Uploading Your Heart to Instagram

“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Jesus

In eighth grade, my parents transferred me to a very conservative Christian private school. We had chapel every Wednesday and a religion course every semester. Most classes opened with a call for prayer requests and a group prayer. This was nice in many ways, although I distinctly remember some friends inventing very lengthy and elaborate prayer requests so as to reduce the actual class time spent learning Calculus.

It was around this time that I became, as Evangelicals say, “hungry” for the Gospel. I approached Jesus’s message with a teenager’s zealous seriousness to learn.

In retrospect, it seems to me that this approach is both completely right and wrong. Right because Jesus wanted us to be passionate and sincere, especially when it comes to loving our neighbor. Wrong because so much of what Jesus said is a deep truth. Truth is beautiful and alive. Beautiful living truth can be wrecked by the violence of dead cold seriousness.

Anyway, Jesus’s teaching about personal treasure made a good deal of sense to me in middle school. We were discovering fashion, and my wealthier private school classmates expressed themselves and sought to establish their work with fancy branded clothes: brightly colored Abercrombie & Fitch shirts, fancy Doc Marten dress shoes designed in England, expensive Ray Ban shades.

Jesus’s message was extremely relatable to thirteen-year-old me: Don’t store up treasure in the form of fancy clothes. Someone could take away your clothes. Or you could outgrow them. Or a bully could intentionally spill mustard all over them (resulting in the unfortunate and bizarrely long-lasting nickname “Mustard Man”).

I indulged the fashion game because I wanted to look cool, and have plenty of old A&F shirts to show for it. But I recognized even then that fashionable clothing did not lead to a good heart. For one, my bullies were equally preppy. And teenage me made a deliberate effort to value but not “treasure” material things like clothes.

It occurs to me that the real challenge of our times might not be the overvaluation of material things. What I find myself and some Millennial peers struggling with is an over-identification with our social media personas.

I’d like to pause here to say that social media has given me a number of positive memories. Seeing the news that a good friend has gotten engaged or had a baby has been a source of joy.

But it seems to me that quite a lot of us have begun to treasure our social media persona. When we post pictures, we crave and carefully count the number of likes. We carefully curate and consider, and spend so much time thinking about, our online personality.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If you treasure your social media persona, that’s where your heart is. You have uploaded your heart to Instagram. Your heart’s address is facebook.com/yourname.

What’s wrong with this? Maybe nothing. Unlike the examples Jesus mentions, “moths” aren’t going to take down Facebook. You may be hacked but the digital heart isn’t stolen in the traditional sense. Although you may well be subjecting your heart to trolls, who are arguably worse than thieves.

Even assuming all of the feedback you receive on social media is praise, is this helpful in any meaningful sense? If I post pictures of my “washboard abs” on Instagram, and someone in Cleveland starts liking my pics, will that fan be there to comfort and love me when I am going through a dark time? Would he come to my aid if an accident mangled my body? Would his affection and deep connection with me provide comfort for the rest of my days?

I cannot empirically prove that if you store your treasure in heaven as opposed to online, you will have a better afterlife. But it seems to me that our wise forerunners agree with Jesus on a related point: If you treasure a heavenly virtue, your heart will reap the benefits of that virtue.

If instead of focusing on my Instagram followers, I focus on building meaningful friendships in my local community, helping them in their struggles and getting to know them on a personal level – that is, if I focus on the heavenly virtue of loving others – then I might find that when I need help from friends, they are there for me.

There’s a trade-off, of course. The less time I spend on my perfect Instagram profile, the less social media followers I am likely to have. But my heart may well be protected and sustained in a more meaningful way because I have focused on a heavenly virtue instead of a digital extension of my ego.

When then do I make of truly beautiful and unquestionably love-filled social media movements like Humans of New York.  Do I contradict myself?

Not this time. I believe it’s possible, given the right perspective, to be active and popular on social media without also uploading your heart to the platform.  If you use social media to reach out and inspire, you can maintain the focus on loving others instead of a digital extension of your ego. The goal is to treat social media as a tool and not a home.

Dr. January 10, 2017 – Rev. October 4, 2017 – Pub. October 9, 2017