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An Eye-Opening Scene from Our Selfie-Obsessed Culture

Image: fotosearch
Image: fotosearch

The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings.
—Pope Francis, Forty-Eighth World Communications Day (June 1, 2014)

Whether you refer to them as “aha moments” or “wake-up calls,” I’ve had several such major insights, and they inspired me to write my book Beyond Me, My Selfie, and I: Finding Real Happiness in a Self-Absorbed World. One of the most profound occurred on a recent trip to Italy. This particular wake-up call came in 2015 while my husband, Dominick, and I were cohosting a pilgrimage for the Shroud of Turin exhibit. Dominick and I are both Italian American, so Italy is our favorite place to visit, and we always try to work in a few days to ourselves before and after each pilgrimage to take in the breathtaking beauty of what I call “the motherland.”

This time we landed in Milan, so we decided to vacation in northern Italy’s Lake District, comprised of Lakes Como, Maggiore, and Garda. We had already visited Lake Como and had heard a great deal about the wonderful treasures of Lake Garda, so once we landed in Milan, off we went to our quaint little hotel situated between the stunning southern lakeside towns of Desenzano and Sirmione. Often travel websites greatly exaggerate the qualities of a particular area in order to gain more clients and make more money, but in the case of Lake Garda, they didn’t even do it justice.

Italy is truly the way my husband and I reconnect with our physical and—more important—our spiritual roots. It’s wonderful to be proud of our ethnic heritage, but it’s even more important to recognize and appreciate being a child of such an incredibly grand and magnificent God.

We had four nights to spend on the banks of this majestic body of water before we were to meet up with the pilgrims in Turin, so we decided to hit a few key spots that would give us an overview of the area, the people, the lifestyle, and the scenery. The Monte Baldo cable-car ride leaving from the little village of Melcesine tucked into the hills along the lake’s northeastern shore was at the top of our to-do list.

The twenty-minute cable-car ride climbs 1,700 meters to the top of Mount Baldo, located in the Italian Alps. Thanks to the snowcapped mountains, the blue-green water, and the terracotta rooftops in the towns below, we felt like we were about to step into our own version of The Sound of Music. Even though the Von Trapp clan was from Austria, we couldn’t help but feel as if Julie Andrews (playing Maria von Trapp) was going to greet us when we reached the summit. It was a little slice of heaven on earth.

To top it off, this cableway has a unique feature that makes the experience even more enjoyable. The car actually slowly revolves, providing a 360-degree bird’s-eye view. It truly is awe-inspiring.

Well, at least it was for us. I don’t know about the young couple that was among those on the cable ride with us. From the minute these two lovebirds stepped onto the platform, for them it was all about shooting selfies. All right, already—we can certainly understand one or two selfies, given the backdrop. But nonstop selfies, one after the other, on the platform, in the crowded cable car, at the top of one of the most majestic mountains in Northern Italy, and all the way back down again is not just a bit much, it’s ridiculous.

Sure, Dominick and I took our share of photos with our cell phones. Who wouldn’t? But we did spend most of the experience trying to soak up the sights with our own eyes as we soared into the Italian Alps. It seemed the only time this couple put their phones down was to step on and off the cable car. The rest was spent posing, giggling, and snapping away. If they weren’t taking selfies, they were reviewing them over and over again, pointing, nodding, and high-fiving each other as they went through their endless selfie stockpile. They were utterly oblivious to everyone and everything around them. The only thing that mattered was what was on the small screens in their hands.

That’s why, thanks to this experience and others like it, I found Pope Francis’s words—regarding communications either causing us to gain knowledge or lose our bearings—to be both profound and prophetic, helping us to stop to think about just how lost in the high-tech, self-absorbed world we’ve become.

  • Men and women undergoing drastic cosmetic surgery because they’re unhappy with the way they look in pictures.

  • One young person actually attempted suicide because of an unflattering selfie posted on Facebook.

  • Tourists risking great bodily harm and worse just to capture the perfect self-image on their phone to post, tweet, and text their friends, family, and anyone else who will help give them their fifteen minutes of fame.

Lost on the Digital Highway

We have lost our bearings. Even if our selfie experiences haven’t been as dramatic as some in recent headlines, our obsession with selfies, smartphones, and the virtual world in general can distract us from the spiritual practices that are crucial in our search for true happiness. We need to have the ability to look upward and outward, ponder and reflect, as the Blessed Mother did so often. As Pope Francis stated in his message for the 48th World Communications Day on June 1, 2014, if we’re not careful, the digital highway can become a dead-end street:

It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness.

We can be so much more than just passersby “on a digital highway,” as Pope Francis says, if we choose to use media—and in this case primarily social media—for more than just a vehicle to attract attention to ourselves. Maybe instead of posting one more selfie, we instead pass along an announcement about a fund-raiser for a local charity. Perhaps there is someone in your circle of friends who is suffering and in need of prayers or some other type of support. Posting a request for prayers can have huge results; it’s a way to pay it forward, as the saying goes. This is the love and tenderness to which the pope is referring.

Teresa Tomeo is an author, syndicated talk show host, and motivational speaker on the topics of media and pop culture. Her latest book is Beyond Me, My Selfie, and I: Finding Real Happiness in a Self-Absorbed World.