Retweeting and changing your profile picture feeds the beast of social media but really changes very little

On September 2 there will be a viral anniversary. Of course in our social media age, viral anniversaries occur every day, but last year on this date social media went viral with the image of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish background, lying face down in the water. He had died on September 1. It led to an outpouring of online rage and demands that something must be done.

Almost a year on, we had a new image of Syria. The image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, pulled from the rubble in Aleppo, sitting in an ambulance covered in bomb dust looking dazed but alive.

Two boys in Syria. The contrast of the boy who fled and the boy who stayed. The two pictures are icons of suffering, and in the interim period nothing has really changed. Again, the rage and the demands come and go. Nothing changes, but the beast of social media is fed and satisfied. St John of the Cross wrote: “Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved.” People on social media feel great things, and they no doubt feel they have achieved something when they retweet, like or change their profile picture.

However, there is a futility about social media. It produces and promotes iconic images of suffering, and much more besides, but sadly it says more about us than it does about the people involved and the situation. Of course, suffering has always been like that – there but for the grace of God, and all that.

Suffering is one of the unpleasant words that remain in our vocabulary. As political correctness and feelgood-speak seeks to re-orientate our discourse in certain directions, it is one of the words that needs expunged. We believe instead of suffering that we can and should do something about it, or at least someone should do something about it, and of course there is always someone else to blame.

On social media, icons such as the two Syrian boys have a different and very secular result, as the likes and comments and demands all speak about us and what we want. However, if we look at the religious reason for icons, they came into being to help people to pray. An icon of suffering is one that should stop us in our tracks, causing us to fall to our knees and look to God for understanding. The point of suffering is to see what God wants, not what we want.

Returning to St John of the Cross, he wrote: “Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.”

Social media is its own highly populated thicket, and people in their addiction to it can be lost in the thickets for days on end, but perhaps amidst the thicket of images, causes and mindless trivia in social media, these icons of Syrian suffering may move some to go beyond the indignation and online scolding and choose to pray.