Chapter 1

Living in a Culture of Comparison

Postmarked February 17, 1927, the envelope has browned with age. Its damp, musty smell tingles my nose. I carefully remove the letter inside, unfolding two sheets of delicate stationery bearing news from Harry Kerr of Coggon, Iowa. In neat cursive, Harry writes to his cousins in rural Illinois about the state of his tractor, trouble at the local bank, and the jackrabbits who feast “like hogs” on his corn.

He then writes:

Was glad to hear you had a radio. You are right in touch with everything now, and you will hear all manner of things.

Sentences like that, rich with historical undertones, are why I collect old letters. I love to imagine what life was like for people like Harry Kerr and piece together parts of their stories from clues in their correspondence. Letters like this one also give me perspective on the blessings—and potential hazards—of the moment in time in which we live.

That owning a radio in 1927 made a person “right in touch with everything” makes sense. After all, it would be thirty years until half the country would own television sets. Radios were the sole form of in-home media entertainment, and they were one of the few means by which Harry and his cousins could get glimpses of a world far from their cornfields, chickens, and neighbors down the road.

Thanks to radio, they could hear news about Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, or listen to Scrappy Lambert sing “Me and My Shadow,” or learn about the influenza epidemic far away in the United Kingdom. Radio afforded them a rare chance to get a peek into other people’s lives, and-as Harry so charmingly put it-to get “right in touch with everything.”

Imagine if Harry could have spied our world with its glowing screens and chiming phones. Oh, the “all manner of things” he’d experience!

Practicing Dissatisfaction

Unlike the old-time radios housed in large wooden cabinets around which whole families gathered, the tantalizing devices that provide our news and entertainment fit into the palm of our hand and are almost always within reach. These little screens nimbly broadcast colorful, high-definition images, allowing us to scroll through thousands of images and to read countless messages throughout the day and night.

Short of making a personal visit, a farming family in the 1920s likely had no way of knowing what the lives of others looked like. Porcelain dishes, matching rocking chairs, the Double Wedding Ring quilt folded neatly at the end of their bed, perhaps-all of that remained shrouded in mystery.

In constrast, with the click of a button or the tap of a finger we can see nearly every detail of the lives of others, from our next-door neighbors to our favorite celebrities. This ability has brought people together around the globe and opened new opportunities for business and education, but, as with everything, the dark side is just beyond where we focus.

With the click of a button . . . we can see nearly every detail of the lives of others, from our next-door neighbors to our favorite celebrities.

A few years ago on Christmas afternoon, I noticed my teenage daughter intently swiping through photos on her phone. Curious, I sat down beside her. She turned the screen toward me and told me that a girl at her school had posted pictures of the presents she’d received that morning. Neatly displayed on the girl’s bed were an iPad, new laptop, a pair of expensive headphones, a mountain of new clothes and shoes, and more. The comments and “likes” from peers came fast and furious. “Jealous!” “OMG!” “Lucky!” There was giddiness in these comments and in the speed with which they were posted; they were likely fueled by a potent mix of curiosity and envy.

The tenth commandment forbids envy or wishing to possess anything that belongs to our neighbors (Exonus 20:17), but isn’t that what we find ourselves doing when we scroll through social media, noting how happy this family seems or how stylish that renovated kitchen looks or how successful that friend is? One recent study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, looked at the effects of time spent on social media versus “face-to-face time” with another person. When we are present with others, self-esteem and life satisfaction are raised. However, observing other people online can have just the opposite effect, the study suggested.

And that negative blow to our sense of well-being has to do with envy.

It’s unlikely that we ever visit a social media platform with the intention of experiencing envy, or even comparing our lives with others. But given the ever-increasing amount of time we spend on social media, it seems inevitable we will feel it.

What God wants for us is joy. In John 15:11, Christ says he tells us “these things” in order that we will have joy—and have that joy in great abundance. Left unchecked, comparing our lives, possessions, and accomplishments with what we look at online can rob our joy. It’s probably safe to assume that on that Christmas day a few years back, my daughter and her friends experienced less joy after seeing their friend’s massive holiday haul.

Truly, to echo the old maxim, comparison steals our joy.

This thief not only has access to our homes, but we give it the keys and leave all the doors and windows open. By broadcasting pictures of the latte we sipped at breakfast or the outfits we’re trying on in dressing rooms or those picture-perfect scenes from our family vacations, we open the door, however unintentionally, for others to compare their lives with the highpoints from our own. In return, we hungrily view everyone else’s posts, tempting our own discontent.

With technology we’re normalizing the very envy that God warns us against, and we’re barely aware we’re even doing it. Our newsfeeds grab our attention and devour our time. A recent study cites nine hours as the average time teenagers spend on social media every day. For adults, it’s upwards of two. That’s more time combined than we grownups spend on personal care, at meals, or engaging with friends.

Dr. Susan Biali Haas, a medical doctor and wellness expert writes about the way she chooses to use social media. In an article in Psychology Today, she says that she cringes “at some of the things I have unthinkingly posted in the past.”

“These days,” she writes, “I think before I post: Could this provoke envy? Might this make someone feel bad about or dissatisfied with their circumstances?”

She refrains from posting vacation photos, pictures of meals at fancy restaurants, or “major professional milestones or accomplishments.”

