If you’re not careful, social media can melt your mind. In the daily, mental battle between production and consumption, which one gets the upper hand? I know for myself, it can be a struggle. I once went through a long period where I never posted on Facebook — but I read tons of posts by others. Even before I got a Twitter account myself, I could spend hours scrolling through Twitter. Instead of stopping to write something, like I am doing right now, I would choose to offshore my critical thinking to other minds — minds I assumed had better things to say or better ways to say it.
In our dopamine-driven culture, creativity has been crowded out by novelty. The desire to work, to produce, to sweat (even if on the keyboard), and to contribute has been conquered by distraction. Ever feel like you have to get your bearings and then push up to let your thoughts break through the surface of Internet-scrolling-induced mental pond scum for a breath of fresh air? How long do you keep your eyes up, off the screen, fixed on real life, before you shove your mind back under by that seemingly “uncontrolled” click on the next notification? How often do you “take a quick break” for a refresh, not that you really needed one after 15 minutes of work, anyway? If you feel convicted by these questions, know that I only ask them because they are autobiographical. You are not alone.
Growing up I used to devour books. As a kid, I could stay up all night, with a flashlight under the blankets, and finish an entire novel in one go. These days, I’ll admit I can struggle to finish a chapter without that nagging sense to check my phone. This concerns me. Not just for the “here and now” but also for the “there and then.”
Ask yourself: What’s something new that you would like to do, but haven’t, because of all the time you spend in front of a screen? I would love to learn how to play the guitar! But how I could ever stop scrolling long enough to do so when that tweet links to an Instagram post of my friend, whose profile has a link to their Facebook page, and on their Facebook is another link to the “20 Craziest Things You Will Only Ever See in the Deep South, as Experienced by a True Northerner”? Number 1 is a deep-fried Moon Pie! Shall I scroll on? But of course. Those crazy Yankees.
There’s a deeper point I am working towards here. Not just one of wasted time, but one of empty dreams. What inspired this rant? Well, you would never guess. Wait…you guessed watching a YouTube video while scrolling through Facebook? Nailed it.
What was the video? It’s a Denzel video. Of course, it’s Denzel.
Denzel Washington gave an incredible commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 that has been clipped, edited, and turned into an epic-sounding speech, complete with inspirational music and stimulating visuals of people pushing the boundaries of life, reaching for achievement, or mourning over lost opportunities. You should watch it.
You probably expected a link to it right here and now. I’m tempted not to provide it, given the topic of this article. But…here it is. However, before you break away and watch the video, why don’t you finish this article. By doing so, you can take one little step toward breaking the vicious cycle of behavior that is rewiring your (and my) brain to be indelibly programmed for simplistic clicking consumption (yes, that’s an exaggeration — your brain can be rewired back again, it just takes work).
What hit me the hardest during the video, which has almost 50 million likes, was this question, this consideration of a deathbed moment of despair. It starts at 4:45. Channeling the Ghost of Christmas Future, Denzel says:
“Imagine you’re on your deathbed — and standing around your bed are the ghosts representing your unfilled potential.
The ghosts of the ideas you never acted on. The ghosts of the talents you didn’t use.
And they’re standing around your bed. Angry. Disappointed. Upset.
‘We came to you because you could have brought us to life,’ they say. ‘And now we go to the grave together.’
So I ask you today: How many ghosts are going to be around your bed when your time comes?”
How many ghosts? Good question. Haunting, even. Lord willing, I am far from my death bed, but if I found myself there tonight, having only lived for 33 years, I’m not sure I could count them all. Could you? What are the dreams that you have failed to pursue? What are the areas in life that you haven’t been willing to “fall forward” on because you are afraid to fail?
I have an idea of which one would loom largest for me: The ghost of what I never wrote. The ghost of the empty page — equally as white as the specter standing over me. The spirit of the articles I never wrote, the letters I never sent, the books I never reviewed, the books I never wrote, the memories I never captured in a journal.
Take my word when I say this seems deeply ironic to me. I never really wanted to be a writer growing up. I wanted to be an athlete. Even today I would rather crank out a set of 5×5 squats in the gym, play tennis or soccer, or do anything physically active as opposed to sit down and put pen to paper.
Yet as long as I can remember, my earthly father has said to me, “William, the greatest gift God has given you is your brain.” Shortsightedly enough, I didn’t want to believe that was true. Sometimes I still don’t. But tomorrow when I wake up, it won’t be to go to a practice session for a professional sports team. No, for the last decade I had some good jobs in Washington D.C. essentially because I can communicate, both in word and speech. Now I am at seminary — not soccer camp. Dream. Busted. High time to wake up and smell the ink.
