and the person’s physical looks. Some sites, like Tinder, are almost exclusively based on looks. Yet one of the things that came out of my discussions with my congregation about what they valued about the person they were in a relationship with was that looks were not the primary thing: it was an action, a kindness, something in the person’s character, something that took a little longer to see that made them the person they wanted to spend their life with. I’m not saying that looks are unimportant, but they are not the only or even the main thing that will make a relationship last.

When people put a profile up on a dating site it is also helpful to remember it is a representation of the person, it is not the actual person. As we discussed in our last two discussions when building a virtual identity, we place out on the internet what we want others to see. Sometimes people will talk about themselves in ways that may not be accurate and there are times when even a person’s pictures may not be a good representation of who they are. We often see pictures taken at the best angle and in the best lighting and they may not be recent pictures. There is always the possibility that the person we are corresponding with is not entirely who they seem to be.

While the broader pool can be a good thing, I think it is helpful to bring up the paradox of choice when we think about dating online. Most people believe that more choices will make them happier but psychologists when studying choice actually find the reverse: more choices make us less satisfied with the decision we eventually make. For a popular culture reference I’m going to turn to shows like the Bachelor or the Bachelorette where a man or woman is surrounded by approximately twenty attractive and successful potential partners and through a series of experiences and dates they are expected to pick their eventual spouse. You would think with a capable and attractive set of choices that the person would ultimately end up with a partner they would be happy with but these relationships rarely last. Part of the dynamic of choice is when we are presented with several attractive choices, we often think about the choice we didn’t make when we are engaging the choice we did, so on a first date you might be evaluating the person you are sitting with at the same time you consider others you interacted with before meeting this person. It can cheapen the engagement we are in if we are continually wondering how this person compares with others who may be possibilities. One of the other dynamics I experienced was that often people were dating multiple people at the same time attempting to see who would be the best fit for a relationship (or they may not have been seeking a single relationship). Ultimately, we all have to set boundaries of what we are willing to do based on what we are looking for but it is helpful to realize that not everyone is seeking the same thing.

One of the things in society that has changed dramatically is the age when people enter into permanent relationships. For women the average age of a first marriage is now 27.4 and for a man it is 29.5 years old, which is a long time for people to spend dating and seeking. One of the struggles this introduces in a religious and ethical realm is that most religions expected people to wait to have sex until after people married which was easier when the age of marriage was closer to the age when people become sexually interested. When societal pressures of education and career have postponed the age of marriage it makes this a struggle for a lot of people.

I have found that people often enter into relationships with unrealistic expectations. Part of my work as a pastor is counseling couples who are getting married and then also helping couples who are struggling in a relationship and it has caused me to continue to look at what makes relationships work. Sometimes the language we use around relationships gives us this expectation: we look for a soulmate or someone who completes me and if we expect another person to complete us, they will let us down. They will let us down not because they are bad people or because they do anything wrong, but if there is something that you are expecting another person to fill up in you, if they continually have to fill up your sense of worthiness, they will be unable to always do so. The initial emotions of a relationship can make us feel whole but nobody can sustain that level of feeling throughout a long and healthy relationship. It will be exhausting for the partner of a person who has to make a person feel worthy and loved and whole all the time.

I’ve also seen lots of times where the internet can interfere with relationships that have existed for a long time. When you enter into a relationship with someone you build trust and you put a lot of energy into the relationship, but our partner cannot fill all of our needs-we still need connections with friends, family, and people we work and interact with. Yet, there need to be boundaries for trust to remain intact. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many relationships broken because someone began seeking something that should’ve been kept within the relationship with another person. Sometimes this happens in the digital world, where a person in a relationship stays connected on a dating platform or reconnects with an ‘old flame’ on Facebook or another social media platform. Another struggle I’ve seen couples have is with the availability of sexual material online and couple encounter this differently. For some couples this may be viewed as a breaking of trust and others it is not, but it is something that can cause struggles in relationships and can make a partner feel unattractive and unloved.

Trust is something that can easily be broken. Trust is really the currency in any relationship and to use Brené Brown’s metaphor of trust being a jar of marbles that we slowly fill up different things impact that trust that we have. Something like an affair shatters the jar and the marbles are lost and that is why it is so difficult to rebuild a relationship after an affair, because trust is lost and it takes a long time to rebuild that trust. Other times trust is lost is lost in little moments where the person feels ignored, not valued, and feel that we are distant from them. Trust is built in those moments when we notice and pay attention to what is important to the other person.

