20 March 2014, The Tablet

Forget chocolate, try giving up social media

by Daniel Kearney

Whether or not you keep your Lenten pledge doesn’t really matter. Lent, thankfully, is not (or should not be) about whether we give up chocolate, crisps or alcohol – we are, invariably, the only beneficiaries of such heroic feats of abstinence.

Whatever our view of Lent – a spiritual boot camp or an exercise all quickly forgotten after Easter – it is in essence an insight into ourselves, into the heart and soul of our existence and, significantly, our relationship with God.

A sixth-from student said to me, “Lent is so boring, it’s always the same.”

The challenge to convince her and the many who share such sentiments in our increasingly and aggressively secular society is legion. There are many and varied reasons why this is so – social media being the most obvious and, probably, the most insidious because of its addictive and stupefying nature. It can, without the fail-safe of self-restraint and prudence, gnaw away at the very core of our dignity and respect for others and for self.

Our schools are at the coalface of such struggles – and often the Wisdom of Solomon is insufficient. One Friday afternoon a young girl appeared at my office in an almost frenzied state because her phone had been confiscated by a member of staff and would not be returned until Monday morning. “That’s my life,” she sobbed. “I can’t live without it.” Sadly, she was probably telling the truth.

For the good and laudable advantages social media has brought us there are downsides that are seldom acknowledged or ever confronted.

Social media could help our young people become more informed as well as better understand and address social and personal issues. But I have yet to see such initiatives in our schools.

All too often social media is merely a short-term and superficial means to an end – from narcissistic selfies and inane tweets to moronic games and YouTube trivia, cluttering our hearts and minds with bric-a-brac and fripperies.

Lent is a great opportunity to exorcise our hearts and minds from the media obsessions that would posses and rule us. We can live without them. We can live and breathe without tweets, YouTube, Facebook and texting. Be different. Be you! Read a book. Speak to people. Live and have your being within the real world!

When Jesus fasted in the wilderness he was taunted and tempted by ideas and desires which would have compromised his relationship with God and, ultimately, destroyed him as a person. He resisted the allure of the devil’s “drip, drip, drip” temptation of “more, more, more” for a life of selflessness. He grew stronger in his fidelity and focus because he had been tempted and tested in the melting pot.

After forty days and nights in the slow solitude of the desert he emerges a more complete and content being.

Only we can put an end to whatever distracts and divides us, to whatever is besieging our hearts and minds. But we need resolve, a steely willingness to change, to turn away from the bright and alluring lights of what others might want us to do to and what we know in the mine-deep depths of our being we ought to do.

Daniel Kearney is the headmaster of St Bede’s College, a Catholic co-educational independent school in Manchester

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