Have you seen the recent commercials by Facebook or Tik Tok? Look at the smiles and joy emanating from the people in the commercials. What message would you say these commercials are sending? Here’s what I think the message is: “If you participate in our network you will experience joyful life, true community, fulfillment and depth of meaning.” Look at the people in those commercials. They are so incredibly happy on their screens.
The problem is that our society and culture is often described as the most depressed, anxious and lonely of all time. We continue our study of Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:12, and while we’ve looked at where to find joy, the Teacher knows that life so often distracts us, wears us down. Let’s follow his logic in chapter 6, verses 1-7, as he moves back to a discussion about the how difficult it can be to find lasting joy. Pause reading this post, open a Bible and read Ecclesiastes 6:1-7.
Did you see the Teacher’s exaggerations in this passage? He talks about a man with one hundred children or a man who lives two thousand years. While there have probably been men throughout history who have sired a hundred children, it is super rare, and furthermore, no one has lived for two thousand years. That is precisely the Teacher’s point: even if those feats were possible, in the end the person who accomplishes those feats has the same fate as anyone else. They will die.
So the teacher concludes in verse 7, when your life is focused on seeking happiness and fulfillment through accumulation, believing that money and possessions will bring you happiness, you will eventually realize that money and possessions simply do not have the ability to fulfill the hole in the human heart.
That hole is a bottomless pit that some have called the Empty Self. The Empty Self is the inner part of our being that craves satisfaction.
In our society it has become big business exploiting the hungry desires of the empty self. This is what companies tap into when they advertise to you. Much of advertising is designed to make you feel the longing, the emptiness, promising to you that the company’s product will fulfill that longing, helping you find the satisfaction you are looking for.
The psychologist Carol Moog writes about this, “I became concerned about the impact ads had on people’s self-concept, not only as a psychologist, but as a mother of a growing little girl whose idea of who she was and who she was supposed to be was going to inevitably be influenced by models persuading her to be like them as well as to buy like them…As I look at the products that were being marketed, I became more aware of how these products were integrated into my patients’ own searches for identity…for a fantasy of life.” (Are They Selling Her Lips?)
If Moog were writing in 2020, I think she would also talk about social media.
Though social media commercials a filled with smiling joyful people on their screens, disconcerting studies report to the contrary, suggesting that the claims of social media companies might not only be false, but actually devious. Netflix has a documentary titled The Social Dilemma (watch trailer here) which clearly explains the dangers of social media, how social media is purposefully engineered to make money from us, all the while addicting us to its services, even as it lies to us through its promises of fulfillment.
This is expertly illustrated in Season 3, Episode 1 of the show Black Mirror (also on Netflix). The episode is called “Nosedive,” (see the trailer here) about a woman who tries to boost her approval rating on a social media app. We are familiar how most social media apps include likes and shares. Imagine if the app kept an ongoing tally of how people responded to not only your posts, but also every interaction with you, giving you an overall approval rating. Then imagine if society starting using that approval rating as a measure to give you access, or deny you access, to various parts of society. For example, want to live in a particular neighbor? You need to have at least a score of 7 out of 10. But if you have a 6.9, you can’t live there. Or if you want to get your kids on a soccer team, you need a score of 6.5, but in the last month you’ve had a series of bad interactions with people at work, at church, and with the other parents in your kid’s school, and all of the people have downgraded your rating, so now you’re at a 6.4. “Nosedive” imagines a near-future world like that. Sound like a fantasy? Look into it. China’s already doing something like that in real life. Not to mention that our current social media apps already operate on a premise of social approval. If you get likes and hearts and shares and comments, you feel great. If you are a business page on Instagram that gets more shares, more likes and more comments, then your posts show up more often for more people to see. If you don’t get attention online, though, you can feel empty, alone, discouraged.
One of my favorite scenes in the Black Mirror episode is when the woman is talking with her brother who has what she considers to be a very low ranking life based on the social media app’s approval rating scale. But he couldn’t care less. He stopped using the app! He has freedom. He has found peace and meaning and wholeness elsewhere.
How do you struggle with the empty self? Maybe for you it’s not social media. But do you feel the emptiness, the longing? Is there any solution?
Check back tomorrow because the Teacher concludes this section with a possible solution!