The gods of other people’s opinions

May 25, 2008 | Background, Conversion, Daily Spirituality, Prayer | 25 comments

Lately there’s been a lot of buzz about bloggers’ love/hate relationships with writing on the internet, particularly when it comes to receiving comments from readers (Emily Gould’s 10-page piece from this weekend’s New York Times Magazine being the most recent example).

The gist of these discussions is this: almost everyone who’s ever had a blog has struggled with an internal tug-of-war when it comes to getting feedback from readers. On the one hand, we all want to know how our writing is being received by getting input in the form of reader comments or site hits statistics; on the other hand, it’s surprisingly easy to get too dependent on this feedback, and even to let good (or bad) reader reactions have an impact on our overall feelings of peace and contentment in our daily lives.

I’ve had various websites going back to 2002, one which briefly had explosive popularity and left me on the receiving end of a ton of emails, so this is a topic I’ve thought a lot about — both pre- and post-conversion. I think it’s also something that even those of you without blogs can relate to (there are at least two of you, right?) since it ultimately comes down to something that is an integral part of the human experience: the struggle not to overvalue other people’s opinions.

For what it’s worth, here are my little musings on the subject:

At a young age, I think pretty much every human begins to notice two fundamental things within themselves:

  • a yearning to know where we currently stand in relation to the best version of ourselves we could possibly be, and
  • an understanding that we are not very good at evaluating this ourselves.

That second point caused me a fair amount of angst when I was an atheist. I had this vague, unspoken sense that lingered in my subconscious of somehow wanting “approval” for what I was doing with my life, and even for who I was as a person. Years of half-hearted dabbling in various secular, introspection-based self-help techniques made one thing pretty clear: giving myself a thumbs-up didn’t cut it. Though I felt reasonably sure that I was meeting my own general standards of being a “good person, ” my ideas about the details of rights and wrongs and the best way to live life were forever in flux. Relying on myself for my sense of self was like trying to moor a ship by dropping the anchor on the deck. It wasn’t working.

This is where having a website got tricky.

My first website gave me exposure to other people’s opinions in a way I’d never experienced before, and it was tempting to use those opinions to meet that ingrained need to orient myself. With both the good (“You’re a great writer, ” “You hit the nail on the head in your article yesterday, ” “I love your website”) and the bad (“Your writing is awful, ” “Your article from yesterday was off-base and stupid, ” “You’re pathetic”), evaluating myself and my choices based on feedback from other people was like drinking vodka when you’re thirsty: I knew that this was something like what I deeply needed and wanted, and yet it wasn’t the real thing, and was actually rather unhealthy.

Though the public nature of a website gave me more concentrated exposure to other people’s opinions, I saw it in every area of my life: whether the feedback was from bosses, coworkers, friends, neighbors, family members, or website readers, it always affected me more than it should have, and I struggled to find balance. Obviously, I realized that there was a lot to be gained from listening to and fairly evaluating the input of other people; yet I felt an intense draw to ascribe deeper meaning to these voices than I should have, to evaluate myself against them on a fundamental level.

What I couldn’t have realized at the time, but is very clear to me now, is this: I had a God-shaped hole in my heart, and I was always turning other things into gods to try to fill it — in this case, other people’s opinions.

This was yet another case where Christianity perfectly identified, explained and offered the solution to an integral part of the human experience. What I learned from studying this religion is that we were each designed to know, love and serve God, and that we’ll never find peace until we do so. In my case, it became clear that that longing for a sense of where I was in relation to the best I could possibly be, that mysterious knowledge that somewhere out there there was an objective standard against which I could measure my current life choices and behavior, was really a longing to know God. And until I opened my mind to the possibility of seeking God, I was never able to put other people’s opinions in their proper places. The temptation to turn them into gods, to use them as cheap substitutes to fill the hole in my heart, was too great to resist.

Even as a Christian, the temptation is still there.

I know now that the validation I seek can only come from the “still, small voice” of God. But God doesn’t shout. To hear his voice is not an entirely passive endeavor; it requires something of us. We hear God’s voice most clearly when we make time for silence, and when we get rid of the static that our sins create — but that’s an arduous, sometimes painful process. Frankly, it’s a whole lot quicker and easier to pick up the phone and call a friend or, for those of us who have blogs, to go read comments or log in to Sitemeter. To read responses on your blog that essentially say “I approve” offers passive, instant gratification in a way that the voice of God does not; to discern whether or not God says “I approve” is an entirely different endeavor…and a whole lot more work.

The great thing about the internet, blogs in particular, is the way it connects people and ideas and allows for the freeflow of information and discussion (I know that having discussions with commenters here on this blog has been nothing short of life-changing for me). But the increased exposure to other people’s opinions means that we’re more frequently tempted to cross the line from evaluating them as input from fellow fallible human beings to using them to try to fill that place in our hearts that only God can fill. The internet is a wonderful thing, but it brings with it a great temptation to let the louder, more immediate voices of the world drown out the still, small voice of God.

25 Comments

  1. Tertium Quid

    Jennifer,

    I am a crude blogger, not in my language, but in the fact that I keep no counters and don’t know how to use feeds. I sporadically monitor my favorite blogs.

    I don’t get many comments, and I have never been linked by any of the big blogs, so I’d just as well not know who is reading.

