Creating Mental Space for Christmas
Overwhelmed by the volume and nature of the information coming across social media and cluttering up my newsfeed every morning, I made a radical decision just before Thanksgiving to take up a digital fast for the traditional period known in the Byzantine Tradition as “St. Philip’s Fast:” the 40 days preceding Christmas.
We are not required, in the Roman Church, to take up penances in the same way we must during Lent, but Advent is known as a penitential season of waiting, of expectant hope.
It made sense to me to give up something excessive, something that was cluttering up my mental and emotional space. Social media is that, for me. Excessive, cluttering, disproportionately important and invasive to my daily life. Especially my daily life with 5 kids.
I come by a lot of noise in this life naturally. Cartoons blaring, siblings playing (or fighting like wild animals) pets meowing, doors slamming and babies whimpering. There is no shortage of sounds in our happy household. Even now as I sit writing, an enraged 4-year-old sits keening in the next room over, sure her life is marked by suffering and injustice because her younger brother absconded with the coveted cow from our Fisher Price nativity scene.
All this to say, I don’t need any more distraction between my ears - or in my eyes - to keep my mind fixed on earthly things. It already is. I already am. I sit in Mass on Sundays making lists of appointments and tasks to be completed. My mind wanders to a conversation I had on Instagram while I’m trying to pray the Rosary in the car on my way to school pickup. My eyes glaze over when I take up spiritual reading before bed, urging me to toggle over to a novel I have waiting in my Kindle library.
In short: I am perfectly adept at distracting and busying myself without inviting algorithms and hundreds of stranger’s life details to do it for me.
My fast became this: to forgo all social media use (across all platforms except Facebook, where I login periodically to drop the link to my newest writing, but don’t consume content or interact in any way), to forgo reading news or clicking on headlines (with the exception of the agency I write for, CNA), and to avoid music in the car apart from the Christian station. No NPR, no pop music, and with the exception of Sundays and feast days, no Christmas music, either.
I was expecting it to be difficult and to be unpleasant. And it has been difficult. But it has been very, very good. My brain is stretching out, rousing itself from a long slumber imposed by the constant consumption of other people’s thoughts and other people’s ideas. I don’t know why it has taken me half a lifetime to realize it, but consuming social media is not free. The price of admission is my attention, my mental energy, and my emotional reserves.
I guess I always figured the screen served both as mediator and as a shield of sorts; commenting on Twitter or messaging on Instagram is not the same as engaging in an irl political debate in a bar or having an intimate tete-a-tete with a friend over coffee.
And yet. There is a cost. A cost I didn’t realize I was severely overdrawn on, namely, the price of my attention and my ability to emotionally connect with - and respond to - all the information I was consuming.
Guess what happens when you work online, you maintain dozens of friendships online, and you consume ungodly amounts of bad news - also online - while living in a house with 6 other human beings who need, want, and deserve your occasionally undivided attention?
Kaboom. Especially for this socially-inclined introvert, who very much enjoys interacting with people AND pays a heavy toll in so doing. I arrive to the 4 o’clock hour most weekdays absolutely fried. Flustered. Exhausted beyond reason or reasonability. Think the mom in Home Alone at the airport ticket counter trying to hawk her earrings flustered. And why? A kid had spilled something. Somebody needed me. My 6 and 8 year old boys were (gasp) noisy after school.
It’s embarrassing to write this all out, but there it is. I was spending so much on social media that I had nothing left to give in real life. I was snapping at my kids for being children because I’d spent my precious moments of solitude during nap times clicking on article after article about the abuse crisis in the Church.
The best gift of this Christmas season is already here. It’s me, fully present, emotionally tanked up, and ready to engage in relationship with flesh and blood humans who share my address and, heck, my zip code too. Do you know it’s way easier to talk to strangers at the mailbox or the coffee shop if your head isn’t crooked at an ergonomically disastrous angle, eyes gliding across a screen of literally endless information?
I’m not some kind of anti tech Luddite over here. Social media and smartphones are here to stay. But we can’t let them use us. Can’t allow ourselves to slide into damaging consumption habits and unsustainable levels of connectivity.
This Advent, we’re unplugging. No weekday screens aside from work: that’s phones, tv, and computers. Maybe a family Christmas movie on the weekends. No shows or recreational scrolling for the adults, and no Netflix nanny for the kiddos.
And if that sounds crazy difficult, maybe it’s just the medicine your weary soul requires to truly enter into this season of quiet, expectant, hope.
I know mine did.
Jenny Uebbing is the author of the popular blog Mama Needs Coffee covering topics of sex, life, marriage, culture, and the Catholic Church. She is a revert to Catholicism with a deep love for the Faith and a desire to grow in knowledge and understanding of what we believe, and why.