Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

A Digital Daughter Returns Home

Author: 
Paula Jenkins

In advertising, we were paid to sell a brand and an image that went with it. In nearly all cases, the messaging we created spoke to consumers’ egos by suggesting they might achieve happiness (narrowly defined as acceptance, love, social standing) by acquiring the brand or products that our client was selling. I became well-versed in the many ways of manipulating image and appearance in the online world.

At this same moment, along with the rest of America, I started to become rather obsessed with social media. My initial interest was partly research- oriented, but I quickly found myself with a handful of sites to check every day, blogs to read and comments to post, with my own accompanying persona to maintain on each site. And I’d gotten sucked into the online game World of Warcraft, where I was busy leveling and playing a Night Elf Druid character. It seemed like I was spending countless hours a day, ironically alone, all in a misplaced attempt to be social.

All this landed me in the digital wilderness, as I now regard it: these new vast virtual spaces be- came a place of loneliness, hazard, and mirage-like illusion.

Counterfeit Reality

It’s difficult, for instance, to discern actual truth on social media sites. They rely on individuals to post interesting daily updates on their own status. Either by necessity (people only post when something interesting actually happens to them) or by design (people overstate the interestingness of their

day), social media offers a representation of life, usually more exciting, more exotic, faster paced, and better accessorized than everyday life. Some of this “hyper-reality” may reflect the eagerness or anxiety of regular folks trying to keep up with the fast-food pace set by reality TV, where timelines are collapsed, love happens quickly, disputes resolve in thirty minutes, and teasers are crafted for next week’s dose of drama.

I soon discovered the danger of social media’s hyper-reality obsession: To “compete” in this online world as a blogger, I felt that I needed to push myself to be smarter, funnier, pithier, and more interesting and original than others. And since I was constantly judging myself against those hyper-real, unobtainable versions of people, I found I was moving further away from myself, and losing confidence in that self. In this foreign wilderness, I very much felt alone, wrestling with my own inner demons. Much like the wilderness recorded in the Bible, these virtual landscapes are rife with material temptations, full of opportunities to question one’s worth and purpose. The result was often self-judgment and loathing.

In the midst of this confusing time, my return to myself came in a single moment, when I decided to go on retreat. I had been lost, confused, questioning the morality of working in advertising, and recently divorced. At a Saturday evening reconciliation service, a Franciscan Friar placed his hands on my shoulders and uttered a quiet greeting, “Welcome Home.”

I came to recognize the power of these two well- placed words. I saw the irony in the fact that I had to unplug from the online world to plug in to God. I had to disconnect from the digital wilderness to re-connect to my true source. I had to see the hypocrisy of the hyper-real life I’d been leading in the digital world, working in a digital ad agency, and living so much of my life online. Welcome home: it was those two words, spoken by another of God’s children, that reminded me of who I was and pushed me onwards in my journey for my authentic self.

Prodigal Daughter

Parallels with the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son seem obvious to me now. A daughter of the digital age, I’d come back to God feeling unworthy, full of doubts, full of loathing, because I’d been judging the value of my own heart and mind against the hyper-real versions of people I’d never met. I had done nothing to deserve the love and grace that surrounded me in the moment of being welcomed home. Yet in that moment at San Damiano Retreat, I understood that each of us is valued and accepted and loved for who we are in total. We are not in com- petition for God’s love. There is no “most popular” or “most likely to succeed” or “my favorite child” plaque up for grabs with God. Like the father in the Prodigal Son parable, God welcomes us home for exactly who we are, as we are.

In the past six years, I’ve taken on a leadership role at San Damiano, leading their Young Adult ministry. This fall, our retreat will confront the question: “How do we find God in the digital age?” My simple answer is that God is exactly where God has always been. Technology has revolutionized a great deal in our lives, but it hasn’t changed God at all. We need to remember what technology is and isn’t. Technology is an invention of humanity, and its perceived greatness is the assertion of our own collective egos. As members of the church, it’s our responsibility to find ways to use technology to recruit, communicate, educate, fund-raise, and minister. There has never been a more powerful set of inexpensive tools available to our churches and our congregations.

But we are all meeting this new world at different paces. One of the interesting contrasts I’ve noted between two recent generations – those in their forties and those in their twenties – is our very different life views, presumably resulting from the role that technology played in our formative years. For myself and others in Gen X (sometimes called the Thirteenth Generation, born between 1961 and 19811), we’ve long known that our generation has been on the leading edge of a world full of new and changing media, even as we grew up in a time when communications were slower and required patience. Full of early adopters who welcomed the faster pace, Gen X embraces new technology while synthesizing the slower speed of our parents’ world with the ever- quickening pace of our children’s approach to new media devices. Though comfortable with new technology, we still see it as new and different. We sense that we are the last generation that will remember having a childhood with no computer in the home.

Retreat work with Gen Xers, I’ve found, often focuses on the acceleration of the contemporary world and how new technology is still something we are learning to navigate and integrate in our lives. The change in the world today is something we approach with mindful and thoughtful questioning.

Gen Y (the Millennial Generation born 1982 to 20002), however, is the first generation who likely had a computer at home from very early on. No doubt, they will regard Gen Xers (who they lump together with all previous generations) as being slower in communication methods by comparison. The internet, of course, is not new to them, and much of technology (smartphones, GPS, TiVo) is seen as the latest upgrade from media that’s always been a part of their consciousness.

Real-time Everytime

At retreats, I’ve heard many Gen Yers say they expect communications to be available, immediate, and real-time wherever they are. Text and mobile communications have rendered physical distance nearly irrelevant. Facebook and blogs are their natural communication tools. Overall accessibility to celebrities, politicians, news anchors, CEOs, and others through Twitter has given Gen Y a less hierarchical view of the world. Compared to Gen X’s early mantra of “questioning authority,” Gen Y seems not to contend with the question. Traditional authority has in many cases been stripped of its power and mystique. Their experience shows that people can become famous or powerful (often regarded as one in the same by Gen Y) by using new media to publish and promote their own creative ideas, be it a unique blog, Twitter feed, or YouTube channel.

In the end, I have come to believe that spending time on the internet is one facet of a fully modern life. It is a space to find one’s voice, to bind communities together. It is a great equalizer, giving voice to people across the globe.

Nevertheless, since the period of my own wanderings in the virtual wilderness, I’ve come to see the online space as one that should be approached mindfully and purposefully, regardless of one’s generational ties. I now limit the time I spend online and define what I’m doing beforehand, whether it be research, entertainment, writing, or socializing. 

With the lens of purposeful activity, the internet offers us a place to interact, to find communion. With blogging and Facebook, we have a way to extend our message of peace, of Christ’s love to people beyond our day-to-day reach, including those who may be wandering out there in the virtual wilderness. By actively working to create a community of believers around a blog or Facebook page, we are meeting people where they are, standing there with open arms, ready to welcome them home. 

Notes

  1. 1  Neil Howe and William Strauss, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (Quill, 1992).

  2. 2  Howe, et al. 

Paula Jenkins ’98 M.A.R. lives near San Francisco, where she works as a project manager for a credit union. As a board member and young-adult ministry leader at San Damiano Retreat in Danville, CA, this fall she is leading a retreat entitled “Linked In, Liked, and Friended: Finding God and Oneself in the Digital Age.” She blogs about her life’s adventures at welcomingspirit.net. 

Issue Title: 
iBelieve: Facing the New Media Explosion
Issue Year: 
2011