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Catholic News Herald

Serving Christ and Connecting Catholics in Western North Carolina

barronDuring a recent flight to Sacramento, I reached for a magazine in the seatback pocket and 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 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.

Menkedick argues that to have swum in the sea of Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube from the time that one was a child is to live one’s life perpetually in front of an audience. Most millennials never simply have experiences; they are conditioned to record, preserve and present those experiences to a following who are invited to like what they see, comment on it, respond to it. To be sure, she acknowledges, social media, at their best, are powerful means of communication and connection, but at their worst, they produce this odd distancing from life and a preoccupation with the self. Here is how she 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 her: 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.

Her baby 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. In the first, you talking with someone you desperately want (or need) to impress, say, a prospective employer or a popular figure. In this context, you are speaking, listening, laughing, etc., but more importantly, you are watching yourself perform these moves, attentive to the other person’s reaction. You are not really experiencing reality directly, but rather through a sort of veil.

Now a second scenario: you are in lively conversation with a friend, and there is no ulterior motive. You become lost in the discussion, following it where it leads, laughing when you are truly amused, watching your partner – not to see how she’s reacting to you, but just because she’s interesting.

Now, to use the language of the classical moral and spiritual tradition, the first situation I described is marked by pride, and the second by humility. Don’t think of pride primarily as self-exaltation. 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 St. 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 is the manner in which social media 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 – a reality that she could appreciate only through humility.

Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also the host of “Catholicism,” an award-winning documentary about the Catholic faith.