The Mindfulness [Joy] of Social Photo Sharing

This week I took a jaunt into the wilderness, and came across such jaw-dropping scenery that my first instinct was to take a picture and share it with everyone I knew.

Then I realized I didn’t have Internet in the Sierra Nevadas, so I just stared at it instead. And wondered

Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m a big fan of being awed.  If something stirs the soul, be it an epic soundtrack, beautiful vista or dramatic movie, I’m in.  Awe, that most precious and fragile of experiences, is a constant theme of my thoughts.  And stealing moments of wonder in the midst of the daily pressures of our 21st century world is, without exaggeration, the challenge I have devoted my life to.

So when I read these opening lines in a recent blog post by Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits, I was hooked.  I have a lot of respect for the mindfulness philosophy espoused by Leo, which resonates on many levels with my own ponderings on the meaning of life.  And with over 2 million subscribers, it would seem that a lot of other people like his take on things as well.  He continues…

…what is this urge [to share photos on social media] based on? And can we bring mindfulness into the process?”

As I trudged through pine forests and over granite boulders, I wondered about the urge to share:

  • Why is this moment not enough, without the need to share?
  • Do I just want to brag, or is there a good-hearted motivation there too?
  • What am I so afraid of, that I can’t refrain from sharing?

I read on with excitement; a sense that he was on to something profound, standing on the edge of an epiphany.  He is a man who ‘gets it’ at so many levels.  A man who has seen through the lies of our consumer culture, and knows that no accumulation of wealth, no pursuit of success can surpass the mysterious joy of looking with fresh eyes on the wonder of life in this moment.

And yet, as I read over his conclusions, I couldn’t help feeling a bit deflated.  Like enjoying the build up of a beautiful piece of music only to get a flat note on the climax, or being presented a delicious looking meal only to find it cold and tasteless.

When we find a majestic view of mountains in the sunset … it can be so lovely, so moving … that we feel the need to deal with this overwhelming feeling somehow. When we share a photo, this is our way of coping with this feeling that overwhelms us. I couldn’t share it with anyone, so sometimes I would yell out loud in joy.

But other times I would just turn inward and notice this overwhelming feeling of joyfulness. I noticed how strong the feeling was, and how strong was my urge to deal with it in some way. How do we deal with powerful feelings? By taking action, usually. What if we just stayed with the feelings, noticed how they feel, faced them with courage, explored them with curiosity? This is harder than most people realize, but doable.

And what happens when we stay with the feelings … is that we realize we can handle them, without needing to take action. We can find the courage to stay. We can just sit and do nothing. It’s a brave way to live, this facing without running.

The surest way to butcher a joke is to analyse it.  The best way to undermine intimacy is to try and describe the chemistry. And I can’t help but think an easy way to short-circuit an awestruck moment in the mountains is to focus on the awe itself.  He came so, so close to something beautiful.  But at the crucial moment, when the overwhelming sense of wonder could have erupted into a gloriously self-forgetful moment of thankfulness, he turned his eyes inward.  When all creation was so powerfully beckoning him to turn his eyes outward and upward, he looked inward.  And although it may have taken courage, I can’t help but think it was an empty place to turn.

The thing to realise is that the urge to share beautiful moments isn’t a byproduct of this age of camera phones, 4G networks and instagram.  Our technology hasn’t created this desire to share enjoyable moments with others, it’s only given us an easier means to do so.  Over half a century ago, before computers were invented and long before the ‘share’ button became part of our lives, C.S. Lewis grappled with the same questions Leo was asking, and came to quite a different conclusion.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . .

Perhaps the urge to share beautiful things isn’t a quirky and redundant aspect of how we’ve evolved, or how society has conditioned us.  Maybe it isn’t something to be suppressed, overcome and resisted.  Perhaps the reason we feel an overwhelming desire to share beautiful moments is because we are meant to share them.  Maybe enjoying something wonderful in isolation doesn’t feel complete because it isn’t, in fact, complete.

So, if our impulse to ‘yell out loud in joy’ at the sight of something spectacular is good and right, and these moments of delight are actually incomplete until they are shared…what does that look like on a solo jaunt in the Sierra Nevadas?  I think it looks suspiciously like praise.

Just as opening a particularly lavish gift evokes spontaneous gratitude to the giver, or receiving a thoughtful note inspires us to thank the author…perhaps our gasps of awestruck wonder at the sight of majestic landscapes ought to be directed as praise for the architect who crafted them.

Christians tend to describe this with all sorts of spiritual jargon: ‘praising the Lord,’ ‘glorifying God,’ ‘rejoicing.’  Whatever.  In reality they all amount to the same thing; that magical moment where our unbidden, spontaneous impulse to share something beautiful connects with the very person who crafted that beauty.  Such a moment is anything but religious.  Instead, it just feels like the most pure, complete and satisfying taste of enjoyment; ‘Awe Version 2.0’, perhaps.  Lewis himself went on to draw the following conclusion…

 …The Scotch [statement of faith] says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.

So, the next time you’re confronted with something irresistibly beautiful, embrace the urge to share it.  Complete the moment by breathing out praise to the creator who carved every intricate detail.  And in that moment, I hope you experience the thrill of having your joy completed, of following the delight to it’s ‘appointed consummation’.  No cellphone coverage is required.