It is easy to overlook those moments in the Gospels when Jesus withdraws from others. They come across as pauses, a rest between miracles, parables, and edifying encounters such as that with the rich young man. The work of Jesus’s ministry takes place amid others, and the exchanges can be taxing, as when the Canaanite woman asks his help and he replies that his bread is not for dogs. “And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:26–27), and Jesus relents. The souls he helps and tangles with make him weep and roar; he denounces, mourns, blesses, and heals. Disengagement allows for calm and quiet. Especially in Luke 4:42, his solitude marks a retreat from the madding crowd: “And when it was day, he departed and went into a desert place: and the people sought him, and came unto him, and stayed him, that he should not depart from them.” Here and elsewhere, the people press and beseech, and Jesus needs a respite.
But, of course, the isolation has a positive content. It’s not about getting away from others but about going toward something else. Jesus isn’t alone. He’s with the Father. Prayer can happen in company. Church worship is corporate prayer. But there must be times when a soul petitions the Father in solitude. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone,” but Jesus’s example shows the periodic necessity of making God your only companion. Too often the world draws you away from him, and so you must slough off your circumstances and address him by yourself, oriented toward nothing else, no outside distractions or commitments. The first commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Loving your neighbor comes second.
We are in danger of losing these replenishing, corrective moments of solitary faith. Silence and seclusion are harder to find, and fewer people seek them out. You find a lone bench in the park on a fall afternoon, gaze up at the sky through the branches, and begin the Rosary only to have a power walker march by barking into an invisible mic. It’s not just the noise, it’s his connection to absent persons, as if to say that being in one place alone with the Lord is insufficient.
Social media is the culprit. Texting, selfies, updates, chats, snapchats, tweets, multiplayer games, blogs, wikis, and email enable people to gossip, boast, rant, strategize, self-promote, share, collaborate, inform, emote, and otherwise connect with one another anywhere and all the time. The volume is astounding. Earlier this year, Facebook boasted 1.23 billion active users, while late last year Twitter’s 200 million users sent 400 million tweets per day. According to Nielsen Media, a teen with a mobile device sends or receives on average around 3,300 text messages per month, in addition to logging 650 minutes of phone calls.
Those habits, which researchers term “hypersociality,” dominate leisure time. Data analyst Bill Tancer found in 2008 that social media had passed pornography as the most popular type of search. The whole range of fallen human motives passes through the tools, but the prime one is, precisely, “I want not to be alone.”
Some commentators highlight the narcissism and frivolousness (the top tweeter, with 53 million followers, is Katy Perry, Justin Bieber coming in second with 52 million—Pope Francis has 4.6 million); others emphasize the human communities social media creates and the revenue it generates for businesses. But the titans of social media understand quite well the social need behind it all. In his Time magazine profile of Mark Zuckerberg, Man of the Year for 2010, Lev Grossman stated the aims of Facebook:
Facebook wants to populate the wilderness, tame the howling mob and turn the lonely, antisocial world of random chance into a friendly world, a serendipitous world. You’ll be working and living inside a network of people, and you’ll never have to be alone again.
Zuckerberg told a reporter the same year, “And no matter where you go, we want to ensure that every experience you have will be social.” Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, announced in a 2012 talk at MIT, “We’re social animals. It’s deep into our identity about how we discover meaning in life, what we think is important about what we do.” In conversation with Andrew Keen, Biz Stone, cofounder of Twitter, states bluntly, “The future will be social. . . . The social will be the killer app of the twenty-first century.” By this way of thinking, isolation is hurtful abandonment, quarantine, a denial of support. The astronomical success of their ventures suggests that many, many people experience solitude in just that way. When these Silicon Valley moguls explain their creations, they set money, power, and fame below the pledge to cure the human condition. They may be insincere, but their dosages of social media have proven spectacularly irresistible.
Loneliness is everywhere. I see it in my students when I tell them to turn off the TV while studying and one blurts out, “I couldn’t do that—the silence would drive me crazy.” Or when you watch someone at a bus stop end one phone call and promptly dial up another one, and the words you hear have no urgency to them, proving that the only need lay in finding someone to talk to. Contact fends off the terrible feeling, the unease Robert Frost caught while staring at the snowy field and desolation enveloped him:
And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less.
A voice, a photo, some words from someone, somewhere, hold it at bay. I may be only one of Britney Spears’s 37 million followers, but a short message makes her a part of my life. I may be estranged from my job, but if my LinkedIn connections reach three figures, a richer future awaits.
The sad truth about all this has two parts. One, the friends and connections one forms, the attention one gathers through digital tools, fail to meet the spiritual hunger. The universal hope that I-am-not-alone-and-unacknowledged needs stronger stuff—we aren’t so shallow. This is why the stunning geometrical growth in social-media volume has occurred. This and that connection aren’t enough, so you grasp for more of them, more “Friends” and “People Talking About This.” A fresh “request” compliments you, but only briefly, so you yearn for more, as if a steady sequence of friends’ and strangers’ regard will expel your loneliness for good. The motto is “Only connect, and do it often.” Maintaining that network takes hard work, but the lure of recognition and the pain of forlornness provide enough excitement and desperation to keep it going, however vainly.
And two, most pitiably, it obscures the surest and permanent source of comfort: God. People awash in social media can’t get past the paradox that the best salve for loneliness is properly applied alone. They look for answers in added connections, and more-emotional ones, but God isn’t a closer contact and better friend. He transcends the social, and you must seek him beyond the medium of “share” and “like.” In solitary prayer, the secular pleasures dissipate and the successes of social media melt into nothingness. You drop your social self.
At the same time, the more you socialize, the less you follow Jesus into the wilds and prove the psalm’s promise, “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer.” You build your life upon sand, and when the sand shifts, you add more sand . . . and more . . .
This may explain the findings of a recent study showing a correlation between Internet use and religious disaffiliation. Using data from the General Social Survey, computer scientist Allen B. Downey concluded that Internet use accounts for 20 percent (5.1 million people) of overall decreases in religious commitment since 1990. The science is fuzzier than Downey allows, but the trend matches our assumption that more social media means less prayer. People spend fewer minutes alone with God, and, more damaging, they acquire a sensibility less inclined to seek him out.
That disposition has hit most strongly among the young, the heaviest users. To reverse it, my advice to parents, ministers, and other mentors is not to speak to them of God’s greatness and love, nor to assure them, “God is with you always and best felt in solitude.” Young people trust most the evidence of their own experience. So, give them a spiritual exercise to perform before each session of social media begins. When you buy your seventeen-year-old a new tool, hand your charge three psalms, or the Sermon on the Mount, or the Nicene Creed, and say, “Here is your gift, but you may have it on one condition. When you sit down in Starbucks, before you open the tablet, you must recite these words. When you walk home from school, before you text your friends, you must recite these words. Say them slowly and mean them. It will only take a few minutes. I want your promise.”
Prayer must become a practice among our children, and if we can use the bait of social media to plant it into their daily affairs, then we may have faith that the call of God will, sometimes, entice them more than the news of their friends.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.