Tag Archives: 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?

Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide

Session 2: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide

This is the second part of a seven-part series on faith in a digital age, the first session was on advertising on a digital age. And 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: Advent of the internet and a connected age
Week four: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week five: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week six: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week seven: 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.

I remember in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up the promise that technology would enable us to work fewer hours and spend more time at home with people doing what we enjoyed. One of the cartoons of that age, the Jetsons, the father only worked a couple of hours at a very leisurely pace and then came home and spent almost all of his time with his family. The reality is that people are not working fewer hours, they are working more hours than previously. The quantity and quality of work an individual person can produce has increased dramatically due to technology but now we are expected to do more work with fewer people. We do less physical work than we did a generation ago but our time at the office or engaged with work related items has increased dramatically.

Email starts out as a tool in the business, academic and military. Originally it took a dedicated network of terminals connected to a larger computer and I remember at Texas A&M when I was a student in the early 1990s logging in on a ‘dumb terminal’ to check my email for assignments from class. Email was much less convenient but it was also limited to devices connected into the main server and so your email for work stayed at work. Email would soon evolve to become far more connected and capable and this would create both new possibilities and new challenges.

One of the benefits of email is it is free. Now understand it is free because someone else, either the office or school we are associated with or advertisers have paid for the servers and infrastructure required to make the email possible. Yet, it is free which, unless you are the postal service and have seen electronic communication eat into the volume you deliver, is a good thing. Email is also able to carry immense amounts of information. For example, my congregation sends out a weekly email to the congregation which includes documents, links as well as highlights of events occurring each week.

One of the realities of email is that we get overwhelmed with information. Most people can relate to the experience of opening your email account and checking many of the emails to delete even before you open them. We are exposed to a lot of information and it becomes overwhelming and so we have to learn how to filter what is vital, what is important and what is not important. We have always sorted, even before email we would quickly sort our postal mail and determine what was trash and what was worth opening. Yet, even once we open an email, we quickly see what we think may be important and one of the realities is that information often gets missed. For example, the synod (the higher body over the churches of my denomination in the North Texas-North Louisiana region) sends out a weekly email update which includes events occurring in the region and if something is not in the first several events there is a strong possibility that I may have stopped reading at that point. We have become so overwhelmed with information that we have to find ways to limit so that we can focus on what we believe are the important things.

In any technology that communicates by text one of the things to understand is we do not have a number of the physical clues from voice and body language that we use to insert the emotion accurately into a message. Most of the information we take in when we speak to another person is non-verbal and so it is easy with text-based communication to misinterpret the emotion of the sender. For example, let’s assume that I was in an accident prior to arriving at the office and the first email I read I assume that the author is yelling at me. Now the way the email is worded may lead to this interpretation but it may also be about my own shame or anger at being in an accident. I may transfer my anger with the person I had an accident with to the sender or if I am ashamed of being in the accident, I may feel that I deserve to be yelled at. But these may have nothing to do with the intent of the sender, they are things I have read into the text message.

One of the other things it is easy to do with email is to send a message to more people than you intend or the wrong person. Many people can relate to times where they intended to forward a message and replied instead or they wanted to reply to an individual and they unintentionally hit the reply all response on the message.

People could reach out for work related things by phone long before email, but email was really the first area where we see an increasing tendency to take work home with us. We became available to people from the office, once email was connected via the internet, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. I know many people will take their email with them on vacation and respond to it, or they may attempt to respond to email in the evening or during a meal. This can become an unhealthy dynamic for us as individuals and for our relationships.

Email was one of the first areas where we saw the advent of digital multi-tasking. Especially with the advent of push notification we see email constantly interrupting our day. So, most people who have outlook or another email device on their computer and phone will receive a pop-up whenever an email comes in and our eyes are immediately drawn to it and we make a decision whether to open the email or allow it to sit until a later point. Yet, even the reality of looking at the pop-up and making a quick decision has taken us away from the work we are doing and those who study efficiency have seen a drop in efficiency from these frequent interruptions. It takes our mind time to switch between tasks and to engage what is being asked of it and then to re-engage what we were working on initially. Multi-tasking doesn’t make us more productive or efficient, it actually is a productivity killer. It is like when your computer has multiple tasks open the available memory and processing capability it has is reduced for any one task so it runs slower. Computers have evolved quickly to be able to increase their processing capacity but the human brain cannot evolve in the same way. We simply were not made for a world of continual interruption.

