The love-hate Facebook relationship

A young friend—less than half my age—emailed a question: “What did people do before Facebook?” Her question was neither rhetorical nor sassy. She’s honestly perplexed. She doesn’t like Facebook. I don’t know her reasons; I only know my own. She was inclined to give up her Facebook account, but death, or near-death, intervened.

She and I are members of the Holden Village community, people who are scattered world-wide, whose lives intersected at one time or another at the tiny retreat center in a remote valley of the North Cascade Mountains. There are thousands of us. One is in his final stages of life. (“Cancer sucks,” he posted on Facebook not long ago.) The community has gathered to celebrate his life and immense talent, to pray and sing together, to be with him and bless him. All on Facebook.

I’ve experienced other death-watches on Facebook. It’s a privilege to add my prayers to those who are at the bedside. Our Holden community also gathered on-line recently to offer prayers and condolences when one of us was killed in a vehicle accident. I appreciate being connected with people in this intimate way when they’re thousands of miles away and suffering.

And yet.

The medium, I try to remind myself, is not the message. Because this medium—most of the various social media for that matter—is at times raucous, chaotic, hostile, and yup, offensive. Opening Facebook on my laptop is like walking into the marketplace, a bawdy, noisy free-for-all where people bump into each other, step on toes, point fingers (especially one), and settle arguments by yelling louder and longer. It’s also a place where people ecstatically share their joy, their celebrations, their loves, and their everyday lives. In other words, Facebook is everything that we are.

In the past, my young friend asked, how did people stay in touch when important events like birth and death occurred? There were, of course, telephones and the postal service. Just yesterday, as I was contemplating all this, a family member called to tell me she’s pregnant. I was grateful not to have learned this on Facebook.

But honestly, we can’t call or write everyone. When my husband died ten years ago, I would’ve thought it unseemly to post on Facebook. Yet a friend who lived elsewhere would’ve attended his memorial, if she’d only known. With Facebook we’re more connected with other people than ever. And that’s the rub. Being connected is not always comfortable.

For years I tried to pretend Facebook would fade. It hasn’t. Two billion active users, the site claims. I choose to engage for a limited amount of time each day, and I choose to empathize with each and every post I read. That is, I try to understand, with respect, what others are experiencing, what they’re feeling and needing. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes my attempt to empathize is through gritted teeth. Still, there’s a reason there are two billion of us. We really do want to connect.

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