A few years ago, I became fascinated by a group of loosely connected Instagram influencers who live in Birmingham. I started following several women who spend a whole lot of time sharing their lives online to thousands of followers. These women are probably in their mid-to-late twenties. Some are married, some aren’t. Some have children, some don’t. They tag each other on their posts and host giveaways together, so it’s like a magical spider web that grows larger and larger the more you stare at it. If you start following one of these women, it won’t take too long to figure out who they’re networking with. These women document all kinds of details in their Instagram stories and photo streams. They are paid to promote beauty products and clothing and vacation destinations, and sometimes it’s hard to tell where their authentic life experiences end and the paid advertisements begin.

It’s humorous to me now, but I watched one woman’s stories every day for approximately six months. I bought some unfortunate-tasting vegan protein powder because she mentioned the brand. I also took in way too much information about a woman who is not in my circle of friends or acquaintances. I know about her oldest son’s picky eating habits and her husband’s occupation. I know what her house looks like and where she vacations. If I still followed her, I could know about every online sale happening this weekend, which items she suggests from each sale, and whether or not those items run true-to-size.

Following this “pod” of influencers made me wonder if I should try some of their social media techniques. As a writer who is continually encouraged to grow my platform” (in order to engage more potential readers of my book), I thought they might have the key. I confess I tried to mimic them in a few ways that seemed feasible, like rambling about normal, everyday life on my IG stories and posting encouraging and inspirational quotes that make people feel good about themselves and their circumstances. But I eventually stopped. My audience is probably not their audience. And Im not them.

Thousands of followers hang onto every word these Instagram influencers say because they’re beautiful, thin, and happy (or appear to be). And their lives seem filled with marvelous and brilliant things. Their jobs look fun, although I’m sure there is much behind-the-scenes stress that never makes it to their Instagram stories or immaculate photo feeds. Do they fight with their partners over the constant social media engagement? Probably. Do they snap at their children? Most likely. Do they wonder why they’re selling their lives, if they should keep selling their lives, if there’s a line they shouldn’t cross, and if they’ve already crossed it? Maybe. Maybe not.

Soon after I peeled myself away from all of the local influencers’ Instagram accounts, I watched Ingrid Goes West, a dark comedy about a 20-something-year-old woman named Ingrid who’s addicted to Instagram and attracted to the Instagram influencer lifestyle. The film exaggerates what Instagram users experience on the social media platform. Still, it also holds a mirror up to all of us under harsh fluorescent lights. It illuminates our naked faces, blemishes, wrinkles, and sad eyes that we try to make more joyful with coats of $60 mascara and free lash extensions from the salon we mentioned to our thousands of followers.

During one telling scene, Ingrid has an exchange with Ezra, the husband of an influencer named Taylor, who is Ingrid’s friend. Ezra says this about his wife:

Everything is the best with her: ‘Have you been to this new restaurant? It’s the best. Have you tried these new clothes? They’re the best.’ The best. The best. The best. It’s f—ing exhausting.

… I miss the old Taylor. Back when she first moved here, she didn’t know anybody. She was like this total preppy sorority chick. I miss when it was just the two of us.

This is not a story full of beauty. It sounds more like a heartbreaking tale of a couple in need of some quality time and at least six months of therapy.

Being on social media isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think we all need to delete our accounts and quit cold turkey. But maybe we can be curious about our scrolling and posting, why we are scrolling and posting, and why we might be giving less of our attention to God, ourselves, and those God has placed around us. Maybe we can view any discomfort social media causes us as an invitation to more—more truth, more awareness of our surroundings, more beauty.

One way we can counter the effects of social media is to put our phones in our pockets and slow down. When we practice slowing, we become re-oriented to God, ourselves, our surroundings, and our stories. We can give more of our attention to the people around us, our places, and the God’s presence. We may find beauty in a conversation with a friend or the chattering between two children. We might observe an unexpected glimpse of glory—the way the sunlight is streaming in through a window, or a favorite work of art that offers us more than the last time we really looked at it. We might notice God has something new for us in the familiar, something that enables us to see beauty and truth.

If we slow down and sit still and give our attention to what’s going on inside of us, we may sense a new softness toward someone we recently forgave—or someone we want to forgive. Beauty can also come in the silence as we settle in stretches of quiet.

One of my favorite examples of someone slowing down comes from Goodbye, Vitamin, a novel by Rachel Khong. In this scene, the main character, Ruth, is with her brother, Linus. Khong writes:

Linus makes us thermoses of coffee in the morning and we take them to the beach, where the sky is gray and the ocean is gray and it feels like being wrapped in newspaper. Seagulls are squawking; the gutsy ones come close and give us piercing stares. They look like Jack Nicholson.

I love that. I want to see with eyes like Ruth’s. For Khong to write those words (for any writer to write any words that readers can connect with), she must have paid attention to the present moment. I like to think Khong was at the beach on a gray day, and instead of scrolling through Twitter, she sat on a towel and watched the birds as the sound of the waves drowned out distractions.

Adele Calhoun says in Spiritual Disciplines Handbook that one thing slowing helps us do is savor the moment. Some practices she recommends are driving in the slow lane of traffic, getting enough sleep each night, speaking more slowly, making eye contact during conversations with others, eating slowly, staying at the table longer after meals, and planning more buffer time between appointments.

Of course, many of us are probably tired of slowing down right now. Some may not have the ability to slow down because of work pressure or caregiving responsibilities. We may be afraid of encountering boredom or emotions we prefer to keep avoiding, because it’s just too much, because there’s just so much suffering around us and within us.

To me, spiritual practices are not ways to become better Christians, but responses to the love and grace God gives us. I see them as invitations to connect with God in ways that might not occur when our days are void of spiritual practices. The good news is God is still present in our lives and in the world around us when we don’t pray or slow down or read Scripture. God is still good and still doing what God does. God still shows us glimpses of glory and beauty and truth.

This essay is an excerpt from a longer one that can be found on Charlotte’s Substack.

 

Spider web image credit: Luc Viatour (edited)