In our culture we seem to value being busy. I’m guilty of answering the question, “how are you doing?” with the word busy and sometimes we wear our constant activity as a badge of honor. ‘I’m really important because I am always busy.’ Yet, I think we need to talk about the reality that people use being busy the same way they use drugs and alcohol—as a numbing device. If I am busy doing something that has meaning to my life and my relationships that a good thing, but if I am busy so that I don’t have to think about the brokenness in my life or my relationships or so that I can avoid difficult conversations and feelings then we are using our activity to keep us numbed.

One of the other things that can happen with all of these technologies is if we don’t set our own healthy boundaries, we will allow the person with the least healthy boundaries to determine how much of our time they can demand. The person who believes they need verification from you or your attention to validate their importance can take time away from the people in your life who truly are important to you or the things in life that give you value and meaning. I will talk about some of my own values below but I think it is a very healthy thing to reflect on how we use any technology and when are the times we feel like it is impacting our life, health and relationships in a negative way.

Is checking an email a bad thing? No, but sometimes the way it dominates our life can be. I know there are times when I spend multiple hours responding to emails after a weekend and that is time that is taken away from being present with other people, doing the work I need to get done on a weekly basis and doing the creative work that brings life and joy to my life. One of the questions to ask is, “Is this a productive use of my time.” Frequently it can be, but it will not always be. If your answer to the question of the use of time being productive is frequently no, then it may be time to look at establishing some boundaries and thinking how you might limit the amount of time you spend with email or any other item.

So, as a pastor and I want to help us think through this from a faith perspective and help us to imagine how we might live a good life. I will also share some of my own boundaries below that have come through my own wrestling with these issues. I’m not perfect at this, I continue to have days or weeks where I am not as diligent or healthy as I would like to be. To begin examining this question from a faith perspective I am going to start with the two great commandments. Here is how the Gospel of Mark tells the story where the two great commandments are introduced:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. (Mark 12: 28-31)

I’m going to focus in on the second commandment, and in particular the second phrase. If we are going to love our neighbor as we love ourselves it means we need to be able to love ourselves. It is hard to love your neighbor more than you love yourself. When we are not taking care of our needs we often reply in anger, frustration or in resignation that this is one more person who is taking us away from what we want to be doing. We set boundaries so that we can be present with our neighbor. To be able to be present with another person is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

For me this also goes back to my baptismal identity. In my baptism I am reminded that God values me for who I am, not primarily for what I can do to earn God’s love or favor. God’s grace frees me from this continual seeking to be good enough in God’s eyes and my baptism reminds me I am already loved and valued. I have a plaque on my wall that came from my advisor in seminary which reads:

Neil Eric White, remember you are a baptized child of God; for that is the basis of everything else you will become.

My value does not come from how busy I am but from who I am as a child of God. There are times when I forget this and I get caught in the trap of looking important and busy. Yet, I am valuable not because I am busy but because I am a person created in the image of God.

A part of our identity as humans is that we were created for connection with God and with one another. That is one of the things I take away from the narrative of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3. One of the predictors of an early death is the lack of strong interpersonal connections with family and a network of friends. We need interpersonal connection and technology can help facilitate that and it can also take us away from acknowledging the humanity of another person. Have you ever been interacting with someone when they suddenly interrupt the conversation to interact with their email or their phone? Or have you talked with someone and they never looked away from their email during the entire conversation? How did that make you feel?  It can make you feel unseen, unvalued and unloved. For parents I think this is one of the places where our messages can speak louder than any words we say: our children watch us to see a model of what is important and how they will interact with the world. If they see us modeling that email or work is more important than their conversation, playing with them, and physical signs of affection then they will also look for meaning and value in their work and electronic devices.

