Week 4

Freedom Through Sabbath

by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship

A few years ago, various members of the CLF staff were talking about taking a social media Sabbath for one day a week, and shared things like the graphics they would post to Facebook letting people know that they were unavailable for the day. Well, for starters, I think it’s pretty cool that the CLF, as a church that operates largely online, would understand that ministers and ministerial interns might need a day each week away from the ceaseless input of social media to refocus and recharge. There’s a lot to be said for an institution that values the mental and emotional well-being of the staff.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t want to take a tech Sabbath. Truth be told, the thought of taking an entire day a week away from Facebook made me just a tiny bit panic-y. I’m single, and my child is grown and out of the house. If I didn’t have Facebook, who would I talk to? If I thought of something cute or clever, who would I tell? What would I do with my unoccupied time, when there really wasn’t something I needed to be doing? Wouldn’t I be bored standing in line at the grocery store?

And how would I know what my friends were up to? How would I know about the latest political outrage? What would I do without the opportunity to express my opinion on things that matter? How would I know that I mattered if there weren’t people clicking “like” on the things I had to say? Nope. There was no way I was going to be taking a social media Sabbath. Not going to happen. Didn’t want to. Just didn’t care for the idea.

But the interesting thing about the concept of Sabbath, as invented by the Jews, is that it isn’t really about what you want. It’s a cherished tradition, and everyone I’ve talked to or whose words on the subject I’ve read has said that they deeply love this special, set-apart time of their week. But it’s also a rule, a commandment, and there are lots of strictures about what exactly you are and aren’t allowed to do.

It is not only forbidden to work. Orthodox Jews also do not shop or exchange money in any way, or cook, drive or even flip a light switch. It isn’t particularly convenient. But the goal of the Sabbath is not convenience. It is a time that is meant to be different, a time in which you have as little impact on the world as you can. It is a break from creation, a time to let things be. Not because creation is bad, or work is bad—those are, in fact, deeply affirmed.

But, at least in the Jewish tradition, even those good things need to be periodically set aside in order to relate to the universe in a different way. And if that way is inconvenient, or you don’t feel like it in the moment—too bad. Do it anyway. Because God said so. Because convenience might not actually be your highest moral value, in spite of what the world so often tells you.

And so, for the sake of experiment and writing this column, I tried it. I didn’t unplug all of my electronics, but I let go of Facebook. Just for 24 hours. It was awkward, and any number of times I had to stop myself as I automatically went to click on a notification window that popped up on my screen. Why, I wonder, do I need to have what I’m doing interrupted any time someone responds to something I’ve said? Is any of it that urgent?

There were certainly times when I found myself at a loss as to what to do with myself. I lost the filler, the packing that I put in between the more useful parts of my day. Which meant that I had to be a little more creative, a little less habit-bound with what I did with my time. I got my hair cut, which tends to fall by the wayside for much too long.

And yes, things happened that I didn’t know about. But none of them were things that I could have changed if I’d known about them sooner. I only noticed when I came back to it how my anxiety level and my heart rate increased as I scrolled through what I’d missed.

Now, I’m not leaving Facebook. There is too much about it that I love, including the opportunity to be in touch with CLFers as well as other valued friends whom I might never meet in person. I like sharing my thoughts, and I like reading the thoughts of others—both those who support and those who challenge my beliefs.

But I think I will build myself some social media boundaries, not because it’ll be convenient, but because sometimes I need to live in a world that pushes back against a false sense of urgency, a world that declares that unoccupied time can be OK, and reminds me that the universe doesn’t always need to know what I have to say.

But beyond that, I think that the practice of Sabbath, social media or otherwise, calls us to step out of habit, out of the well-worn tracks that we choose not because they serve health and wholeness but because they allow us an ease of doing what is familiar. I suspect I need to set myself some rules just so that I can live a bit more, as Thoreau said, “deliberately.”

I think I need some boundaries, some limitations that, ironically, might actually free me to live more fully, more presently, more in touch with the Holy—that Interdependent Web which, it turns out, is not actually the same as the World Wide Web.