Wasting Time Online and Off

Thomas Merton once called wasting time a sin against poverty. I have often wondered about that. Most of the things I’ve ever learned, I’ve learned through making mistakes and wasting time, lots of it. I read and read and wrote and wrote when younger in order to learn how to marshall my thoughts and write as clearly and simply as I could. When I took up building web sites and apps, I taught myself by looking at other people’s and deconstructing them — a process that took hours and hours of time. As for prayer, there is no other way than ‘wasting time’ with God: being prepared just to stay there, in his presence, no matter how bleak or boring the experience.

When it comes to wasting time online, I think we all know the difference between a creative use of the internet/Social Media and what I’d call sheer consumerism. We can dawdle away the hours, filling our lives with the latest cute video or pointless rant, numbing mind and heart with the sheer inanity of it all. Alternatively, we can use the opportunities being online gives us to learn, to encourage, to support others. Here at the monastery we always pray before going online and after we have been online (and very often pause to pray several times while we are actually online) because, as St Benedict says, every good work should be preceded by prayer; and if being online isn’t inherently a good work, we must make it so.

I am troubled by those who see the online world as somehow apart from the ordinary, everyday world in which we live. The same courtesies are needed; the same commonsence; the same restraint. Unhappily, there are many who seem to think they can say or do whatever they like online, without there being consequences for themselves or others. That is very naive. It is also monumentally selfish.

Perhaps today we could all reflect for a moment or two on how we are online. You notice I don’t say what we do online, or what we use the internet or Social Media for, but the people we are online. If there is an inconsistency between our online and offline persona, we should be wary. Something is not quite right. We may smile at Walter Mitty, but playing a role, whether good or bad, is not the way to become more truly human, the person we are called to be.

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4 thoughts on “Wasting Time Online and Off”

  1. This is a very worthwhile post. Everyone who uses social media needs to ask themselves: if the person who reads my comments were in the room with me, would I say this?
    And as far as your blog is concerned, if it were not fuelled by prayer, would it stimulate so much thought (which it obviously does when you read the comments people post about it) and would it travel as far as it does?
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom and scholarship online. It is much appreciated.

  2. Amen, sister. Fortunately the extraordinary power of cyberspace to infiltrate our consciousness can be used for good as well as for its opposite. As an exiled Scouser I spend part of my time on a website devoted to the fortunes of Liverpool Football Club, in particular its discussion boards, where I’m the resident Christian – not the only one, but the most vocal. I try very hard to represent myself and the Church as a follower of Christ should, and over the years others have picked up on and adopted things like saying “I strongly disagree” rather than some seven-letter word. I even get admonished if my own standards ever slip! Pope Francis has said things about needing Catholics to take the faith out into the world, and I hope that’s what I’m doing online.

  3. So very wise! It seems to me that prayer is the key thing here.

    Prayer may join us to online friends in a way which crossing the paths of those in the street, or church, or shops, or health centre, doesn’t. Out of ‘real-time’, people are more focused, forthcoming and confident. They will open up in a way which offline friends may be reluctant to.

    All the same, perhaps we shouldn’t fall into error of allowing such bonds to take priority over those whom God has assorted us with in our daily lives. These are the ones we can help in a demonstrative and practical way and, in whatever capacity, are there for us, too.

    In all of this, we may hope we present the same natural persona online and off and that if there is any difference at all, it rests in the freedom to explore issues in some depth which online seems to facilitate.

    God bless all your work and prayer!

  4. Thank you particularly for the first paragraph (which came as a nice saint’s day present). It seems to me that a lot of spiritual writers, anxious to promote the good use of time and combat laziness, tend to undervalue time as a vehicle of exploration, something you have to risk “wasting” in order to learn or discover something new. There is instead a sort of thrifty-housekeeper approach, where the proper use of every bit of time is planned beforehand and can be accounted for afterward. This is fine for many purposes (getting things done that just need to be done), but doesn’t seem to favour creativity. Or maybe I am just taking their good advice the wrong way? The topic causes me some inner struggle at times, as a person with creative interests trying to take spiritual life seriously.

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