Social Media, Anxiety, and The Courage to Be

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been re-reading The Courage to Be (TCTB), by the 20th century philosopher/theologian Paul Tillich. It’s a classic piece of Existentialist philosophy/theology about the human search for the courage to live fully, in spite of the threats to one’s own existence. Tillich calls this threat “non-being,” which takes three main forms of anxiety:smartphone

  1. The anxiety of death. This is the universal, and uniquely human, awareness that we are all going to die one day and if we are psychologically healthy people, we try to postpone that event as long as possible.
  2. The anxiety of meaninglessness. This is the sense of despair that occurs when the thing that makes our lives orderly and coherent is rocked and we are forced to re-evaluate what we have built our lives on.
  3. The anxiety of guilt/condemnation. This is the anxiety that comes from knowing that we are not as good as we could or should be. In Christian terms, it’s awareness of our sinfulness and estrangement from God.

When Tillich talks about these three types of anxiety, he isn’t talking about anxiety in a clinical/medical sense. These anxieties are just part of what it means to be a conscious human being. Clinical/medical anxiety, according to Tillich, is a manifestation of these deeper, existential anxieties that are common to everyone.

As I’ve been reading this, I’ve been thinking about the ways these forms of anxiety manifest themselves in relation to our lives on social media. Tillich’s book was published in the 1950s, long before the dramatic changes in connection that the internet brought us. The world was changing rapidly then, and there were plenty of reasons to be anxious, but many of us today likely look back at that decade as a slower, simpler time, comparatively. Earlier this year, research showed that millennials are “the most anxious generation,” and this is in spite of the fact that the world is getting safer, overall. Many people suspect social media and the internet play a large role in this phenomenon.

Now, I’m not anti-social media at all. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and I blog. However, I recently decided to delete my Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone to decrease the amount of time I spend on social media. I’ve also been making a conscious decision to not use my phone for searching the internet in my downtime. In the three weeks or so that I have been doing this, I have found that I’ve felt less stressed and had an overall much-improved mood. That’s anecdotal evidence, but it seems to be having positive effects on me.

But I’ve been thinking, because social media is a form of human communication and culture, it will naturally be a place where our anxieties are manifested and, in response, confronted. I’ve noticed social media handles our three levels of anxiety in the following ways:

  1. Anxiety of death is manifest and confronted in the way social media tends to highlight the best of an individual’s life. Even before social media, our culture has done a good job of separating the reality of death from our daily lives. Most of us won’t even ever kill our own food. The ability to immerse ourselves in constant distraction is away of fending off the anxiety of mortality, and social media does it well. Also, when we die, some social media allows us to basically continue existing eternally online, so to speak. This is evident in Facebook’s legacy feature.
  2. The anxiety of meaninglessness often is manifest and confronted in the intense political and ideological battling that occurs in those platforms. It was traditionally good manners not to indiscriminately discuss politics or religion in public because challenging another person’s entire worldview leads to the anxiety of meaninglessness. However, on social media, one is able to ridicule and attack the worldview of hundreds of one’s closest friends with one click. One shares a post declaring a certain ideological viewpoint as absolute, his or her friend gets offended because their worldview is being challenged (and sometimes mocked), and so they respond with a post of their own, and then a war between friends begins. The battles over fake news on social media highlight how little the media can be trusted to be truthful, and so we cocoon ourselves into ideological echo chambers with our own versions of truth and news that sustains our worldview.
  3. The anxiety of guilt and condemnation occurs and is confronted when we are faced with an awareness of how poorly our lives measure up to those we follow, and in response try to cultivate the appearance that our lives are better than they are. In a sense this is a very religious phenomenon. Just as human beings are confronted with their own shortcomings/sinfulness when they encounter the divine, social media often creates an ideal for what our lives should look like and be, but which is unattainable, in reality, for most of us.

These anxieties are real for everyone and must be confronted by everyone with “the courage to be” as Tillich calls it, whether one is on social media or not. The question I’ve been considering is how much of a role does social media play in highlighting and attempting to combat our deepest human anxiety? From what I can tell, quite a bit. The answer to it isn’t necessarily for everyone to abstain completely from social media. I think we first need to just be aware of this dynamic at work inside of us. That will help us to start figuring out how to put limits around our social media usage, so that we can begin to do the work of attending to these anxieties that are already there.

Thoughts? Pushback?



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