On Saturday we explored some of the medical advancements that have taken place over the past few decades and how medical teachings that were once understood as gospel have now become debated (if you’d like to go back and read Saturday’s reflection before continuing with this one, you may find it here: https://stjohnsaz.org/live-without-shame/). Today I want to talk about some technological advancements and how they have both enhanced our lives in some ways and made things difficult for us in other ways. When you read Saturday’s reflection, did it make you feel awkward? Did it make you think, “Wow, Father Tim is being very open with us?” Or, “He’s sharing details of his life that people don’t usually share”? There’s a reason for that. We’re taught in society that it is not good to be vulnerable. If we’re vulnerable with details of our lives, then we often fear someone will inevitably use the information against us and it will come back to haunt us. What if, for example, you discovered that I have a therapist, which leads you to question whether I should be a rector at a parish? In reality, meeting with a therapist is encouraged for clergy. In fact, every bishop in every diocese will tell their priests and deacons to make sure they have a professional therapist with whom to visit regularly.
But why is vulnerability frowned upon? I think a big part of it is that we have seen so many advances in technology over the past few decades and information that was once controlled is now spewed everywhere. This is true even when the information is incomplete or unverified. I remember back in the early 2000’s when newspapers, including the one I worked for, began featuring comment boards at the end of online news stories. Unlike letters to the editor, these comment boards did not require users to identify themselves. Under the veil of anonymity, people would craft mean, inappropriate comments at the end of stories, criticizing the reporters, the people in the stories, the editors, and more. This became even more prevalent with the advent of Facebook and Twitter (and other platforms), which allow for the speedy sharing of information. Sharing information is a good thing, but it’s important to make sure the information is correct and appropriate. Social media doesn’t require this to be the case. I remember being at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City in 2015 when we were awaiting news of the election of the next Presiding Bishop. I was in the room where the announcement would be made. But before the announcement, people had their phones out and had read on Twitter that Michael Curry had been elected. How did they know this? I was in the room where the announcement that had not yet been made. It’s like being at a football game and knowing the last-second field goal is going to miss before it actually happens on the field. Very likely a bishop had leaked the news while the bishops were returning to the convention hall from the cathedral. To this day, I believe it was inappropriate that the information was leaked before General Convention even had a chance to vote to make it official.
Social Media can be a great way to stay in touch with friends and family around the world. It certainly helped the Church during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were able to celebrate online services when we were not able to be with each other in person. But social media also has negative uses. False information and conspiracies are easily spread by social media. People are free to share hurtful and false statements under the guise of “freedom of speech”. And people are free to ridicule us for things we’ve done or said, even when those things are very likely out of context. They are also quick to tell you why you were wrong. Did you see how many opinions there were about what the United States should have done about the Chinese spy balloon that entered our airspace? Suddenly everyone on both sides of the political aisle was a balloon expert. I’m guessing many of those same people can’t even make a balloon animal, let alone know what to do with a spy balloon. When I was ordained a priest, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on the service. For every positive comment on social media, there were at least two negative and hurtful comments. The story is still online, but (thankfully) the comments are no longer there. You may click the following link if you’re interested: https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?itype=CMSID&id=4723009#gallery-carousel-446996. Unfortunately, people can and do use our vulnerabilities against us. Why would I mention I go to therapy when there’s a real possibility that someone will use that information against me? Maybe someone will spread rumors that I’m unfit to be a priest. Maybe someone will trash me for being “weak”. Sadly, we are discouraged from being vulnerable.
I’m here to say that vulnerability can be useful and I advocate for throwing caution into the wind and not worrying about what the “Twitterverse” thinks. What happens when we’re vulnerable? We help other people to feel normal. Perhaps by telling you that I struggle with shame, you’re able to recognize some of your own similar feelings you’ve experienced. Maybe they’re feelings you haven’t ever shared with anyone before. But because you know you’re not the only one who has felt this way, you’re now willing to share your own feelings. When you do so, it takes the taboo away. As Mr. Rogers said, “Anything human is mentionable. And if it can be mentionable, then it can become more manageable.” When we say something out loud, risking whatever it is that we were afraid was going to happen, it loses its power. What was scary isn’t so scary all of a sudden. Our fears are not often materialized.
It’s important to remember that when people use social media, they’re usually putting only their best image out into the world. I know I do that. I post photos smiling, having a good time, talking about positive things. But there are some not-so-pleasant things that go on in my life, too. Just because I don’t post about them online doesn’t mean they don’t happen. We need to avoid comparing our real lives from the filtered lives we see other people share on social media. While the Internet certainly gives us tools to connect and communicate with others and to share information easily, let’s all focus on being mindful of what it is that we share and why and with whom. Let’s not hide behind a pseudonym so we can bash on others anonymously. And let’s all focus on becoming comfortable with vulnerability. It is in our vulnerability that we give others a window into our shared humanity.