Here are some of the boundaries I use as a person who has thought through some of these items from the perspective of faith and seeking a better life: I include these a descriptive and not as prescriptive, they are what I do and I would invite you to think about how you might set your own boundaries.

  • I attempt to engage email in a couple blocks during the day. Typically, I try to respond to email in 24 hours if a response is needed. My normal pattern is once when I begin my work day, once before lunch and once later in the afternoon.
  • I do filter based on who an email is from and the content of the title whether I even need to open an email. Do I occasionally miss something? Yes, but I am willing to risk missing something for the time and the freedom I gain from this.
  • I do not open email on my day off unless I feel it is something that needs a quick response or something that will cause me anxiety not to respond to.
  • I do set aside times to be present with people and if I am present with someone, I will not look at my email or my phone until that time is over. I also do not check email or phone when I am out on a date with my wife, when I am working out or working in the yard. It can wait
  • Between 9 p.m. and 8 a.m. I typically don’t check email and I assume any type of communication I receive needs to be an emergency. If it is not an emergency, I attempt to let the person know politely but firmly that this is not an emergency and when they should contact me.

I do believe that we as people were created for rest, that we need a Sabbath and that means finding a way to be away from the demands of work for a time. My hope in this is that we can be both curious but also to provoke some challenging conversations about the values we have and the type of life we want to live. I don’t think of email as a negative thing, but I do know it can be used in a way that is detrimental to our lives, our health and our relationships. I do this as a way to model not only for my congregation but also for my children what is important. There is a phrase I learned from my mentor in seminary that says, “Don’t worry that your children aren’t listening to you, worry intently that they are watching everything you are doing.” If we say we want them to value other people and then we check our work email or our personal email instead of interacting with them they see where our true values are and they will emulate that. If we use digital technology and devices as a way to entertain and distract them while they are young don’t be surprised when they use them to stay entertained and distracted when they are older. They often learned their behaviors by modeling what we ourselves have done.

Discussion questions:

List the positive and negative aspects of email.

How do you feel when you are interrupted when you work? Do you feel like email is an interruption?

Have you ever used being busy to avoid a hard conversation or to avoid thinking about brokenness in your life or relationship? Has email become something you are addicted to checking?

Do I model using technology in a way that I would want to model for my children?

What boundaries would be healthy for me to set around my work? My response to email?

Do you feel like your email overwhelms you with information? Are there ways you can limit the emails you receive or filter them more efficiently?

How do we show another person that they are important to us?

Advertising in 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.

Session 1 of Faith in a Digital Age:Advertising in a Digital Age

We live in a digital age. Some may long for a time prior to the advent of the digital age but the revolution of how we interact with others and the world around us caused by the digital age is not going to disappear. Digital technology has impacted so many areas of our life: how we shop, how we interact with one another, how we date, how we get our news and many, many other areas we’ll explore in these sessions. Digital technology is not ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but they can certainly be used in positive and negative ways. One of the questions that religion should help us answer is ‘what does a good life look like?’ As we engage the various aspects of the digital technology that we interact with we will be wondering together what does a blessed or good life look like in a digital age.

One of the hard parts of this discussion is that it will impact different generations in different ways. I remember the first computer that we had in our home, the first dial-up modem, my first email account, the beginning of the internet, the wide dispersion of cell phones and then smart phones but for my children who are entering adulthood they have never known a time without these things. One of the things you will frequently see in these discussions is people belittling or criticizing another group, think of how many posts on social media you may have seen about: what is wrong with millennials, young people, old people, technophobes, people addicted to technology. These not only tend to make broad generalizations about an entire group but they also tend to be shaming and shut down any real conversation. I want to enter this with a sense of curiosity, not because I want to adopt uncritically these technologies but instead, I want to think about how they may be used to enhance the life I want to live. I am a leader of a Christian community so I am also thinking through this in a manner that attempts to use the resources of my faith to think through how we might live a good life in our time.

