Is 'forgive and forget' possible in the digital age?

It’s a good thing Facebook wasn’t around when St. Augustine and St. Francis were young and carefree. 

Known for their wayward youthful tendencies, these two might never have reached sainthood had they been “tagged” in an online photo album chronicling their hedonistic escapades (in the case of Augustine) or lavish feasts and bouts of drinking (in the case of Francis). 

When Augustine and Francis turned their lives over to God, they were able to wipe the slate clean, rebuild their lives and reputations from the ground up. But, had they been alive today, we might be looking at a very different outcome. 

Imagine Francis trying to start up his ministry to the poor and focus his life on prayer while the naysayers searched the Internet for proof that he couldn’t possibly change so dramatically. Or Augustine writing his “Confessions,” only to have throngs of angry online commenters parading out every mistake he’d every made and wagging their virtual fingers at him. 

No escape 

Technology today is creating a world where people can never escape their pasts, where everything from youthful indiscretions to outright illegal activity is permanently etched in the ether of the Internet, available at the click of a mouse through search engines that become more expansive and precise every day. 

A recent story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine highlighted the potentially devastating impact of public photo sharing after one young woman posted a perfectly legal but unprofessional photo of herself at a party drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “drunken pirate.” 

Her college refused to give her the teaching degree she had earned, and her career was over before it began. The blurring of her professional and personal life — even when it didn’t involve anything licentious or illegal — had derailed her promising future. And it’s likely that every time she applies for a job, that photo will come up in a search, along with all the subsequent stories about the incident and the legal suit that followed. 

Poor judgment, something that most people exercise at one point or another in their lives, in the past would have been attributed to a phase, a stage, a momentary lapse. But in the new digital world order, nothing is momentary. 

Forgive and forget may very well become an impossibility in our overly transparent world. Forgive? Maybe. Forget? Never. Can you really have one without the other? 

Our faith teaches that we need to forgive just as we want to be forgiven, and to truly forgive, we kind of have to do some forgetting as well. Otherwise, we may just be giving lip service to something that really requires us to let go completely of any grudges, hard feelings or anger toward someone who has hurt us. 

Maintaining boundaries 

For Therese Borchard, who chronicled her experiences with mood disorders in her book “Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes” (Center Street, $21.99) and her Beliefnet column by the same name, the virtual paper trail left behind on the Internet is all too real. 

Now in the process of looking for a full-time job, she worries that some of her online honesty may be too much for potential employers to look past. 

“When I started writing ‘Beyond Blue’ for Beliefnet, I knew that there would come a time when being so blatantly honest could potentially bite me. I was afraid to write the first few posts and have them published in an archive that stays there forever. However, I know in my soul that this is my mission, and the best way for me to be an instrument of God’s peace,” Borchard told Our Sunday Visitor in an email interview. “When you Google my name, the second article that pops up is a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post called ‘7 Ways to Stay Out of the Psych Ward,’ not exactly the type of piece that you want prospective employers to see associated with your name, especially those (and they are many) that have so many convoluted opinions about mental illness.” 

Borchard, who has also written “The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Guide” (Center Street, $13.99), has been in the uncomfortable situation of having a neighbor or friend weigh in on something personal from one of her posts, sometimes with a “calloused remark,” but she feels passionately enough about the issue of mental health to stay on message despite the drawbacks. She says that the online world, especially social-networking sites, creates a place where boundaries blur and people need to be a little wary of what they say and do. 

“I just read a story the other day about how Facebook is contributing to marital infidelity … [and] how hooking up online with your childhood sweetheart from high school isn’t always a good thing. I think we need to be spiritually prepared for that — to ask God to help us maintain healthy boundaries as we wander into the past,” she explained. “And as for other people casting judgment on past mistakes or indiscretions, well, I think we have to work harder on not caring so much about what other people think.” 

Our responsibility 

Gauging our own reactions to the information we read and share online is the right place to start, at least according to Mike Hayes, author of “Googling God: The Religious Landscape of People in their 20s and 30s” (Paulist Press, $16.95). 

Hayes, who cofounded Bustedhalo.com, says that too often we are willing to do on the Internet what we might not be willing to do in person — spread rumors, perhaps even unfounded rumors, or ignore an action that could be dangerous or painful to someone we love. 

“There’s an obligation on all our parts, the obligation not to take something at face value, not to judge someone by one post or one photo. I also think there is a level of trust that comes into play — how much a person lets you see,” Hayes said, referring to the ability of social-networking “friends” to limit who can view certain elements of their pages and postings. 

“What do you do in a real-life situation versus what do you do in the virtual situation? … The onus is more on us than on the poster. We have a responsibility for our actions as a result of something we see on the Internet.” 

Hayes knows how easily information gathered from the Internet can be misused or misleading, if those doing the gathering don’t take the time to get the details behind the blips of information that pop up on screen. Hayes once recommended a speaker to a group planning a conference. The group Googled the speaker’s name and saw it come up in connection with another conference that they didn’t think their local bishop would approve of. Without even finding out how the speaker was involved, the topic of her speech or what she said, the group made a decision not to hire her based only on guilt by association. 

“We all Google people, and the first thing we find is the thing that tells us the most about them, at least that’s what we think in theory,” Hayes said, stressing that the same virtual world that can be used against us can also be used to help us spread the word about our work, our cause, our parish or our organization. It all depends on the things we choose to put out there for the world to see. 

“How do people perceive different things that you’ve said? Do people take things out of context? It’s all up for grabs, and it’s probably just the land mine that we have to deal with now and figuring out how to deal with that when the moment comes,” he told OSV. 

Mercy online and off 

So it turns out that the virtual world is much like the real world after all. What we see is not always what we get. We can’t judge a book by its cover.  

And, especially important for those of us trying to live according to the Christian teachings of mercy and forgiveness, we should never be looking to cast the first virtual stone, which has the potential to send waves of gossip into the world at breakneck speed.

 Borchard of “Beyond Blue” takes a philosophical approach to the sometimes-harsh virtual world, where everyone’s past — for better or worse — is just one Google search away. 

“Maybe it’s harder, or impossible, to start over. But everyone is guaranteed a shot at redemption. … Even if you grace the cover of Time magazine as society’s idiot, you are still loved and accepted by the God that created you,” she said. “I have to remind myself of that every day, sometimes several times an hour, because of the nature of what I do.”

Mary DeTurris Poust is author of the upcoming book “Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship” (Ave Maria Press, $13.95). She writes from New York.