Instagram is often derided (along with other forms of social media) as a platform on which we offer a heavily curated version of our lives to the world, posting only that which presents our lives as eventful, beautiful, happy. I am guilty of this. A few years ago one of my friends was visiting with his family. I had made dinner and was taking pictures of what I had made to post on Instagram. Well, that is, except for the sweet potatoes fries that I had struggled mightily with and had ended up baking too long. My friend, half-joking, chided me for only taking pictures of the “beautiful” looking parts of the dinner I had made. To spite him, and prove my sanctification, I took a picture of the shriveled, blackened, over-baked sweet potato fries and posted them along with the rest.
This practice of curating our lives to present them to the outside world is to do violence to the reality of our lives, cutting out that which is not profitable for the image we want to give to others. We are made to be liars, falsifying who we are and the lives we live. There are studies as to how damaging this is (e.g., https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0747563213000800), as we jealously look upon the lives of others, endlessly scrolling, fearing that our lives are not measuring up to the lives of others. Our FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) both drives us to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and at the same time only leaves us more depressed, exacerbating our feelings of FOMO.
I do not intend to argue against “the science,” or to deny the real harm done to our deep being. One of the happiest seasons of my life, one of the times when I have felt most content, was when I had left social media for a period of time.
Yet there is a sense, at least for someone like me, in which this practice of curating our lives can actually be an act of faithfulness. In danger of over-sharing, my tendency is to remember the bad, the painful, to pick at the scabs on my wounds, preventing them from scaring and healing over. It is a sinful pattern of mine to briefly nod at the fleeting feelings of joy and gratitude and instead to cultivate and cling to memories of sadness. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack, a crack in everything . . .”. It is quite natural for me to feel the crack in things — in my own deep being, in my friendships, in the world around me. And if I don’t feel the cracks, I will go looking for them.
But memory, the act of remembering, is not neutral. There is a moral aspect to memory, a moral responsibility we have as humans in the act of our remembering. What does it mean to remember something faithfully, to try to remember things as they truly were? We see this in debates about the stories we include in our histories as families, communities, nations. What does it mean to look back on our lives, in the light of God’s grace, to see things in all their multi-faceted, complex polyphony? To remember the pain and the beauty, the darkness and the light, sin and grace, judgment and redemption?
Ben Myers, writing about this aspect of memory keeping, suggests: “Normally we think about the Christian life as something that’s lived forwards in time: we want our orientation to the future, our plans and decisions and actions, to be converted to the gospel. But . . . the Christian life is also lived backwards in time. It’s also our memories that need to be converted.” It is our memories that need to be converted.
This is something Augustine teaches us in Confessions. One aspect of Confessions is that it is an act of remembrance in which Augustine sets out to look back on his life, but to do so in the light of the grace of God. Ben Myers, again: “Augustine’s conversion totally re-shaped not only his future but also his past. In the act of remembering his own life, he discovers the ever-present grace of God – a grace that was never apparent at the time, as the drama of life was actually occurring, but has now become the hidden meaning of everything that happened. ‘You have dwelt in my memory ever since I learned to know you, and it is there that I find you when I remember and delight in you…. You have honoured my memory by making it your dwelling-place’ (Confessions 10.24.35–25.36). If God dwells in memory, then the past is not fixed and finished. It can be converted. It can be attuned to God’s presence” (Ben Myers, “Living Backwards: The Conversion of Memory”).
What does this have to do with my Instagram feed? I walked away from pastoral ministry last year. But to say I “walked away” is not really accurate. I was accepted into a PhD program, and so one could say I left pastoral ministry because I wanted to pursue further academic work. This is true enough. But another way to say it is that I was looking to get out, seeking a refuge from the pain and suffering — much of it my own doing — that had made my life to feel like a prison, a suffocating darkness.
It is too early for me to write about those seven years of ministry. Too early because most of the memories that come easy to me right now are the hard and painful memories. When asked if I miss ministry, my standard line has been: “Not yet. But I am certain that over time, with distance, the memories will balance out, and the good times will find their voice and have their say.”
Yesterday morning I pulled up my Instagram account (again, for vain and sinful reasons) because someone had friended me, and I was curious as to what they would see if they scrolled through my posts. What information could they glean about my existence? And after a few minutes I caught myself on the verge of crying. Crying for what I had lost, not for what I had escaped from or happily left behind.
There was the kitchen in the parsonage that was transformed when a parishioner gave me their old island because they were remodeling — that island on which I would roll out dozens of pie doughs each year, where I would spend hours making dinners to host guests, on which I would knead hundreds of batches of dough, including three loaves of challah every first Sunday of the month for communion.
There was the piano where I pecked out (often only the treble clef!) hymns in the darkening, still, hours of the night just to pierce the silence of that big old house. There was the light, the way it would hit the gold wood of the floor in the late afternoons in winter in the study where I had all my books and my desk.
There was the back yard where Henry would dig so many holes, and where I covered myself (quite literally) with poison ivy that first spring as I dug up the sod to make a garden plot. There were also the flower beds that I carved out around the house, little-by-little, a section a year, knowing that I was cultivating soil and planting things that others would later reap the harvest from. And that was just the house! There are the memories of the mighty Hudson River and those early mornings with the rowing club, the mountains and hills and endless miles of rail trails. This is nothing to say of my work as a pastor, and the people I had tried to faithfully love and shepherd for seven years.
Yes, I have in some ways, done violence to the reality of things by only posting “beautiful” moments, many of them posed, constructed, (or re-constructed when I had missed the initial moment). My Instagram feed is heavily curated and “fake”. What you saw (and still see) are the smiling pictures with friends, not pictures of me sitting in the dark, alone, crying. What you see are the pictures of baked goods and meals made for friends, and not me eating chips and salsa for dinner again because I don’t cook for myself.
And yet, those same “false” memories confronted another violence of remembering I have been engaged in — that of only remembering the darkness and isolation, the desperation and the wounds. Those memories I had carefully curated on my Instagram now confronted me and I found myself confessing: I had had a good life. I had been blessed. God had been good to me.
And in this conversion of the past — a conversion that will have to take place many more times — there is given a promise and hope for the future. God was faithful to me in the past and it just might be that the God who was good to me yesterday will prove to be good and faithful to me tomorrow.