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Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. Headshot

What I Learned From Facebook on Thanksgiving

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During most of my life, I use Facebook to procrastinate grading papers at night or to decompress after caring for my two children. After a Facebook binge of 20 minutes, I usually have that grossed-out feeling that comes after eating a bag of Cheetos or half a tube of Pringles (something I only do about once a year, but it happens).

Since I don't have a TV or a smartphone, I rationalize that I'm consuming a lot less social media than my peers and colleagues. (Not that it's a competition, but if it were....) The bottom line is that my feelings about Facebook trend with the studies I show to my teenage daughter: users of Facebook often feel worse about themselves after a binge, rather than better.

This year, during Thanksgiving, I had the privilege of taking a silent retreat, something I've dreamed of doing for years. In contrast to this solitary holiday, I grew up in a large extended family where we ate two Thanksgiving meals in one day: lunch at the home of my father's parents in Hattiesburg, Miss., followed by dinner at my mother's parents in Meridian, Miss., a mere 90-minute drive away.

Since the death of my grandparents, parents and my own divorce over the past decade, I've become a holiday orphan on alternate years at Thanksgiving, when my children stay with their father. But I'm blessed with a network of friends who welcome me into their homes: one year, I attended three Thanksgiving dinners in 24 hours, in some attempt to replicate the holiday connections of my childhood.

But this year was different.

Despite an impending snowstorm, I escaped to my retreat in a beat-up one-room condo on a South Carolina beach. In search of the monastic life, I considered banning myself from Facebook and e-mail but gave into the temptation multiple times during this day of gratitude.

When I later broke my silence that evening to talk to my sister, I confessed on the phone that I had enjoyed reading the Facebook posts of friends on this Thanksgiving Day. "It seems bizarre to be on Facebook on Thanksgiving, but it was actually quite lovely," I admitted. So what was different? Why did I feel sustained from the Facebook posts, rather than overextended from an all-you-can-eat buffet of status updates?

Facebook felt different on Thanksgiving, because friends were not posting information about themselves: Rather, they were posting about others, about family traditions, food preparation, connections with those whom they loved or missed. My modest proposal is that we create an alternate Facebook page to post affirmations about others. Such a page would put the "social" back in social media, prioritizing the social good of others.

Given my proposal, here is what I learned from Facebook on Thanksgiving:

The diversity of traditions in families

One family from my church posted hand-drawn pictures of "song book covers," a Thanksgiving tradition that involves both the children and adults. The illustrations included a tree of Thanksgiving, a set dinner table, and a profile of a man with this quote: "The best lasting memories are stuffed with turkey." Ralph Waldo Emerson (sort of). In other status updates, I saw pictures of families jogging in their town's annual Turkey Trot. Given the confluence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, I glimpsed the tables of friends celebrating "Thanksgivukkah" with food, dreidels, and wine.

Several pictures from across the country reminded me of the power of radical hospitality, such as a friend who hosts international students in her home throughout the year but especially on holidays. Around her table, young people from at least eight different countries battled over a cutthroat game of Cranium. One of the guests, a 40-something friend who runs a religious-environmental nonprofit, stood victorious with her all-female team and posted this entertaining status update: "Girls rule, boys drool!"

The sacred gift of prayers for the past and future

In their family homes, several friends had found and posted old photos and mementos that appeared like sacred prayers, such as a report card from a tireless activist for the public schools in North Carolina. Her middle school teacher had written on her report card: "Kate talks too much. She is instructed to read independently when finished with classwork. She talks instead." Others revealed news of pregnancies, which were met with prayers of thanksgiving and "mazel tov, momma!"

Among the photos of tables laden with food, I also saw news reports from countries where people are suffering, such as the Central African Republic, where I served for three years in the Peace Corps. On this Thanksgiving Day, I was grateful to my fellow Peace Corps volunteers for keeping the news of the genocide in this country on the front burner of my news feed, encouraging others to sign petitions and urge the United Nations to take action.

And since many friends serve in the ministry, I read a diversity of prayers, including reflections from those preparing food for folks living on the streets. This prayer from Maya Angelou stood out to me among the many posts that day: "Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good."

The importance of inspiration from others

One final post from a friend prompted me to turn my world upside down. I've been following this friend's progress online as she learned to do handstands, and quite frankly, she's become obsessed, posting a photo of her daily handstands, from downtown streets to the woods behind her home. She's had a challenging year of transitions, and I have watched as her handstands have created a springboard for joy. Just yesterday she posted a story about the benefits of handstands, such as improving balance, building core strength, and boosting mood.

In yoga classes, I have always shied away from standing on my hands, even though I could walk across the gym on my hands as a second-grader. So yesterday, while walking on the beach, I found a lifeguard stand and tried to follow her directions to get into downward dog and kick up. To my dismay, I kicked sand in my face and made no progress at all. This morning however, I moved two chairs away from the wall in my tiny retreat. Placing my hands on the floor, close to the wall, I kicked, just a little bit. And then I kicked harder, and both my feet kicked right up to that wall!

I don't understand why I got tears in my eyes after holding myself in my first handstand in four decades. Perhaps turning myself upside down shook up the grief and the gratitude bundled together on every holiday, much like those balls of multi-colored rubber bands, contrasting colors held tight together with static energy.

Tonight I'm not going to post a photo of my handstand on Facebook, but I will share my gratitude to my friend for the push.