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.