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Here’s a sure sign that one full year of a global pandemic has taken a toll on my spiritual life. My Lenten observance this year amounts to: TikTok.

Pretty bad, eh? Well, sorry. I just don’t have the “capacity”—as we’re all saying now—to whump up spiritually edifying things to do or not do this year. Haven’t we suffered through enough little deprivations? Haven’t we been wandering the wilderness for many months already? Who’s still up for self-examination, self-discipline, and repentance?

Not me. I’m just trying to manage each day, one day at a time. I have a severe case of “teacher brain,” which means that my brain is constantly preoccupied with what must get done. A million little items. This grading and that class prep and this reading and that committee task, all of it compounded by the various tech-y buttons and passwords and logins we have to finagle to do this work right now. Slow down? Be kind to yourself? Don’t worry about productivity? Yeah, that would be nice, but I have deadlines, I tell you!

With a brain this bogged down by minutiae, I am finding it difficult to think, let alone pray. That would require so much concentration and willpower! Instead, how about… another form of mindless entertainment? Sign me up!

About a month ago—I’m not saying it was on Ash Wednesday, but it might have been—I downloaded the TikTok app on my phone. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. As usual with this sort of thing, I rationalized that I need to understand what the young people are up to so I can stay connected to my college students’ world. You know.

Turns out TikTok is really fun. It’s relatively simple: it shows you short, homemade videos, one after another after another, ad infinitum. If you don’t like something, just swipe up and it’s gone. If you like a video, watch it through. You can watch it again, too, if you really like it. You can press the heart button or “follow” the “content creator.” You can press the “not interested” button. You can comment.

And all the while, TikTok is paying attention. My son’s fiancée warned me that you have to curate the app. In other words, at first you have to tell the app what you like and don’t like, and eventually it will adjust to show you only things you like. It’s been fun to watch the algorithm try to figure out who I am. You like dog videos? Are you into German Shepherds? How about golden doodles? Or dog trainers? You like sea shanties? How about Scottish ladies singing ethereal folk songs? How about Irish dancers? Yes? OK, here’s more of that. How about dancing twins? Oh, I’ve got lots of those to show you!

I think after a few weeks of this, TikTok has a tentative, artificial-intelligence-style notion that I am a Black American woman interested in K-12 teaching, medical student life, animal facts, birds, women farmers (??), male ballet dancers (???), left-leaning politics but not the angry kind, and music. Also, I don’t care for cuss words. The algorithm is still trying to decide if I want to see more flute players (not really—no offense to flute players) or just how much more Irish dancing I can manage (a little more).   

Normally, I’m all for serious art and long think pieces on crucial issues, but these days, my brain has its limits and scrolling through a series of one-minute-long, carbohydrate fluff-nuggets is just the thing.

At first I wondered why I found this app so mesmerizing. I’ve realized it’s probably pandemic loneliness. People! There are still other people out there! And through a little window on your phone, you get to see inside their homes, their yards, their kindergarten classrooms. TikTok videos are not glamorous or slick, though they are clever. The app allows people to stitch together numerous tiny scenes, add music, add subtitles. It’s a new creative genre with severe limitations—just the sort of thing that prompts enormous creativity.

Some content creators lean toward public service-style content with informative or educational videos. There’s the person who does a daily news update, literally filming under a desk at work. Lots of people, during Black history month, put together fascinating one-minute history lessons. Marvelous performing artists—dancers and pianists and singers—are trying to cope with their pandemic frustration by giving their all for us, in short bursts, right in their living rooms.

Most TikTok creators, though, are just having fun. They’re filming their dogs being delightfully doggy, or they’re “dueting” another video—which means that two people who do not know each other and live nowhere near each other are still making music together. Other folks use whatever props are handy to stage silly conversations among abstract ideas or entities—say, imagining what the states of Florida and Louisiana and Minnesota would say to each other. One med student has a gently satirical series in which a bewildered med student (him) goes on his rotations, trying to manage the weird personalities and quirks of all the specialist docs (also played by him).

On the other hand, TikTok has its downsides. There are ads, of course. You just flip past them. Also, anyone can upload a video, which is pleasingly democratic, but some of the content creators don’t quite have the magic touch. Well, the brutal logic of algorithms squashes them down into oblivion soon enough. Meanwhile, TikTok’s vetting process does police content a bit, and sometimes the more heavily followed creators make videos complaining about their stuff that was taken down. Eh. Scroll on.

Among other complaints, recipes offered on TikTok, we have found, are not necessarily to be trusted. One recipe for roasted cherry tomatoes and feta cheese looked so incredibly yummy that it went viral. Tons of people copy-catted with their own versions, and eventually the craze caused a severe feta cheese shortage in Finland—or so it’s claimed. Actually, I do have reliable eyewitness evidence that one of my local Meijer’s was clean out of feta last week. In any case, we tried the recipe at my house and… bleh. Too rich.

Finally, I’m sorry to say that “viola TikTok” does not seem to be much of thing. Come on violists: get to it!

I know some people were joking back in February (on other social media platforms anyway) about how last year’s Lent never seemed to end and how maybe this year we should be doing anti-Lent or reverse-Lent. Eat chocolate every day and practice joy or whatever. Well, I can’t think of a practice more opposite to prayer and reflection than zombie-ing out on TikTok. It’s the perfect way to reinforce a short attention span. It’s the perfect way to reinforce the expectation that the world should cater to our smallest whims and preferences—Whim and Preference being two of the minor gods we most happily worship these days.

My reverse Lenten practice yields no particular spiritual insight, except that I’ve needed little doses of silliness and human connection lately, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Speaking of doses, I got my first vaccine dose this week and it won’t be long now until enough of us are vaccinated that we can declare the pandemic more or less behind us. That will be a blessed day, indeed. We will, of course, also be losing our excuse for a lot of these new daily habits. Will we be able to get back to full-on productivity? Can we survive wearing actual clothes for most of the day instead of pajamas? Who knows.

Anyway, I’m exhausted now just from writing this post. Time to chill out and see if I can find some Irish dancers.

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