As a Christian I believe that everything I have has been given to me as a gift from my gracious Heavenly Father — He is the one who gave me the mind my earthly father encouraged me to develop. Can the Internet help with that development? Sure. But if we are going to use the Internet (or social media) well we have to remember that it’s a tool that uses us just as much as we use it. The way it intends to wield us is often at odds with eliminating future ghosts. We (I) must remember that.
Because too much time spent staring at the screen will make your mind melt. If we aren’t careful, our phones can attach themselves to our faces, like digital dementors, sucking the soul right out of our bodies with a death rattle of dinging notifications in the background.
The point of the illustration is this: Failure to act will slowly, but surely, put your potential to death. And it will come back to haunt you. What causes that failure could be a myriad of different things. For me, I know it can be the time I am tempted to waste online. It has become far too easy to simply open up a browser and let the world stream into my mind, stalling originality and putting a sleeper-hold on any desire I have to contribute something meaningful to the discourse of this life.
What is it for you?
As I started writing more regularly a few months back, I genuinely wondered: Who would even want to read what I write? But right now, I don’t care. I would rather die with the ghost of legitimate failure than live with the ghost of regret from never trying. From never taking the time, giving the effort, putting in the hours, or doing the real work of actually writing, instead of the lip service I so often give it.
It might feel like the Internet is rotting my brain, but the truth is that I am wasting it myself. Click by click. Meme by meme. Tweet by tweet. Pic by pic. Minute by minute. Hour by hour. Day by day.
So, what can we do about it? Instead of letting social media melt our minds and load us up with future ghosts, we need to let the Word of God renew our minds, so we can store up treasures in heaven.
Romans 12:2 reminds us that we must not “conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
The way we fight the mind-rewiring effect of social media is through a daily renewal effort fueled by Scripture intake.
God’s Word is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The blue light of your screen might look alive, but it’s really not. The black and red words of Scripture, pressed onto the pages of your Bible, actually are. You don’t need to take another quiz to figure out what your spirit animal is…you need to sit in front of God’s Word and let the Holy Spirit work on your heart. We all do.
If you feel, like I do, the deleterious side effects of our social media moment eating away at your soul, what can we do about it? Where can we go? To the only place that provides the healing streams of life we need to cure our distracted minds and then reground ourselves in the deep, ancient goods of life: The Bible.
This isn’t legalism. This isn’t a 30-day plan. This is basic truth and the path to a good life, a life lived in ordered, regular, renewal of our minds. Paul meant something when he said that. God meant something when the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write that down, for us, as Christians, today, in 2022.
There are few more powerful forces out there that are working daily to conform us to the pattern of this world than social media. How can we break free? By coming back to God’s Word.
Reflecting on these verses, Matthew Henry, the famous Bible expositor, wrote:
“The mind is the acting ruling part of us; so that the renewing of the mind is the renewing of the whole man, for out of it are the issues of life…The progress of sanctification, dying to sin more and more and living to righteousness more and more, is the carrying on of this renewing work, till it be perfected in glory.”
Looking to glory, I would submit the way we work to avoid those future ghosts, crowding around our bedsides on the last day, is to work hard today to store up treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:19-21). We can do that by striving, like Paul, “with all His [the Lord’s] energy that He powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29).
Finally, consider 2 Corinthians 10:5, which commands us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”
How can we take our thoughts captive in this Internet age? We can start by freeing our thoughts from the forces that are holding them prisoner. From the screens, the likes, the videos, the feeds. Our thoughts are supposed to be captives, yes, but they are our captives, as we are captive to Christ. Some of us may need to go on some rescue missions to spring our thoughts out from behind the bars of the apps which line our phones. Bring them home. Hold them captive, but bound by the Bible, not by the click-bait culture of screentime.
In summary: We must renew our minds, work for treasure that lasts, and take our thoughts captive by taking them back from behind the enemy lines of the web fortress that is the digital world.
Because in our final moments, we don’t want to be haunted by future ghosts of unfilled potential. Consider the gifts you’ve been given. They’re a stewardship, meant to be developed and used for Gods’ glory and the good of others. Don’t bury your talents in time wasted on Candy Crush. Rather, aim for that final day of duty, where you lay your burdens down, and come home to hear “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).
So don’t let the Internet melt your mind. Yes, use it as a tool. I’m not saying be a monk; I’m saying be self-aware. Don’t let it rewire your mind so much that you miss out on the goodness of a life lived in the unplugged world. Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Maybe the first step for you today along that path of renewal is just to get outside and touch some grass — but, please, hold the selfie.
Follow William on Twitter! @William_E_Wolfe