You get a certain feeling when you’ve eaten too many potato chips and catch your hand in the bag again. The compulsion to eat feels absurd. It’s not satisfying, you’re not hungry, and it doesn’t even taste good anymore. So how do you explain your newly salted fingertips? You can’t. You just hate yourself for it.
That’s the sort of feeling I get when I automatically open Facebook moments after closing. I scroll on, not even enjoying it anymore. I’ve already seen most of these posts and it’s not showing me the pictures of my nieces. I don’t even want to read what’s passing under thumb. It’s just hard to stop. It’s a compulsion. Once I finally set down my phone, I feel bloated, empty, like I just ate a bunch of junk food.
The drive to do something, whether to eat food, have sex, or connect with people is not simply the reward for doing it. Appetites are not just a promise of being full but a compulsion to act. When the compulsion takes over we can find ourselves pursuing food even after the reward has been suspended. It’s an image of damnation—always eating and never full, always reading and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth, endless information yet no wisdom.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that a lot of people give social media up for Lent. It feels like just another form of the gluttony that has dominated these resolutions for a thousand years. It’s ready whenever we have a craving, but it doesn’t satisfy.
Lent is a religious tradition set up to help people take control of their desires so they can avoid the misery of unbridled desire. So people give up sugar. It’s not that sugar is evil. No one’s going to hell for eating a brownie. It’s about us. Gluttony is the sin, and is itself a taste of hell.
How About Using Our Leisure Time Better
Gluttony does not just shorten the quantity of our life but also its quality. You have a headache after McDonald’s, eat alone in your car, and if the habit continues the odds are you’ll lose about a year of life. It is a flame that if let grow wild ceases to warm but incinerates.
The same is true for social media. Our eyes hurt from the screen light, we’re angry about the political opinions we read or conversations we got ourselves into, and for those of us who started using Facebook in college, by the time we’re 40 we will have already lost a year of our lives scrolling. We’re not even playing the odds. That year is gone.
Leisure time is about us, so who cares? But many feel a need to regain our leisure time. We admit the compulsion of social media and wish to realign it with the expected reward. Instead of pulling up to the drive-through, we want a family dinner.
We all have leisure time (a lot more than we tend to think). That’s the reason our cities build parks, erect libraries, and sponsor museums. Millions of books and movies have been made to entertain and educate. We can pursue hobbies that not only fill our time but also connect us with other people. Sport teams continue to multiply across the world, both amateur and professional. There’s a rich smorgasbord of options for our leisure enjoyment, but we tend to keep eating the same things: social media and the next episode.
Some Pursuits Keep You Treading Water
The real tragedy is that social media is typically stagnant. After an hour on Facebook, scanning another 900-word essay, or the next formulaic episode, I am just as much a dilettante as before. I learned nothing, really. The next time I read an article, I am not better informed or networked. I remain at the same level of knowledge, the same nuance in opinion, and the same standard of entertainment. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy it. We are driven to a social outlet that is quick, ready, and requires little of us. But using compulsion this way seldom leads to fulfillment.
Lent helps us to imagine how we would spend our leisure time without social media. What if instead of Facebook, more people adopted hobbies? With a hobby, you’ll certainly improve. You’ll start out knowing nothing. You will have no idea how to build a train set, restore a car, or point a camera. You will begin with a bunch of how-to articles. They’ll help you learn the lingo. Even after just a few months, you’ll move past those into something better.
Maybe you’ll buy books, subscribe to specialized magazines, connect with other enthusiasts. A few years down the road, you’ll be published in a magazine. You might even quit your day job because you’re no longer a dabbler. You’re the real thing.
Leisure time is an opportunity to do something fun and fulfilling. To start down a road that will end with something you can point at and say, “I made that.” I remember looking in awe at the massive train panorama a friend built. It filled the garage. Bridges raised and lowered, trains whizzed around the perimeter. Track splitters changed the direction of the locomotive. There were tunnels through Styrofoam mountains painted green and covered in miniature trees, and even people waiting for the train at the station. You could watch it for an hour. But it was more than a fascination, it was a symbol of his time, life, and passion.
I watched another friend design furniture. It looks like it’s built from honeycomb. He’s left his day job and travels the world selling “functional art.”
You Can Do a Lot More with Leisure Time
For someone stuck at a dull job, leisure time is an opportunity to be creative, to reimagine what you’re capable of. For someone who spends all day doing what he loves, leisure gives a chance to branch out and deepen his interest.
Leisure time is when we romance, it’s when we entertain and delight our brains. It’s where we build relationships. It’s when we’re our own boss. It’s the way we experiment. It’s a chance to do something daring. It’s an opportunity to excel. It’s perhaps your only opportunity to change the trajectory of your life.
Does that mean it shouldn’t be relaxing? Not at all. But it should be fulfilling, like a good meal. At the end of the day, like at the end of a meal, you shouldn’t feel empty. If so, it might be worth using Lent to take back your leisure time.
If you’re unsure if your leisure time is fulfilling, ask yourself: Will I know more tomorrow than I do today? Will I have improved my relationships or skills? Small, day to day steps are how anyone becomes an expert.
If You Want to Act On These Ideas, Some Suggestions
For those of you looking to improve your leisure time, here are some ideas.
Rather than scanning through another 900-word article, read a longer, more nuanced article. Shoot for at least twice that long. Move up to 2,500-word articles in a few months. Eventually you’ll be reading books by the world’s leading experts on the subjects you care about. Twenty books down the road, you’ll be an expert yourself.
Rather than a general social media site like Facebook, join a specialized group like everyword Bible. If you’re Christian, you can go here to study the Bible alongside other readers, ask and answer questions, and eventually become a scholar. It’s social media that’s dynamic. Because it’s built around the Bible, what you learn compounds from day to day.
If you’re an artist, deviantart is a social media outlet that allows you to connect with other artists and help each other improve your craft. Engaging there leads to your own creative release.
If you want to stick with Facebook, try joining a specific group that helps you do more than scroll. It’s a place to return, go deeper, and learn.
This Lent and beyond let’s try to avoid the damnation of social media that traps you on the surface. We skim above the endless depths of the Internet. That is a lamentable fate, depicted by the poet T.S. Eliot:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.
We draw nearer to dust if tomorrow we are still scrolling through the same sort of thing. Tomorrow, we hold the same opinions. Tomorrow, we read another 900-word article reinforcing the “facts” we already know. Five and ten years down the road we will be watching another formulaic episode. We will have never ventured to read the primary source documents, run our own evaluation of the findings, or publish our own article. Maybe that’s fine. But there is a real hell in always reading and never learning.