The outline of the discussions is:

Week one: Advertising in a Digital Age
Week two: Email, Multi-tasking and the blurring of the work/home divide
Week three: Advent of the internet and a connected age
Week four: Cell phones and a continually connected life
Week five: Social media and the projecting and mining of the digital self
Week six: Dating and relationships in a digital age
Week seven: The dangers of a digital age

We are beginning with advertising. You may ask why are we beginning with something that has been around since long before the digital age, yet advertising underlies the digital age. Google, Yahoo and Facebook are all advertising companies.  Advertising pays for the digital age. If you get something for free it is probably because you are being advertised to and advertising is paying for the content. Advertising is not a new thing, advertisers have paid for radio and television content for generations. Advertising is not an evil thing, the reality that you are seeing this in a digital environment is mainly because the platform is financed by advertising. Advertising has been around for a long time, since people would put out a sign pointing to one person’s booth at a fair or one person’s farm to trade for products. Yet, advertising is much more connected than it was in its origins. Advertising attempts to sell you a story, not primarily a product. Humans are hardwired for story, it is how we make sense of our lives and our worlds. Advertising attempts to sell you a story in which the product is a critical piece of that story.

I would encourage you to think about a show that you watch and what is advertised to you. If you watch a Hallmark Christmas movie you will be advertised different products and stories than if you are listening to sports radio, a television sitcom, a science fiction show, a sporting event, or an award show. It is a revelatory exercise to pay attention to what is being advertised and the stories the ads are telling and what they say about what the advertisers think about you as a viewer. What are the emotions being pulled upon, the insecurities being exploited, the desires being projected? Who do the advertisers say you need to be?

Advertising works, even if we don’t believe that it does. Advertising even becomes a part of our culture in surprising ways. A quick example from 2018-2019, if I were to say, “dilly, dilly” most people would reflect back to a series of commercials for Bud Light. The commercials are short stories set in a fictional kingdom with a vain king, they are humorous and Bud Light keeps them on because they work. Nike and Gillette have recently generated controversy with their advertising but they are a part of the conversation of our lives.

Advertising may make us realize things we never knew we wanted. That is not necessarily a negative thing. I share the example in the video of Christmas shopping and being presented with ideas for my sisters, my wife, and my kids that I think they will enjoy. Advertising has introduced me to new authors who are writing in a field similar to authors I enjoy and whose work other readers have enjoyed. But when advertising begins to make us feel insufficient or encourages to go beyond the limits, we would otherwise stay within it is a problem. I started this class right after Christmas and Christmas can be a beautiful time for people but I also know people who come out of Christmas stressed because they attempted to create a Christmas that matched the stories of advertising and they will be paying for that for the next six months. Advertising can make us feel like we are not doing enough or that we are not living out the story we should be living.

Seth Godin writes in his short and entertaining book about advertising All Marketers are Liars:

All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is vastly superior to a $36,000 VW Touareg, even if it is virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better—and look cooler—than $20 no names…and believing it makes it true. (Godin, 2005)

If I were to pour an expensive bottle of wine in a solo cup and in a crystal glass, I assume that it probably tastes and looks better in the crystal glass. I believe that a soda is worth more when I go to a movie, a restaurant, or to a sporting event than I would pay for it at a gas station or a grocery store, but it is the same soda.

What are some ways we can think about this as people of faith? Well probably the natural place to start is the ninth and tenth commandments:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:17)

One of my realizations in studying both Exodus and Deuteronomy where the commandments are listed is that for the people of Israel were expected to create a different kind of society than what they experienced in Egypt. In Egypt it was a society where a small number of people had a large amount of the wealth and power and where many people were enslaved to pay for the wants and desires of this small group. Israel was always supposed to be something different, a society where everyone could recline under their own fig tree or grape vine. A society where everyone had enough to live on and provide for their family. One thing that would destroy this community would be to see what the neighbor had and to determine that I needed what my neighbor has to be satisfied. This is where a lot of conflict can emerge from and it can create in us a sense of scarcity and dissatisfaction. We often compare our lives to an aspect of another person’s life, and never their entire life and that comparison often makes us desire what the other person has and not be satisfied with what we have.

