Social Media and the Avoidance of Grief

I’m as guilty as anyone else of being pretty much addicted to electronic devices. You can ask pretty much any of my colleagues about this, and they’ll tell you it’s true. I’m one of those guys who has almost every kind of portable device—and I use them all, sometimes even at the same time. If you’re in a training or class with me, you might see me typing on my MacBook as I copy a reference from an eBook on my iPad as my iPhone is in close reach in case I need to snap a quick picture or if I get a phone call. And whether I’m by myself or with friends, I admit that I love to snap pictures of both mundane and extraordinary moments, and immediately post them to Facebook. The compulsion to be connected all the time is strong, and I think that’s for anyone who isn’t still driving a horse and buggy to work. (For coincidental illustration, I’m writing this piece while I’m several thousand feet in the air on an airplane. And in the last 15 minutes, the millennial-aged passenger next to me has checked her phone for messages no fewer than ten times. That’s not a criticism.)

Please don’t worry: this isn’t another article written in the style of the old TV editorialist Andy Rooney lamenting how technology has become intrusive in our lives and how we need to have less screen time and more presence. Well, not necessarily. I’m more interested in the why of it all. Why is it that we feel the need to capture these moments and share them immediately? I believe there are probably many reasons including unhealthy to relatively healthy narcissism, a quest for validation, and simply just wanting others to experience the same magic moments that we ourselves are experiencing. Or, we may simply want to hang on to the special moments ourselves. But that’s actually an interesting counter-productive phenomenon. It’s a paradox of sorts. In our attempts to stay connected, we are actually disconnecting. We are missing the moment. But more than that, we are also avoiding something. I believe we are avoiding having to grieve the loss of magical moments, too. Now, please understand that I am a therapist who specializes primarily in loss, grief, and life transitions, so I could have a bit of a filter to look for this kind of thing. But hear me out, please.

It all dawned on me recently while I was visiting Santa Barbara where I am working on a PhD in psychology. After a particularly challenging three days of eight-hour classes, I decided to stop by the beach on my way to the airport for my return trip. The parking lot for beach access was about a quarter of a mile from the ocean (in true Santa Barbara style) which afforded me an opportunity to indulge in the scenery as I walked the dirt path down toward the beach. The ocean started to appear before me as the sun was just getting ready to set. The whole scene was quite beautiful. My first reaction was to take a picture and share it with my friends on Facebook (which I did.) When I reached the beach, I decided to sit for a few moments before I began the two-hour drive to LAX and just mindfully observe.
A a golden retriever, seemingly having the time of his life, frolicked on the sand having the time of his life as his owner played a gentle game of fetch by tossing a ball onto the shallow water of the shore, which he eagerly retrieved. Seagulls gathered to nibble on some sort of delicacy that had washed ashore as two tourists were spreading their towels to relax in the evening sun. The scene was magical and relaxing, and in that moment I thought: I wish this could last forever. I again had the compulsion to take a video or a picture and share it with my social media friends. But this time, I instead just noticed the sequence of my thoughts. My wanting to share the moment with others was connected to my wish that the moment would last forever; as if I could capture it digitally for my own use later – or at least have it immortalized in the memory of others, if not my own.

Soon it was time for me to leave and continue my trek back home. And this time, I did so with a bittersweet combination of gratitude and a feeling of loss. As I drove down the scenic coast of California’s Highway 101, I had the thought that this moment is gone. And so is this moment. And that moment? It’s now gone, too. I wanted to stop and capture every moment. I finally understood what it means when others have said that living mindfully in the moment means experiencing perpetual heartbreak. I understood what it meant to live each day as if it was my last, as I noticed the beauty that accompanied my ordinarily mundane journey.

Despite our knowing that being truly in the moment brings peace and fulfillment, as well as alleviating stress and anxiety, our refusal to be present also helps us avoid the pain of losing the present moment, too. After all, if we never experience the present moment, then there is nothing to grieve. There is nothing to attach to, and no emotion is stirred. We are disconnected. We become comfortably numb. But we also miss out on creating rich memories to add to our mental storehouse and call upon later. We sacrifice experiencing the present moment in order to avoid what is ultimately wistful grief at its passing. Indeed, we kill the possibility of nostalgic satisfying reverie with the payoff of experiencing very little at all.

So I’m challenging myself with something counter-intuitive. It’s unlikely I’ll ever fully break my compulsion to be connected, and quite frankly, I like Facebook, social media, and the admittedly superficial (and perhaps imitation) social interaction it provides. Nevertheless, I’m creating a mindfulness challenge for myself, and you’re welcome to join me. The next trip I take, whether it be to the mountains near my beloved Denver, or on the beach or foothills of Santa Barbara, I’m leaving the phone in the car. I may see the most majestic and glorious sites. I’m going to experience it as fully as I can and keep its memory safely tucked in the scrapbook of my soul. And even though I know the moment will pass, I’m okay with risking that I may have the wistful longing and sense of loss that I’ll never experience that moment again. Because, after all, it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. Living in the present, mindfully, does have the potential to be heartbreaking—and it’s the kind of heartbreak I’m on a quest to live with.

One thought on “Social Media and the Avoidance of Grief”

  1. Sheila Kelleher says:

    Wow. I like how you think.
    And look forward to your next post

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