Facebook’s “On This Day” as a Spiritual Practice

By MaryAnn McKibben Dana, MDiv ’03

I don’t know exactly when Facebook rolled out its On This Day feature, but it’s become more and more a part of my daily social media routine. It’s been (mostly) a gift to read what was important to me one, two, three or more years ago.

Reactions to On This Day are mixed. Many friends and colleagues have expressed concern that the feature can cause unnecessary pain, especially if people aren’t prepared to be confronted by updates about a marriage that’s now over, or about the life of a beloved person who has died. Also, Facebook updates are non-linear, haphazard even. Dismay over terrorist attacks mingle with reports on our pets. Grief visits us, but it can be nestled between Buzzfeed videos and a recipe for brussels sprouts gratin. Which is part of the beauty of the thing–profound moments mingled with the sacred ordinary. But it can also create emotional whiplash.

For people who simply don’t want to go there, Facebook makes it easy to ignore On This Day. The feature can remind you every day to take a peek at what’s there, but you can turn the notifications off. You can also block updates involving certain people and mute certain dates… though I suspect that’s not foolproof at muting the sad stuff. I miss my dad, not just on his birthday or the day he died, but random days throughout the year.

I suspect many people use social media as a de facto journal to chronicle daily life. In that respect, it’s good to have a way to go back and read… although I wish there were a way to skip easily to any date in your timeline, not just the current one. I also wish you could allow select people to view your On This Day–my husband posts rarely to Facebook but has wished he could easily access mine, especially for the posts about our family.

I believe On This Day is not just a reminder of past events. It can also be a spiritual practice, a way of “listening to your life.” One of the most important practices for our family and for me is the examen, in which we talk about points of gratitude in our day. On This Day is a way of living the examen on a larger scale. Patterns emerge. Situations ripen over a series of days and months, and it can be illuminating to see a snapshot in time when we know the end of the story.

It seems to me there’s a balance to be found between detachment and engagement. On This Day works best for me as a reflective practice when I’ve gotten into the right mental space. I might take a deep breath and spiritually prepare myself for what I’ll see there, and it’s mostly a delightful surprise. But if there are sad things waiting for me there, I want to be detached enough so I don’t replay the heartache–I can acknowledge it and feel whatever new thing I need to feel about it.

But we don’t want to be too detached either, examining our experiences as if we were a historian researching the past. Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt talks about contemplation as a “long, loving look at the real.” Loving means not holding our experiences at arms’ length.

There’s also something to be said for what we might call holy amnesia. I’m struck by how many annoyances and indignities I was very excited about at the time, that I not only don’t care about any more, but don’t even remember. That’s such important perspective–and it also impacts what I write today. Will the future me want to read this? Will the future me even care? Those can be helpful questions to keep things in proper proportion.

Do you read On This Day? How do you engage with it?

About MaryAnn McKibben Dana: I’m a writer, spouse, mother of three, muffin maker and occasional marathoner. I am a Presbyterian pastor whose spiritual inner child is secretly Quaker. (I guess the secret’s out.) I believe in the expansive love of God that knows no bounds. I live in the leafy suburbs of Washington DC but love the energy and noisy chaos of the city. I served as a pastor for 12 years, including Idylwood Presbyterian Church and Burke Presbyterian Church. I have completed a variety of writing projects, including a book, Sabbath in the Suburbs, released in 2012 by Chalice Press. I have also served as co-chair of NEXT Church, a national movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that’s calling forth vital ministry for our changing cultural context.

Join the Center for Lifelong Learning from 2/16-2/18/2016 as MaryAnn McKibben Dana leads Spirituality in the Smartphone Age. This workshop will give participants a theological grounding to navigate the joys and perils of this continually-evolving digital age, and practical wisdom to apply in the context of their ministry settings. This program is for pastors, Christian educators, and other church leaders charged with helping congregations think critically and live faithfully as 21st century followers of Jesus. EARLY BIRD REGISTRATION EXTENDED TO JANUARY 8, 2016. Details and Registration here.

 

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