This past Lent, in an effort to foster and maintain our spiritual and emotional health, we (Michael Palmer and Danny Quanstrom) each took a break from social media. Over the next week, we will process and share with you the ways in which we were impacted by this disconnection. We will process through the lenses of science and pastoral care, and we’ll ultimately wrestle with what it means to move forward in health. Today, though, we’ll simply recount our experiences.
When you hit your thirties, Facebook and Instagram basically just become pictures of your friends’ kids. And Twitter is just the comment section of a political essay that lets you know what you should rage about this week. Before Ash Wednesday this year, I didn’t realize how badly I needed a break from all of it.
First, after four years of infertility, corrective surgery, and fertility treatments, all of which resulted in zero babies, I needed to step away from the constant reminder of my grief. Don’t get me wrong—I celebrate for and with my friends and family, many of whom seem to get pregnant just by winking at each other, but I hadn’t realized how my social media habits were shaping my inability to cope with my sorrow.
Second, let me sheepishly admit that 2016 was the first year I was politically engaged enough to feel compelled to vote in a primary election. And, while I may not have tweeted or posted my personal political opinions (because I’m a pastor, and I would never want any members of my faith community to think I couldn’t adequately care for them due to differences of political opinion), I was stuck in the same political quicksand that seemed to capture everyone else last year. It seemed like every single week of 2016 had a new scandal, a sound bite worse than the previous week, a more incriminating photo, and ever-depreciating headlines. And I bought into all of it! The first thing I did every morning, while still in bed, and the last thing I did before falling asleep was check the headlines (though obviously, I never read any particular article in its entirety). Until my Lenten fast, I never noticed how malformed my political habits had become.
The impetus for my social-media fast was the sermon I was writing for Ash Wednesday, in which I would be preaching about how we take on new habits or give up old ones during Lent in order to reflect on our spiritual formation—and I was convicted in the very act of crafting my own exhortations. I couldn’t get more than two or three lines written without swiping over to my other desktop and opening Facebook for three minutes—only to close the tab and promise myself I wasn’t going to open it again. It was incessant. At that point, I knew I needed a break. If I couldn’t get through writing one sermon without feeding the beast, I needed to just cut it off. So I did. Completely. For forty days. I didn’t even take a break on Sundays.
And it was tough. For about the first week, my fingers instinctively clicked the vacant tab where the app should be. It took me two weeks to stop automatically typing “Facebook” or “Twitter” into the browser, only to belatedly realize my error and have to close the window before the page loaded. The habit of visiting and using social media was so much a part of me, yet I had spent so little time noticing or reflecting on its impact on me.
I’m learning that we don’t so much do by learning as we learn by doing. Fasting all social media (and smartphone games) forced me to confront and reconcile my doing. What were my daily habits, and how were those habits forming me? This social-media fast became, for me, an exercise in formation—which is, after all, why we participate in the means of grace, isn’t it?
The steps leading up to my time away from social media were tumultuous. The past election year was full of stress and social tension. Like many others, I found myself drawn into the continuous arguments and social uprisings on Twitter and Facebook, and I found myself exhausted. I believed, and I still believe, that the issues causing all the unrest matter deeply—but there was no end. Wave after wave, like the ocean, I found myself pushed and pulled by the tumultuous current, and I craved a break, even if just for forty-six days.
Like an addict, I realized I constantly lusted after a connection to the world of social media. As Danny and I traversed those early days of our fast, we talked about how genuinely surprised we were by the way our fingers, without directed energy or conscious thought, automatically typed “f-a-c-e-” or “t-w-i-” upon opening an internet browser. We had each become conditioned to checking social media, and it was obvious to both of us how acutely we noticed the gap it left in our daily lives.
A few early observations caught my attention. I found myself longing for interaction, but more than that, I longed for social affirmation. Whether we’re talking about Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, something physiological happens when we capture a thought or moment, share it with the world, and are met with affirmation. We soon find ourselves pining for more of that same affirmation and changing the way we behave in order to get it (we’ll explore the science behind this more tomorrow).
The siren song of social-media engagement is a tempting thing. Without realizing it, we twist and morph our own behavior in order to gain more interactions and affirmations. We sell ourselves to the highest bidder. In many ways, the echo chambers we have carefully curated for ourselves on social media are largely responsible for our current political climate. We interact with and pander to those who agree with everything we believe, and we tend to dismiss, ignore, unfollow, or unfriend those who don’t.
As I moved through the Lenten season without social media, I found my mind increasingly uncluttered. My mental fog seemed to lift. Before long, I noticed that my fingers stopped typing social-media URLs, and I began to gain some distance from the voices of the internet. I read news stories for the sake of staying informed on current events, rather than with the end game of sharing them. I processed the world I encountered with the people most directly around me—my wife or a congregant. I read for pleasure more often.
As Easter neared, I had begun to rethink how I engage social media. What is my purpose? What is my drive? Where do I hope to end up? What is my agenda? These questions mostly remain unanswered, but I now understand what it will take to gain the answers I seek: Space. Silence. Cutting the cord.
For the next few days, we’ll be exploring social media and its impact on the mind. We’ll explore its implications on the Christian life and ultimately will seek to plot a way forward in health and wholeness. We hope you’ll join us for this meaningful journey, and we also hope you’ll share your own experiences with us. To get this right, we’ll need each other. Continue reading part 2 here.
Michael R. Palmer is a husband, father, ordained elder, and writer who serves as pastor, along with his wife, Elizabeth, of Living Vine Church of the Nazarene in Napa, California. He is an avid Cardinals fan, lover of blues and jazz, conversation instigator, and deeply passionate about issues of justice and spiritual formation. You can follow him on Twitter at @ and Facebook at @mryanpalmer85.
Danny Quanstrom, husband of Kayla, is the lead pastor of Hastings Church of the Nazarene in Hastings, Michigan, and president and co-founder of A Plain Account, a free, online, Wesleyan Lectionary commentary resource (www.aplainaccount.org). Danny is an unashamed gamer, lover of eclectic music, and extremely passionate about the local church. You can follow him on Twitter at @