We are all people who are formed for connection. We are all people who have value and worth but want that value and worth affirmed by others. Relationships can be both wonderful and challenging and the digital age presents both opportunities and challenges for relationships. It is easy to judge others on their relationship, but this is an area where people struggle throughout their lives. We want to be in a relationship but most of us have not been trained in how to make relationships work. It is hard work to build a relationship that will last.

Discussion Questions

  1. If you’ve had a relationship that lasted for a long period of time, what was it about that person that made you think they might be a good partner? Was there something they did or something about who they were that made them attractive to you?
  2. What is great about being in a relationship? What are challenges of being in a relationship?
  3. Have you ever had a time where having lots of choices seemed overwhelming or when you second guessed a choice you made? Have you ever experienced this in a relationship?
  4. How did someone earn your trust? Can you think of things that people did that made it hard to trust them?
  5. What interferes with relationships? What struggles do you think cause relationships to fail?
  6. Is there some wisdom about relationships that you would impart to your younger self based on your experiences?

 

 

Social Media and the Projecting and Mining of the Digital Self

Session 6: Social Media and the Projecting and Mining of the Digital Self

This is the sixth part of a now eight-part series on faith in a digital age. The outline of the series is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: The Internet the Backbone of the Digital Age
Week four: The Impact of the Internet and Engaging it faithfully

Week five: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week six: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week seven: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week eight: The dangers of a digital age

This is a series of classes I’ve been teaching with my congregation that I’ve been attempting to capture digitally so that they could be used by other communities or small groups or for members who are unable to be present in class.

We discussed briefly in session four about our digital identity, how we place a reflection of ourselves out in the digital world when we engage with the internet and with digital technology. As we enter the world of social media the projection of ourselves into the digital world encompasses a larger portion of our life. We project an avatar of ourselves, an icon or representation of what we choose to reveal of ourselves to represent ourselves in this digital world. We share certain pieces of our lives and our network of connections so others can see. At the same time, we project this representation of ourselves that projection is being examined and mined by others, including advertisers, to understand how to relate to us. Prior to social media what we shared digitally, with some exceptions, was passive-others may gather information about searches or websites we went to but normally we weren’t voluntarily sharing this information. With the beginning of social media sites, we began actively sharing a lot of data: from pictures to political opinions, from the places we go and the food we eat to our connections with other people. We can use this to stay connected but we also receive a lot of junk. People value pictures and the connections we have with the people who are important to us, but we also have to sort through a lot of information that may not be valuable to us.

When we use social media, it can create a lot of strong feelings for the user. We can feel connected, valued, loved or conversely, we can feel disconnected, angry, shamed or excluded. Sometimes it leads us into temptation by copying life we see others showing us and it can also make us feel inadequate. Other times, it can feel like we are being taunted or bullied. There is always the possibility that when we share a piece of our life digitally that we will be judged, just like we could be in the real world. All of these feelings of happiness and unhappiness are real and yet for many people there is a strong almost addictive draw to these platforms.

We can’t talk about social media without discussing the basic human need for connection. As humans we are social creatures and our brains are wired to want connection with other people. We want to feel liked, loved, valued, safe and seen by others. We will do some incredible things for this connection. This is why young people will join a gang, because by being a part of the gang they have a family of people and they have some value. This is part of the reason that people will go through the physical ordeal and sometimes hazing to be a part of a team or a group. It is also one of the reasons that we will go to incredible lengths for those who we love as family and those who we have romantic feelings for. One of the things that has been coming out in research lately is one of the greatest predictors of longevity is a strong set of social connections. A lack of social connections has been shown to be a stronger predictor of an early death than many things like environmental pollution or smoking.

When we feel connected it is a powerful thing to our brains. Think back to a time when you fell in love and because of the love you felt everything felt right in the world. When your brain feels safe, valued, and loved the chemical reaction in your brain is a powerful thing which is one of the reasons we seek these feelings so much. Conversely, when we’ve had our heart broken, when we’ve been rejected or ridiculed or shamed this is an equally powerful negative experience. We seek connection and we fear disconnection and sometimes the fear of disconnection is even greater than our fear of physical harm or death.

