celebration

Does It Have to Be Public to be Real? Social Media And Authentic Community

Recently Jill Duggar brought down public speculation when she announced her pregnancy a mere two months after her wedding to Derick Dillard . She defended the purity of her relationship and their decision to announce their pregnancy at only eight weeks, saying, “Understanding that the majority of miscarriages happen within the first trimester, and believing that every life is precious no matter how young, we decided to share our joyful news as soon as we could.” Pro-life conservatives raved.

Jill Duggar

Photo credit: jezebel.com

Reading this story brought up two issues for me. First, her defense of her early announcement (and conservative reactions to it) implies that the reason others might choose to wait to make a public announcement of a pregnancy is because they don’t value the life of the child until they are past the stage where miscarriage most commonly occurs. For most people, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many people choose not to publicly announce a pregnancy early on because they greatly value that life and having to share the grief of losing that life so publicly if something were to happen would be unbearably painful.

My other problem is something I touched on in my last blog post. I am uncomfortable with the implication that unless something is public knowledge, it isn’t being celebrated – at least not properly. Pro-life conservatives applaud Jill for making a statement about the value of human life from the moment of conception, but my question is why does all of America have to know about it for it to be valued?

In our technology-dependent world I wonder if we’ve come to rely too heavily on the response of others for affirmation of our own emotions and experiences. Many of us act like nothing we think or feel is valid unless someone else says it too or at very least acknowledges and affirms what we’ve said. I’m not saying this from a lofty place of judgment. I am a blogger. I want people to read what I write and validate me too. It’s because I see this in myself that I want to bring attention to it.

I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to share news on social media – to celebrate important moments in our lives or to seek encouragement in times of struggle. I just want to push back against the attitude I see subtly taking hold at times – even in myself- that real celebration can only happen in the public sphere.

I think there is something important about sharing God’s work with the people in our lives. I just don’t think that has to take the form of a public announcement. There are many benefits to social media and I don’t think it’s bad or wrong to participate in. The problem comes when we make social media a false substitute for authentic community. We deceive ourselves into thinking these people on Facebook and Twitter are our community, when, largely they are people who really haven’t earned the right to access our intimate thoughts and feelings. (And whom we haven’t earned the right to demand that they care about our intimate thoughts and feelings).

After reading my last post, the friend I wrote about in it sent me these thoughts. I had already written this post before she sent this and I loved how she put a lot of what I have been trying to say:

“Here’s the story: I’m not a super thoughtful, loving person. In fact, the main reason I did what I did was to avoid being a terrible hypocrite. After trying for a few months to get pregnant, we were told in December I have PCOS, a hormonal condition that makes it very difficult to get pregnant along with a host of other discouraging symptoms. Miraculously, we got pregnant that same month, only to lose the baby in February. Meanwhile, all our friends announced pregnancy or popped out kids. I was consumed by grief, but even more by envy. I unfriended or unfollowed people who I previously counted as good friends. And at least publicly, I suffered silently. 

So after countless doctor’s visits and fertility treatments when I finally got pregnant again and we managed to make it to the 12 week mark, how could I plaster my Facebook page with indiscriminate joy? I imagined myself reading my own page and crying herself to sleep every night, feeling that she’ll never be a mother. I couldn’t do that in good conscience, considering the miracle God had given me with this second baby.

My experience made me realize that Facebook is not a good place to share either joy or grief with other Christians. I don’t think the verses about mourning and rejoicing together refers to social media, I think it refers to real live relationships with other Christians. I poured out my grief and my joy in heaps on my closest Christian friends in all sorts of life situations, and all of them mourned and rejoiced with me. But Facebook is too contrived, too easy to manufacture. Not only that, but I never mourned on Facebook. I never announced my miscarriage. I never let social media see the reality of my suffering. So it feels very imbalanced, and very contrived, to ask Facebook to rejoice with me. Besides, only my friends and family who walked with me through my grief can fully celebrate with me in my joy. In just that handful of people I’ve received more than enough validation; I just don’t need any more from social media. 

Because really, are we looking for rejoicing and mourning with other Christians on a deep level when we post a status? Or are we just looking for the superficial validation of popularity represented by a number of likes?

I made an Instagram account solely for the purpose of sharing pregnancy updates for those who DO want to rejoice with me in that way. Also I send my mom, my sister in law, and a few of my best friends pictures of me in maternity clothes, weird craving updates, and ultrasound pictures nearly every other day. Even people who weren’t suffering would unfriend me out of annoyance if I thought it was appropriate to put all that on Facebook.  so not posting all that to Facebook doesn’t not equal not going crazy with joy in a community, mine is just a select community of those who don’t mind and understand the crazy.

I think [the problem] comes from this expectation to treat Facebook like a community, when really it’s more like a bulletin board. I’m sharing my pregnancy joy with my community, but not on Facebook, because the two are not synonymous. We should not feel shame about sharing either joy or sorrow with a community we trust, but Facebook is not a community. For people in our generation, sometimes it can be difficult to understand the difference.”

I thought her words expressed what I was feeling beautifully. I’m continuing to work through the question of how to balance rejoicing and mourning with others with sensitivity and compassion. I am finding that in my life that also means asking the question of who truly is my community and what role  the internet and social media should play as I seek to live out that question with authenticity.

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*As a disclaimer – I have nothing against Jill Duggar Dillard and I certainly think she and her husband are entitled to their own decision about what information to share and when. I really don’t have an opinion on whether she should or should not have announced her pregnancy so early. I don’t think it’s anyone’s business. My beef was purely with the responses I saw to her reasons.  I also think as someone who spent a lot of time in the public eye while growing up, Jill’s perspective on public and private information is probably different than many people’s.

Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice: When “Sensitivity” Robs us of Holy Celebration

Recently a Facebook friend of mine announced her pregnancy online. Like many similar Facebook announcements, this one was accompanied by a picture of teensy baby shoes and a due date, but the thing that stood out was a comment she made after the announcement. She explained that following this announcement, she wouldn’t be posting pictures and pregnancy updates on Facebook out of sensitivity to friends who were struggling with infertility, miscarriage, or who were single but longing for a family.  rejoice

My initial reaction to this was, “That’s incredibly thoughtful.” There are many people for whom social media has become an overwhelming bombardment of people who all seem to have the things they most desperately desire. In particular, I have heard from women struggling to get pregnant or who have experienced miscarriages who find the pain of getting on Facebook and reading other people’s pregnancy announcements and updates unbearable at times.

At first I was touched by this woman’s sensitivity – that even in a moment of great personal joy she would be thinking of others. I thought, “I want to be a woman who loves others like that.” But then I started to wonder – how far do we take this kind of sensitivity? Will the pain of those struggling with infertility go away once that baby is born? Unfortunately, probably not. Will that mean this woman is then obligated not to post pictures of her newborn or of her children as they grow? Is there a point at which well-intentioned sensitivity to others robs us of the experience of holy celebration?

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I’m not criticizing this woman and her decision. In fact, I deeply respect her decision and admire her thoughtfulness. I don’t know her situation – she may have specific friends or family members in mind whom she is loving truly and well through these actions. The only reason I bring up her announcement is because it served as a catalyst for me to think about two different issues. First, what is the balance between celebration and sensitivity? And second, what is the role of social media and other public platforms in our celebrations?

Today I’m going to focus on that first question. I’ll address the second one in my next post.

A few months ago Christianity Today published an article by D.L. Mayfield about whether or not Christians should drink alcohol. Her major argument was that out of solidarity with those who struggle with alcoholism, Christians should abstain. Christians should follow the Apostle Paul’s direction in Romans 14:21 “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” She calls out a trend among young, hipster Christians to use alcohol as a symbol of our liberation from fundamentalist traditions and calls for greater compassion towards those trapped in alcoholism by refusing to celebrate something that holds many in bondage.

Some of her points really resonated with me, but I also felt myself pushing back a little. Not so much with the alcohol issue*, but with the way I’ve seen people adopt this attitude – compassion and sensitivity towards those who struggle with something – as a primary value in their lives. If sensitivity and compassion are our primary values then we have to abstain from celebrating anything that might cause someone else pain or discomfort. This would mean not posting a picture of a great meal because someone might be struggling with their weight (or in solidarity with the many people who don’t have enough food). Or not celebrating a promotion at work because someone might not have a job. Or not posting a picture of your first home because others can’t afford one. Or not celebrating getting your PhD because others failed out of college.

There will always be people struggling. There will always be someone who doesn’t have what you have. There will always be someone who is triggered or tempted by something that is an innocent pleasure for you. If you have a relationship with someone and part of loving them is being sensitive to their vulnerabilities, then by all means, show love and grace by avoiding alcohol or by not emailing them your ultrasound pictures, or not bringing up how well you did on your SATs. We are called to love others more than we love ourselves and this may be part of how we love well. But if your motivation is a general concern that you might maybe offend someone or that someone might be hurt that you are experiencing something great and they aren’t, then I think you are robbing yourself of holy celebration.

It’s true, the Bible says to “Mourn with those who mourn,” but FIRST it says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” (Rom. 12:15) I think there is something important about sharing our joy with others – about celebrating God’s goodness in community. I think there is a way for us to rejoice, to celebrate, with both joy and compassion.

I don’t have this figured out, but I think one important part of this is our attitude when we share good news. Are we rejoicing in the unmerited gifts of God, or are we boasting? Do we celebrate with gratitude or do we take for granted blessings that others may not be experiencing? I think it’s much more problematic when we ignore or even complain about the blessings we have than it is when we celebrate the gifts in our lives.

For example, I don’t think it’s wrong to rejoice in a pregnancy on Facebook, but it might be wrong to complain about morning sickness or about how huge your stomach is on Facebook when there are many women reading that who would give anything to be feeling those things. Or here’s an example from my own life. Once I was complaining to a single friend that the problem with us waiting to start a family was that there was no guarantee it would be easy when we felt ready and maybe by the time we were stable enough for kids I would be too old, etc. My friend very gently told me, “It really bothers me when you say things like that. I also want a family and worry about waiting too long, but I don’t have a husband like you do. If you are that worried about it, you could start trying at any time. I don’t even know for sure I’ll get the chance.” Ouch.

She was right and I was convicted of my insensitivity and ungratefulness. The problem in both of these examples is insensitivity, but it’s the result of taking for granted the blessings in our lives instead of viewing them as unearned, lavish gifts.

I’m still mulling this one over. How do we celebrate with compassion and love for those who aren’t celebrating? How do we enter into others’ pain and loss without denying ourselves these sacred celebrations? And on the other side of that, how do we rejoice with those who rejoice when we feel like mourning? I would love your thoughts.

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*I have close family members who are alcoholics. I admit that alcohol is a unique struggle in that, unlike greed or gluttony or a shopping addiction, alcohol has a large potential to physically hurt the alcoholic and other innocent people – drunk drivers, domestic abuse, neglect, etc. So while it isn’t “worse” than other sins or harmful behaviors, the consequences can be more serious and far-reaching. Additionally, the verse in Romans is talking about “not causing a brother to stumble”, not “not causing a brother to be uncomfortable or jealous” and I recognize the distinction.