On Seeing Others and Ourselves Through the Windows of Social Media
by Ave Ibrahim, Director of Public Outreach and Relations at Agora University
The perception of a decline in society is common to many these days, and although history has had many and repeated dark patches, there’s an eerie and anxious feeling of emptiness lurking. This is not to say that we are living in times devoid of good, for wherever God is, there’s good. And God has certainly never left. There are still children smiling, friends and families reuniting, there are still selfless deeds and prayers lifted, so there is good. But the general narrative often neglects the good, even more so today, and depicts a picture of a society that is missing something. The picture of today’s society has the same emptiness that you would find in a forced gathering of friends or a family with individuals not really present or connected. We’ve been there, and that pungent feeling now has spread beyond those forced gatherings, thanks to social media, whenever we open our windows to glimpse the outside world.
“for without the power of Your grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them be able to be still from great distraction.” St. Isaac the Syrian
If the world has always had dark (if not darker) days, then perhaps the newness of this sentiment has more to do with us than what’s outside our windows. Perhaps it even has to do with the windows themselves which distract us from ever facing inward, towards our homes, our companions, and most importantly, ourselves. In that case, it’s no surprise that we look outwards with such discontent, attached enough to care for how things unfold, but never truly feeling home. The outside has become who we are, so of course, it impacts us. With few mirrors, what’s presented to us on the outside now has more meaning than ourselves. And without having regular glances at ourselves, we forget our vulnerabilities and many flaws, we even forget the universality of sin, and we turn into the coldest of judges – Pharisees, thanking the heavens for not being like the publicans we see. We become shocked and enraged by symptoms of fallenness, equipped with pitchforks and torches to get rid of the sinner with the sin*, all through a comfortably distant window. If we looked inward and examined our conscience carefully, we would realize that inside of us is a world that requires as much activism and revolution as the external one we are fixated on. We would anticipate fallenness and sin in the world, having dealt with it so intimately in ourselves. Instead of shaming and exposing others, with a corrupt sense of satisfaction, rehabilitation and healing would be likely paths we’d direct others to, having been on those inward journeys ourselves. We’d soon realize the inward-outward connection that St. Seraphim of Sarov spoke of when he said “acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” How can we calm the storms outside if we are not seeking to firmly anchor ourselves first?
With few mirrors, we neglect to also realize the good we share with others, the second chances we’ve been given, and our God-given ability to do and to change rather than just spectate and judge. Looking inward would allow for us to straighten out our homes to invite others intimately in, to be impacted by the wounds of others, and to put down our pitchforks and prepare bandages for those that are hurting. It would allow us to recognize our nuance and anticipate its beauty and mystery in others. Instead, conversations from our windows are mere social inspections to gauge who’s in full agreement with the reductive declarations we make about ourselves and our stances; a quick method to deem someone an “ally”, or permanently brand them with a title so reprehensible that it makes them subhuman. It is no surprise that we now use terms like “ally” that were once associated with wars and conflicts because allies always remain separate and distinct from each other, they might join forces for a particular cause but they’d never unite enough to truly be one and sacrifice for the other. And the alliances or “allyship” we engage in follow the original meaning of the word, they’re distant, without much personal cost, and often serve the mutual benefit of exposure and platform expansion or a feeling, albeit a very surface one, of approval, acceptance, and gratification.
“If God rewarded the righteous immediately, we would soon be engaged in business, not godliness…we would be pursuing not piety, but profit.” St. Clement
Without mirrors, the windows we see the world and each other through become our sole means of self-valuation. We become dependent on the immediate upvotes of how we present ourselves, morphing who we are, our image, our ideas to that which is sure to garner a reward or a celebration. Slowly we spiral into self-serving participation in even the most virtuous or dire of causes. The hidden act of prayer is thus disincentivized, and righteousness becomes about what we show and how fervently we demonstrate it. But even then our hunger for affirmation is not quenched, and we seek to be lauded more, so our righteousness needs escalation to rage and anger, for there’s nothing more seemingly righteous than being enraged by injustice. Our views take on more extreme and binary stances; after all the more extreme and definitive our stances are, the less intellectual rigor it mandates for someone to agree with us. And what we put out is never the fullness of truth, we present only the parts that would ensure us agreement. The remaining parts, often the needed and challenging parts, go underrepresented resulting in a slow erosion of our collective conscience. Who we are and who we are intended to be in Christ, our nuance and our compassion for others, all fade in the background…with no mirror to bring us back.
Without mirrors we fall into the convenient and tempting culture of tribalism; where any group we belong to, based on a shared idea, culture, or faith, becomes above reproach and is ferociously defended against the most honest of criticism from the outside and from within. Growth for the group is stunted because calls for improvements or healing are seen as signs of defiance and rebellion, leading quickly to tribal exile. If we flee from privately facing our individual sins, how can we tolerate public discussions of our collective shortcomings? Healing sometimes requires us to uncomfortably expose our wounds and rotten infections for the sake of cleansing, and the pain and discomfort are only worth it if we seek the true Healer.
“The sick one who is acquainted with his sickness is easily to be cured; and he who confesses his pain is near to health.” St. Isaac the Syrian
How do we heal wounds we have not dealt with individually? How do we recommend a remedy we have not sought for ourselves? The healing of the world is predicated on us becoming more than spectators of it and looking inward to change, finding the remedy, and offering it in ourselves. And prayer should be the primary (first and most trusted) response to seeing the hurt of the world, recognizing the hurt within, and realizing that God is the source of all healing. That means we have to step away from our windows, look in the mirror often, and be acquainted with ourselves enough to realize that we are not much better off than the outside. Then and only then will we allow God to heal the world through us.
* Orthodox Christians believe that God abhors sin and anything that would cause any of His children to stumble or remain distant from Him, but He does “not wish the death of the sinner but rather that he returns and lives”.