To talk about connection, I’m going to rely on the work of Brené Brown who teaches at the University of Houston in the Social Work department. In her research she looked for what made people feel connected, but when she asked about connection people would share their experiences of disconnection. These experiences of disconnection she would eventually come to label as shame. She defines shame as, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experiencing of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging.” (emphasis authors) and she lays out twelve categories of shame that frequently emerge in her research:

  • Appearance and Body Image
  • Money and Work
  • Motherhood/Fatherhood
  • Family
  • Parenting
  • Mental and Physical Health
  • Addiction
  • Sex
  • Aging
  • Religion
  • Surviving Trauma
  • Being Stereotyped of Labeled(Brown, 2012, p. 69)

Some of these twelve categories of shame are organized along gender lines and social expectations of gender roles. For example, appearance and body image is more likely to be a source of shame for women while money and work is more likely to be a source of shame for men.

Women and men experience shame differently. Brené Brown describes shame for women as a web of competing expectations and demands: how they are supposed to look, how they are supposed to act, how they are supposed to parent, how they are supposed to balance all the expectations that are put upon them and to make it look easy. This is made more challenging because the expectations are not uniform. For example, women when critiqued on mothering are viewed by widely differing standards and often judged because they are not mothering the way another believes is the right way to mother. These criticisms or places where they don’t conform to these expectations often strike at their greatest places of insecurity.

We often neglect the way that men experience shame and for men it is often a subject that we are unable to talk about. Brené Brown in her work share the story of when earlier in her career she had only researched women and shame and then after a conference a man asked her, “have you studied men and shame?” She admitted she hadn’t and then he went on to explain how men have deep shame but are unable to express it both among other men and with women. For men shame is about failure: a failure to be strong enough, good enough, or to provide enough for others. As I mentioned above, money and work are a strong shame trigger for men and so if a man’s wife comes home and comments about the nice car that her friend’s husband bought it can unintentionally send a message to the man that because he is unable to provide the same or better, he is not valued or loved. Most men learn at an early age that it is socially unacceptable to show weakness or fear. I can remember a point in my elementary school days when I learned I wasn’t allowed to cry anymore and it was reinforced by both peers and family members.

One of the reasons for talking about this with social media is that we go to social media longing for connection and we may experience disconnection. We want to feel good and safe and valued and we may find messages that reinforce how we are not living into the expectations of others or how we are not good, strong or able to provide enough. We may find those things that play on our shame triggers and we are also comparing ourselves to the best projection of someone else. We compare our entire lives to the snapshot that others choose to share of their lives. We measure ourselves unfairly against others without having access to the whole picture of their lives.

The people who designed social media know that we are connection seeking beings and the media are designed to encourage our continued usage of their platforms. When people like or comment on something that we do it feels good to our brains, it feels like we are connected and valued and seen. Because of that desire for connection we do sometimes modify our behavior to seek the approval of others, even when we may not believe that it is the correct thing.

This leads us back to the discussion of lowered social boundaries that I initially introduced when we discussed texting in the previous session. It often feels less stressful to share something through a digital technology because we don’t have to see how the words impact the other person’s body language or voice and there is not the danger of physical consequences to what we say (at least not in the moment). I believe this lowered set of social boundaries also helps to explain some of the bullying or trolling that happens on social media. We may believe that we aren’t interacting with a real person and so our words don’t matter, but they do. Many in the congregations I’ve served have heard my repurposing of the children’s proverb, “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me” to “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will send me to therapy.” Words, even online words, can cause real emotional damage. We come in seeking connection and then someone else for their own reasons bullies or insults us in ways that they would never do to our face. Sometimes when we lower our social boundaries, we encounter the basest parts of our self and others. Also, these things are now recorded and we may have to address these things at a later point of our life.

All social media are designed to keep you engaged and to do that they mine your digital projection to figure out what you want to see. Facebook, for example, will categorize you as extremely liberal, moderately liberal, moderate, moderately conservative or extremely conservative and will attempt to tailor your feed based around those political values. One of the dangers of this is that we can be surrounded in our digital world by people who think and believe the way that we do to the exclusion of other viewpoints. This ‘bunker effect’ can shield us from interactions that may challenge our viewpoint and we may be encouraged to view those who think differently than us as our enemy or people unworthy of consideration. Adding into this picture some powerful mental forces like ‘confirmation bias’ we can become susceptible to partial truths and sometimes outright lies that fit within our worldview. This has had major effects on our political dialogue and has increased the polarization we experience in the world.

