Suffering, social media and the danger of distance

Chine McDonald is one of those people who is intimidatingly brilliant at everything. She’s Director of Communications and membership at the Evangelical Alliance (UK), and author of ‘Am I Beautiful?’ She’s also an amazing person, and I love her fiercely-sharp mind, her graceful writing and compassionate heart. I always listen up when she speaks, and it’s a real privilege to have her here today sharing her wisdom about social media, our humanity, and suffering:

I’ve never understood the concept of ‘culling’ your Facebook friends – cutting people out of your life because they are either clogging up your news feed or because you feel icky about them knowing about your life.

For me, it’s the more the merrier – if I know you, whether I’ve spoken to you in the past five years or not – then I’m happy to keep the lines of communication open. Because at some point we might need each other. At some point, I might be able to send someone a message of comfort in the darkest times of their life and vice versa.

One morning last August, for example, I learned through Facebook that an Australian friend who I’d spent a few days with while travelling around Europe in 2008, had been held hostage during the Lindt Café siege in Sydney last August. Despite not having spoken to her for seven years, I felt sick with dread, absolutely terrified for her and sent her a message saying I was praying for her. Like so many would have done. Thank God, she was eventually released unharmed.

What I’ve been struck by recently is that the more friends you have on social media, the more you are exposed to the daily sufferings of so many. My heart hurts when I think of the people I know – people just like me – who are facing some of the most heartbreaking of situations: losing parents, losing partners, losing children. Cancer and miscarriages and depression; broken relationships and disappointment. The world is full of such loss and such pain. Pain is random, its victims are arbitrary, its impact is devastating.

I can’t help but empathise when I see others suffering and hope that others would do the same if I were in their situation. I believe in a God who can’t help it either: a God who chose to dwell among us, who became one of us and in solidarity suffers with us. Christ chose not to cull us. He sits right there in the midst, weeping as we weep.

He weeps with all those who suffer around the world.

But for us, it’s so much easier to empathise with those who are near us – even if they’re just connected in some way on social media. Because we can put ourselves in their shoes. The closer they are to me, the more I feel their pain. There is however a danger in that: this idea that I am the centre of the universe. Suffering becomes more real the closer to me it gets.

Sometimes I wonder whether other people actually exist. Occasionally, I’ll find myself walking along a street or sitting on a bus and will be acutely conscious of the fact that I am the only person that I know is real. I’ll look at the woman struggling with her three children and I’ll wonder – are they real? Are they breathing and thinking and worrying? And I’ll look at the man in front of me and I’ll wonder – are you real? Do you have anxieties and loves and passions and hates?

These moments are fleeting. They briefly mess with my mind and then I’m ok again.

This weird feeling (solipsism) will probably sound familiar to you if you’ve studied a bit of philosophy. Descartes said some stuff on it, and Anthony Flew described it as: “The theory that I am the sole existent. To be a solipsist I must hold that I alone exist independently, and that what I ordinarily call the outside world exists only as an object or content of my consciousness.”

I’ve been thinking about this idea that people tend to be aware primarily of themselves. We are totally wrapped up in ourselves and cast ‘Me’ in the starring role of the drama that is our lives. Next, we care about those that are closest to us, and then our acquaintances, the people on our Facebook friends list. But the amount that we ‘feel’ or empathise with other humans wanes the further and further removed these humans become from us.

And then I think about those people who are not like me; those who you won’t find on my Facebook friends list. People like those living in Madaya, Syria, who are: Literally. Starving. To. Death. Those who every day are experiencing hell on earth. In the five years since the start of the war, a quarter of a million people have died, with nearly 13 million in need of assistance.

These numbers are just too huge for me to even begin to comprehend. But each one of them is a real person. Each of them with hopes and dreams and fears and anxieties and thoughts.

And I wonder why I find it so hard to cry for them. I wonder why I find it so hard to think of their pain. I wonder why I find it so hard to think of each of them as real people.

But I know that I want to feel and to empathise.

Because distance shouldn’t mean we don’t care.

We weren’t made to be the stars of our own shows, to think that we are the only people that exist; but to play out this thing called life with the rest of the humans on the planet. Not just the ones we like, the ones that are like us, or the ones who are nearby. We can’t let distance rob us of our humanity.

Chine profile picChine McDonald is Director of Communications and Membership at the Evangelical Alliance. She was previously editor at the Crown Prosecution Service and reporter at the Reading Evening Post. She read theology at Cambridge University, where she was also news editor of the university newspaper Varsity. She went on to write for several regional and national newspapers and magazines. She joined the leadership team of the Evangelical Alliance in 2014 and manages the editorial, marketing, membership, fundraising and web teams. Chine is on the boards of the Sophia Network, which equips women in leadership in the UK Church, the Church & Media Network and the Christian Enquiry Agency. She is the author of the 2013 book ‘Am I Beautiful?’ (Authentic), which explores body image and faith. 


[tweetit]”I can’t help but empathise when I see others suffering” –  NEW God and Suffering post by @ChineMcDonald:[/tweetit]

[tweetit]”Sometimes I wonder whether other people actually exist.” NEW post by @ChineMcDonald for @Tanya_Marlow:[/tweetit]

[tweetit]”Because distance shouldn’t mean we don’t care.” NEW God and Suffering post by @ChineMcDonald for @Tanya_Marlow:[/tweetit]

[tweetit]”We weren’t made to be the stars of our own shows” NEW God and Suffering post by @ChineMcDonald for @Tanya_Marlow:[/tweetit]

Over to you:

  • When do you feel overwhelmed by the suffering of the world?
  • Do you think social media helps us to be more connected to the world or more insular and self-obsessed? Why?

Have you downloaded your FREE book yet? To get your copy of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, a pathway back to God after disappointment and loss, based on the biblical book of Ruth, click here


, , , ,

3 Responses to Suffering, social media and the danger of distance

  1. Jo 14th February, 2016 at 1:02 pm #

    I got caught out by the ‘unfriending because they clogged up my timeline’ thing this week. Someone I unfriended a few years back & who we know from a previous church. Her mother died this week.
    I would not be in touch with cousins without social media. For the contact reason I now mainly mute/unfollow because I can’t filter excess jibber very well.

    Good questions on empathy wirh those who are far removed from our reality

  2. Jean 9th February, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

    What an amazing article . THank you for this! I thought i was the only one who felt like this ! (and I knew Antony Flew as he was professor when I was at Keele.)

    I think often the Lord can bring to your mind someone who needs your help just by telling you, but o f course He can use Facebook to do it. Or other online things.

    Some of my best friends online are people I first met on advice online group with WEC.
    But to hear it so well expressed. THANK YOU FOR posting this!


  1. Vaguebooking for Dummies - 19th June, 2016

    […] how people feel when they observe suffering. During my research into this however, I came across a blogpost discussing how posting on Facebook about tragedy brings people together. This led me to start […]

Leave a Reply

Please send me my free ebook and updates