I alluded to scarcity above and I think it is important to realize that one of the dominant stories of our culture is a story of scarcity: of not having enough, of not being enough. One of the places I think we as people of faith frame this discussion wrong is, we think of the opposite of scarcity being abundance (more than I could possibly desire) but the opposite of scarcity is having enough. If we only think we will be happy when we have more than we can imagine we will never be satisfied. We will never have enough money, power, looks, success, fame or status. Every time we reach a place where we once said we’d be satisfied, we move the bar to a new place where we will be happy when we reach it. There are entire industries set up to feed upon our fear that we don’t have enough. Americans in general struggle with depression more and are more in debt than at any time in previous history and I believe that this is partially related to attempting to keep up with the projection of who we should be.

Lynne Twist writes in the Soul of Money about the “great lie”:

For me, and for many of us, our first waking though is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and or arguments with life. (Brown, 2012, pp. 25-26)

Part of a good life is learning to say I have enough. Now I have nothing against a person deciding to buy a new home, a new car, new clothing or any other item but the danger is when we believe that our happiness is defined by acquiring these things. When we have a mindset of scarcity we will never have enough and we will never be enough. One of the things gratitude makes us realize is that we have and that we indeed are enough. It begins to challenge the great lie that our life is lacking something that will make us complete or whole or that some other story will grant us our happy ending.

Ethically we need to talk about advertising in a connected world. You’ve probably had the experience of looking at something online and suddenly ads for that item and related item are everywhere in your social feed, your email, on websites and more. Or, if you have a device like an Amazon Echo or Google Home you may talk about something in conversation and find that advertisements for that item suddenly popping up. We give up our information pretty freely in a digital age.  For example, my grocery store has a shopping card which tracks what I buy and where I buy it in exchange for deals and discounts. But are we OK with some reading my email, browsing history, listening to my conversations and gathering my information?

If you think advertising doesn’t work on you and impact how you think about things you are deceiving yourself. It has been proven that those who believe they are impervious to advertising messages are the most likely to be influenced by them. This can have some profound effects on the way in which we interact with our world and with other people.

A final area I want to encourage you to think about is advertising in relation to politics. One of the dangers of targeting political advertisements and messages is that we can become surrounded by an echo chamber of things that fit our own political leanings. Your social media, for example, knows your political leanings based upon who you follow, what you click and what you say and it will continue to show you more of what it thinks you want to see. The danger in this is we become isolated from people who think differently than us. One of the gifts of Rejoice Lutheran, where I serve as pastor, is that we have a wide range of political opinions inhabiting (sometimes unaware of the differences) in the same space and it is one of the few places in our culture where we may be surrounded by people who think differently. In a world of political polarization, we need to be aware that one of the stories we will encounter is attempting to solidify our affiliation with a political group or view in contrast to others who may think differently.

Stories speak to not only our logical portions of our brain but to our emotions are well. Advertisers play on emotions which include: fear, hunger, desire, comfort, pleasure, the desire to belong, attraction, competence/intelligence, love, stress, jealousy, insecurity, image, connection and the desire for success. Using emotions is not necessarily a negative thing either, I use emotions all the time when I preach for example as I attempt to provide a fuller experience of what a text may be pointing to. We are emotional and rational beings and I’m reminded of the proverb about people being ‘emotional beings who sometimes think rather than thinking beings who sometimes emote.’

Discussion questions:

List the type of shows you watch. What is advertised during these shows? What does that say about you as listener/viewer? How did they make you feel?

List the positive and negative things about advertising. Somethings may end up being positive or negative depending on the situation or the viewer.

Think of an advertising catch phrase like “dilly, dilly” or “just do it.”  What are they advertising? What stories did they use? Why do you remember them?

What are you grateful for? Do you celebrate the things that you have or is it easier to desire the things that you don’t have?

Talk about a time where you purchased something and it didn’t live up to your expectations? How did you feel? Were you angry with the advertiser or yourself?

What do you think about organization mining your email, browsing history, listening to your conversations and monitoring your purchases to target advertising to you? What are some potential problems you see with this practice?

Do you think advertising is having a negative impact on the political process in this country? If so how?

Can you think of an advertisement that made you feel like you needed to change something about yourself? Did you purchase their product? Why or why not?