Social media are advertising platforms, they are not news platforms. They are designed to increase the projection of information for profit. In a profit model where clicks on a website result in greater payments we’ve seen the practice of ‘click-baiting’ evolve to get people to go to an article based on the headline. Social media does not censor things based on their verifiability. There are some practices they have introduced after the last election cycle but ultimately, they are designed to maximize profit and they are not incentivized to remove things that masquerade as news that may merely be opinion. This can present us with a very skewed vision of reality and we may find ourselves confused by the boundaries between someone’s opinion and a verified fact.

Social media are designed for addictiveness. Some of this goes back to our discussion of the internet and platforms like Netflix removing the ‘stopping cues’ to keep you engaged on the platform for longer. Facebook for example, has no stopping cues to keep you from continuing to scroll down the screen and stay on their platform. Some other media like Snap Chat or Instagram reward you for continuing to engage through things like ‘streams’ which are broken if you have a day where you don’t engage. These all send subtle clues to our mind to come back and to seek connection again on these platforms. The technology is not evil, but it does use some of the basic pieces of our psychology to keep us engaged.

As a Christian as I think about social media, I reflect upon the language of Genesis 1 where we are created in the image of God. As Genesis narrates the creation narrative, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1: 27) A person’s value comes not from how other people value them but instead, from a faith perspective, from the reality that they share some portion of the image of God. Especially from my Christian faith it goes back to the language of my baptism where, from my Lutheran Christian theological perspective, I have been marked with the cross of Christ forever and sealed by God’s Holy Spirit.  I am reminded that my identity begins with the reality that my life has been claimed by God and that I am a child of God. That doesn’t mean I am immune to the desire for connection or the feelings of shame, but it does help me to remind myself that I have value and worth already and nothing can take that away. For me it means that even when I disagree with someone, I don’t attack them in a way that attempts to shame them or demean them.

Social media can enable us to connect with a broad network of people. It can be a place where we choose to share the things that we find meaningful and valuable. It can also be place where we encounter disconnection and where we can experience hurt and shame. I think the technology can be a place where we do a lot of positive things but like any technology it helps to understand some of the dangers involved.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are things that you share on social media? What don’t you share?
  2. How do you feel after being on social media? What made you feel that way?
  3. Can you think of a time where you felt shame? What triggered that feeling?
  4. Which of the categories of shame seem to impact you more deeply? What messages from advertising and from others reinforce those messages?
  5. When have you seen social media misused? What do you like and dislike about the platforms you use?
  6. What ways have you found helpful to have conversations with people who think or believe differently than you?

The Transplanted Rose-A Poem and an Update

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com

As I continue to follow the path laid before me
Blown by the Spirit’s movement to once again pull up roots
To be transplanted in some new place, some new soil
One would think that after so many places, so many gardens
That leaving would be easier, but rather it grows harder
For the rose’s roots became intertwined with the other roots
From the garden where I have grown and healed for three cycles
And I will miss the beauty of the other flowers

I grieve any pain my dislocation causes the garden
And yet, such is the cost of love and connection
Somedays I see only the trail of broken hearts left behind
And not the gift of their friendship and companionship in my sojourn
Each garden, each place, each climate, each connection
Have nourished my growth, fed my spirit and allowed me to bloom
And within my memory I carry the care and compassion of so many
And I long for the day when my roots are again planted.

Update: I am moving to take the call as the pastor of Rejoice Lutheran in Frisco, Texas which means leaving behind the many connections I have formed at Trinity Lutheran in Papillion, Nebraska and the broader Papillion and Omaha areas. The actual transition will take place in the second half of September, but as my current congregation now is aware of this move it begins the grieving process for both me and them. Several of my earlier poems like Tension and Waiting were also written while contemplating this decision. I’m not sure how this transition will affect my postings on SignoftheRose, I plan to keep up with the blog but if my posting slows down it will be due to the requirements of the move or the new position.