The life studied by social media isn’t what sustains us

(RNS) – I was recently asked if the life I lead – public life as a writer, speaker, and “influencer” (as they say) – is what I always imagined.

The answer is no.

My public life is not what feeds the desires of my heart. It’s not the vision I had for myself. My public life consists of the things that happened on my way while doing different things: reading, studying, and teaching.

It’s the public things, of course, that get people’s attention. And just as naturally it is the same public things – in contrast to the workings of the inner, hidden life – which become the fodder for the endeavors and imitations of other people. It is human nature to cultivate desires based on what we see in front of us.

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Our new digital age is enlarging what we see – the public figures, representations and projections – in new ways, and often distorts reality beyond recognition. A socially mediated life separates the outer public person and the inner private self; cultivates unrealistic expectations that turn unfulfilled hopes into disappointment and resentment; delivers plastic people and distorted dreams.

Recently, after a lecture on such effects of this technological age, I was asked what visions we could offer to counter these false ones. One suggestion I made was to focus on the joys of everyday, ordinary life to counter the romantic notion that in order to serve God well we must “do great things” and “change the world.” The truth is that we serve God best when we love our neighbors and one another faithfully and well, however God calls us.

Yes, God calls some to serve loudly and publicly. But he calls all of us to also serve in quiet, inglorious ways. Whether we do both well depends on how we shape and nourish the inner life – the heart, mind and soul.

The vision that shaped – and shaped – my inner life was brought before my eyes at a young age (thankfully long before the age of social media).

It happened on a family trip from our home in Maine to that of a few distant relatives in Vermont. I was just 4 or 5 years old. These relatives – an elderly, childless couple who looked after an older parent – lived in an old brick farmhouse, surrounded by trees and gardens, with a stony stream running along the back.

The place enchanted me. Even though I was so young and memories are faint, I have never forgotten the character and strength of this old couple, or their tall brick house with its comfortable rooms inside and inviting land outside, or the crystal clear waters of the creek I splashed into. I haven’t noticed it for a long time, but I always carried this vision of the good life within me.

Years later, I met a good man who had a similar vision of his life. After we got married, we struggled through the poverty of the youth for a long time. When I got my first full-time academic position, we didn’t have two cents to rub against each other. In preparation for moving to several states, I stayed behind to work while my husband looked for an apartment for us.

On the way, a friend from the Church out of the blue contacted him to tell us he was lending us money to buy a house. This has been one of the greatest – and most surprising – blessings of our lives.

An abandoned farmhouse. Photo by Eliza Diamond / Unsplash / Creative Commons

A week later, my husband came home and handed me a card with a picture of the house he was offering. It was an old brick farmhouse surrounded by large oak trees. And a stream ran through the back of the property.

The house had been empty for years. It was considered uninhabitable because of its poor wiring and plumbing. But we still lived there. And now, after many years, we live in the house. I think when human hands built this place over 100 years ago (a house that was given to a daughter as a wedding present), God thought it for us.

It takes seconds to send a tweet that goes viral. It takes an hour to give a lecture. It takes a year or two or more to write a book.

But it took two decades to restore this house, tame its grasses and shrubs, cultivate the flowers others planted years ago, and climb over the garden wall the roses we planted.

It took two decades to live with, meet, serve, and love our neighbors – watching their children grow up and their parents die, being the ones who cut a lawn and then headed for driveways during a medical crisis plow a blizzard to get the lyrics when they go on vacation, to share pictures of graduation parties, to celebrate the round birthdays, to look for a lost dog and to share holiday dinner together.

For two decades we have lived in the land that the Lord has given us, trusting in the Lord and doing good, enjoying the Lord who has given me the desires of my heart.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the soul is carried by bricks and mortar or land and streams (or skyscrapers and cityscapes) alone. But it means that the outer life cannot be separated from the inner. In the absence of vision, people perish. And with a malnourished vision, the fruit withers.

In this way the call of each of us is the same: to inhabit our souls, souls formed by God for our good and glory, and to nourish the inner life that produces the fruits of the outer.

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