Authentic spirituality always carries one distinct message: Your life is not about you.
On a recent trip to Sacramento from my home base in the LA area, I flew Southwest Airlines. In an idle moment, I reached for the magazine in the seatback pocket and commenced to leaf through it. I came across an article by a woman named Sarah Menkedick entitled “Unfiltered: How Motherhood Interrupted My Relationship with Social Media.” The piece was not only wittily and engagingly written; it also spoke to some pretty profound truths about our cultural situation today and the generation that has come of age under the influence of the internet.
She argues that to have swum in the sea of Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube from the time that one was a child was to live one’s life perpetually in front of an audience. Most millennials never simply had experiences; they were conditioned to record, preserve, and present those experiences to a following who were invited to like what they saw, to comment on it, to respond to it. To be sure, she acknowledges, the social media, at their best, are powerful means of communication and connection, but at their worst, they produce this odd distanciation from life and a preoccupation with the self. Here is how Menkendick puts it: “I’ve come of age as a writer at a time when it is no longer enough just to write. A writer must also promote her work and in the process promote herself as a person of interest … I learned the snarky, casually intellectual voice of feminist and pop culture bloggers, the easy outrage, the clubby camaraderie.”
But then something extraordinary happened to the author: she became a mother. On the front porch of her home, nursing her baby, she discovered that she had a visceral aversion to snark and absolutely no desire to share her experience with an audience or curry favor from it. She didn’t want to cultivate any ironic distance from motherhood; rather, she wanted to believe in it with all her heart, to let it wash over her. “Before I had a child, I took it for granted that no intellectual writer-type could ever be taken seriously were she to cave into conventional sentiment. As a mother, I was swept away by these huge, ancient, universal emotions I’d previously dismissed as uncomplicated.” Her baby, in a word, broke through the carapace of her self-regard and let in some real light. Again, granting all that is truly good about social media (which I use massively in my own ministry), they can easily produce the conviction that we are the stars of our own little dramas, always playing for an eager audience. Authentic spirituality always gives rise to the opposite conviction: your life is not about you.
To grasp this distinction more completely, let me propose two scenarios to you. In the first, you are engaged in conversation with someone that you desperately want (or need) to impress, say, a prospective employer or a popular figure whose friendship you crave. In this context, you are indeed speaking, listening, laughing, looking pensive, etc., but more importantly, you are watching yourself perform these moves, and you are exquisitely attentive to the reaction of your interlocutor. Is she laughing at your jokes? Does she look bored? Did your witticism land effectively in her consciousness? The point is that you are not really experiencing reality directly, but rather through a sort of veil. It is as though you are looking at a beautiful landscape, but through a foggy window. Now a second scenario: you are in lively conversation with a friend, and there is no ulterior motive, no egotistic preoccupation. You become quickly lost in the discussion, following the argument where it leads, laughing when you are truly amused, watching your partner, but not in order to see how she’s reacting to you, but just because she’s interesting. In this case, you are immersed in reality; you are looking at the landscape through a clear pane of glass, taking in its colors and textures in all of their vividness.
Now, to use the language of the classical moral and spiritual tradition, the first situation I described is marked, through and through, by pride, and the second by humility. Don’t think of pride, first and foremost, as self-exaltation, which is, in fact, but a face or consequence of pride. In its most proper nature, pride is seeing the world through the distorting lens of the ego and its needs. On the other hand, humility, from the Latin humus (earth), is getting in touch with reality directly, being close to the ground, seeing things as they are. This is why Thomas Aquinas famously says “humilitas est veritas” (humility is truth). What makes the first scenario so painful and cringe-worthy is that it is out of step with the truth of things. What makes the second scenario so exhilarating, so fun, is that it is full of reality.
What Sarah Menkedick intuited was the manner in which the social media environment can be a breeding ground for the unique type of spiritual distortion and dislocation that we traditionally call pride. What made all the difference for her was the arrival of her baby, in all of his densely-textured reality—a reality that she could appropriate only through humility.
Our lives played to the camera: Must every meaningful moment involve staging?