Real Words with Real Friends

We recently gathered in a downtown St. Petersburg park for our first-ever Sunday Service. We were just coming off of our recent week-long Media Cleanse, so among other things, we talked about digital mindfulness and staying authentically connected to real people. Here’s a re-cap of what was presented.

Photo by Erica Marshall

This week, during the media cleanse, I ran into a fellow parent at school who asked me how it was going.

I told her it was going well, that we were not spending so much time on Facebook, and that my family was sitting down for meals and discovering more creative (and productive) ways to spend our time.

She told me that she had never spent much time on Facebook or Twitter, and that she’s never much been tempted by her computer as she spends most of her day trapped behind one at work. However, there was one thing she was definitely “addicted” to, and that was the Scrabble-inspired gaming app, Words with Friends.

As I drove to work in the deafening silence of the cleanse (my phone was in the backseat as I had chosen to eliminate iTunes and any music-streaming apps), I thought about what our friend had told me.

She was “addicted.”

While the newest gadget in the latest color might very well be a status symbol, it’s not our devices and screens that we’re addicted to. Owning the hardware might make us feel self-important, but it’s our interaction with the software that makes us feel good. Games like “Words with Friends” or “Draw Something” (the recent Pictionary knock-off) reward players with jangly sounds and bright colors when a goal is attained.

The reward center in your brain releases euphoria- and trust-inducing chemicals every time you are showered with a fountain of 8-bit golden coins, or are told that “you’ve got mail,” or that someone wants be your friend. And we all get excited when we see that little red notification that indicates someone either likes you or something you’ve said.

But, where are these reward centers being stimulated in real life?

Do you feel rewarded by receiving or spending money? How about when a plate of food is placed in front of you, or when you finish your meal? Are you rewarded by serving others, by sexual climax or by recognizing beauty in your environment or the faces of those around you?

How much of your behavior is controlled by these rewards, and are you listening to your body (“my stomach is full”) or your reward center (“I’d better clean my plate”) when you make important decisions?

What about our relationships? How many have we entered into because we expect or are seeking a reward? And conversely, do we withhold openness and trust in some relationships because we fear betrayal or abandonment? Was there ever a time that love was showered on us, only for it to be taken away?

Where did we learn to protect ourselves in this way? When were those circuits wired into our brain? And how different would our lives be if we relied not on other people, but on ourselves, to provide those rewards?

What if we looked at ourselves in the mirror every morning and affirmed that we are whole, and that we are strong? That we are beautiful, perfect manifestations of Spirit? What if all our friends did the same? Our neighbors? Our social network?

Coming off the social media cleanse, it’s important to be aware of the distinction between your network and your community. And it’s important to be aware of toxicity levels in both. Your network may have originally been seeded by actual friends – people you know well and see often. But, it’s inevitably grown to include coworkers, acquaintances, and distant family members who may choke your news feed with negativity, emotional triggers, or inflammatory political and religious opinions.

You will need to decide what to keep (“I affirm this for myself”) and what to discard (“I deny that this person or idea has power over me.”). If it’s toxic, and there is no saving it, or it’s simply distracting, consider pulling it like a weed. It shouldn’t matter if this person is related by blood. Hide their posts or unfriend them. You can still see them at Thanksgiving, give them a big hug and tell them how much you love them and hold the best possible things for them. If the relationship has promise, manage it as you would a sickly branch. Prop a stick under it or truss it up with some rope by sending them a private message or better yet, picking up the phone.

Our purpose should be to tend to our (virtual) social networks and our (tangible) communities as we would a garden, cultivating real friends and relationships as we would grow real food – the kind we would put on our dinner table to feed our families.

Furthermore, let’s continue to be mindful and create meaning around our everyday activities. This practice is what deepens our relationship to Spirit-in-Action. We can choose to sit with our families and eat passively in front of the TV or we can choose to sit around a dining table, facing each other, sharing in conversation and laughter, and say a blessing before each meal. Showing gratitude for the food itself – and the hands that harvested and prepared it – is simple (“Thank you for this meal” is good enough).

We can choose to gather in the park, letting the kids play for a bit while we fiddle with our phones, and then say goodbye. Or we can choose to picnic in the park to share a meal and a story, to establish connections of trust and open communication with our friends, family and tribe.

The former is good enough. The latter is the best that we can do.

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About Joran Slane Oppelt

Author, Musician, Interfaith Minister, Chaplain, Public Speaker, Event Producer, Marketing Professional, Husband, Father - Not necessarily in that order. Follow me on Twitter @joranslane. View all posts by Joran Slane Oppelt

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