“In some ways I’m probably a holier-than-thou social media Scrooge now, and I still might inadvertently cause negative emotions with some things that I post,” she admits. “I want to continue to participate, to stay connected to people through this medium, but don’t want to contribute to the demise in well-being and life satisfaction that occurs as a result of these platforms.”

Connecting with Gratitude

A growing body of research, however, suggests that the cause-and-effect relationship between social media use and “a demise”-to quote Dr. Biali Haas-in well-being and life satisfaction is much more complicated than it looks. Many studies point to the benefits of connecting with others online

Writer and mental health advocate Jenny Capper has highlighted the value of social media, especially for people living with mental illness.

“There are many people suffering from mental illness who don’t receive support from the people closest to them,” Capper writes. “Mental illness can warp reality and make you feel like you’re the only one experiencing the symptoms. It can be very lonely and discouraging …. Utilizing social media for mental health purposes gives you the chance to search for forums, articles, and videos about mental health. There is a wealth of information that can bring comfort and guidance.”

And even for those not suffering from a health issue, mental or physical, social media affords us an easy way to connect with those we love.

Harry Kerr’s 1920s letters ended with the hopeful words, “Let me hear from you soon.” Wouldn’t he have loved to be able to enjoy the kind of close and instant contact with his cousins that social media affords us now? (I believe he would.)

Like you, I’ve made and reconnected with dear friends, thanks to Facebook. I am a member of a few groups who pray for and encourage each other from the security of a private message thread. Many times I’ve felt sustained—in my work, in my faith, in my personal life—by their support and prayer. Thanks to Facebook, I get to watch my young niece and nephews who live across the country grow up. One of my siblings lives in the Netherlands and, thanks in large part to social media, we can remain in close contact. The benefits of using the platform go on and on.

But obviously, there can be costs—spiritually and otherwise—to this gift of easy connection.

I learned something about those costs a few months ago. This past summer, due to a glitch in their software, I was locked out of Facebook. For about three weeks, every time I tried to log in, I got caught in an impenetrable security loop.

At first, I felt anxious about whatever news and messages I might be missing. (The current term for that feeling is “FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out.) But then something else began to emerge out of the new blank spaces in my life. I began changing—for the better.

Now that my head wasn’t bowed down over my phone quite so often, my gaze landed on the everyday beauty around me. The sun bursting through the clouds in the afternoon. A black-capped chickadee at my backyard feeder.

Passing a field of sunflowers as my husband and I drove down a country road, I felt a sense of joy that almost took my breath away. “Thank you,” I prayed. Were it not for the Facebook glitch, I may have been scrolling through my “feed” on that drive and missed that glorious sight.

I noticed other things, too. The tall “to be read” pile next to my bed began to shrink, book by book. Also, because I couldn’t rely on the habit of going online when I was bored or needed a little emotional lift, I made friends with the silence. To evoke Harry Kerr’s phraseology, I didn’t miss being in touch with “everything” or the “all manner of things” I was accustomed to following.

Perhaps most notably, I felt fresh gratitude for my own lovely and good-enough life.

The break from unintentionally comparing myself to others or filling spare moments with images that so easily led to dissatisfaction and envy and news cleared my head. I had a renewed sense of how God has gifted me with my husband and children, my friends, and my home.

This gratitude and peace continued even after I was granted access to my account again. Once I was able to log in again, I found myself less eager to be online. And spending less time online, experts promise, is the key to having a healthy relationship with social media. Researchers and health professionals encourage us to spend a “moderate” amount of time online, although few provide specific guidelines. A new University of Pennsylvania study, however, suggests that limiting social media use to thirty minutes a day improves a sense of well-being.

That’s the goal I’d like to keep. Months after I was able to access Facebook again, I still feel the positive effects of spending less time online. I’ve learned that I don’t need that diversion from the present moment or from the actual “everything” of my life.

CHAPTER 1 QUESTIONS

Proverbs 14:30 says, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (esv).

Think about the time you spend on social media:

Does time on social media platforms leave you feeling envy or other negative emotions? Can you pinpoint when this is the case?

Do you feel more tranquil and connected after spending time online? What sites help you connect with others or with God?

Do you ever consider trimming back the time you spend on Facebook or other social media platforms?

Take the following quick, six-question quiz to reflect on your social media habits.

  1. About how many minutes do you spend on social media, every day?
  2. 2. Why do you log on to social media?
    1. To connect with friends
    2. For news
    3. To escape boredom
    4. To see what others have posted
    5. No reason
  3. Does the time you spend on social media affect the amount of sleep you get? Do you ever stay up later than you would like because you are online?
    Yes/No
  4. Do you ever cut short or trade time in prayer or contemplation for time on social media?
    Yes/No
  5. Forty-three percent of Americans are described as “constant checkers” who refresh email and check social media sites and apps a few-or even several-times an hour. Are you part of this group?
    Yes/No
    If so, why do you think this is?
  6. Are you happy with your relationship with social media?
    Yes/No

This quiz can’t be scored objectively. Instead, spend a few quiet moments looking at your answers and considering whether your social media use is keeping you from engaging with others, sleeping well, experiencing gratitude, or more deeply connecting with God.

Pray for guidance regarding the amount of time and attention you give to social media.

If you sense that your social media habits are hurting you or keeping you from better pursuits, make a note of that mentally, or on paper here, and continue on to Chapter 2.

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