    My father does read my blog, and he comments on the telephone about it, though he has never posted a comment.

    I have to remind myself that I started the blog because I felt so alone in my thoughts after 9/11. I know a lot of history, and I know that every day and decade are different, but I get very upset when human beings in their conceit presume to have overcome the hubris of their ancestors.

    G.K. Chesterton said that “tradition is the democracy of the dead.” I hope in Heaven the saints have good comments. I just try to remind people that there is no path that has not be trod by those greater than we.

    Recently, I have not been able to write much, but I am comforted by Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, who understood why Martha is a saint as well as her sister Mary.

    My blog is bad when it has become the worst of my obsessive compulsiveness and evidence of my attempts at cleverness. I hope I don’t get affirmed by readers for being smart by a half or clever.

    Kind regards, TQ

  2. SuburbanCorrespondent

    Sometimes, I don’t know why I come here – you make me feel so shallow! But you are right, as usual…

  3. Anonymous

    I must be one of the two readers without a blog. I’ve been wanting to create a blog for almost a year now but I always hesitate because I’m afraid that my blog and all it entails, especially the interaction with readers, will distract me too much from what I need to focus on – God and my family. I already spend time away from my duties each day to read the many blogs I enjoy, like yours. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your blog – by the comments, the need to post consistently, the pressure to post original thoughts, etc? If so, what do you do?

  4. noe

    well, I must be the other reader without a blog. However at times I find myself going through my day and writing entries for an imaginary blog!

    I am ostensibly part of a group blog for a Catholic reading group. But the group members don’t really read or contribute, which is a shame because it would be a great tool for us.

  5. Cheryl Lage

    How poetically perfect that the still small voice spoke to me today via your blog. You’ve so eloquently described the very reason I felt compelled to give up checking my Amazon sales and site numbers during Lent! Insightful wisdom well-worded. Thank you.

  6. Heather

    Here is what I have learned–after having various blogs for about the same amount of time (I had my first when blogspot, and my oldest, was a baby.)

    IF your God shaped hole is filled with God then you can relax and let your blog be a place for fellowship with the Church (as the body of Christ) and/or ministry for those outside the church. It becomes a place for encouragement, edification, and gentle guidance.

    If, however, you are struggling with the temptation to identify yourself by what others say about you instead of what God says about you, then that is the time to fast from comments and counters and whatever.

    I have never used hit counters. I do make feeds available to those who would want to read (forcing people to come to your site when they want to read is selfish in my opinion). Now that I have business associated with my site I do check Google analytics to see how things are going, so I know my customers better and where they are coming from. However, I do not use that to dictate what I actually do on my site or where I go from here. If I find my motives are wrong I go back to the source–God, and find out what to do next. If I find that my priorities are not His for me then I stop and reevaluate.

    A good trick I learned a long time ago–if you are struggling with a decision or need wisdom first pray for wisdom and make sure you are right with God, THEN fast from talking about the decision for a whole day. Keep your mouth shut and after discussing it with God and putting it in His hands leave it alone. Busy yourself elsewhere. By the time the fast is over you will either know what to do or know who to talk to .

  7. patjrsmom

    Hi Jennifer,

    Such a timely topic–both at large–and for me personally. Initially, blogging our adoption journey was a way to keep friends and family “in the know”. The caveat to this quiet blogging is the missed opportunities for fellowship with other faith-filled, committed Christian bloggers (some of whom had also adopted!). So, in the end, the benefits of going “public” much outweighed the risks; and there are days when those commentators (of whom I was so afraid!) minister to me in incredibly specific and marvelous ways.

    Anytime a relationship can be formed which will bring glory to God and His kingdom, the devil will do whatever he can to sabotage it. When I start to fear the opinions of others, I’m now mindful from whom that fear comes. And it’s not from MY God–far from it.

    I recently started writing a column for our city’s (secular) newspaper, and found myself fearing the responses of new readers. But I’m onto that sneaky devil, and he’s not going to keep me from reaching out to someone who might find the hands of God through my writing.

    Keep the faith! (and I’ll keep commenting!)
    God Bless,
    Jane Marcoux

  8. Ginkgo100

    You are compassionate and empathetic enough to give weight to every comment, but I have always valued some comments, and some people’s comments, more than others. I just don’t take knee-jerk reactions or content-free agreement as seriously.

    This is a little like something I was reflecting on today, that it takes a fair bit of narcissism and arrogance to blog… at least it does for me. Who am I to think that my opinions are so valuable that other people ought to read them? For that matter, it takes narcissism to write at all, other than in a private journal. But can that really be a vice? Perhaps “confidence” is a better term — without that confidence in others we wouldn’t have all the wonderful writings in the world’s library, including even Scripture (as the authors had to cooperate actively with the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in order to get it all down).

    I have to say that your post did make me pretty self-conscious about writing a comment!

  9. Laurel

    Beautiful post, Jennifer. I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Augustine: “Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.”

    As usual, you gave me something to ponder about why I place so my weight on the opinions of others at times, when in the end, it is only the opinion of God that matters.

  10. Aimee

    Well said. I have been on a (very)
    short blogging break for just these reasons.

  11. Kelly @ Love Well

    You hit the nail on the head with this article!

    🙂

    No. Seriously. You did. Great thoughts, as usual, Jennifer. It’s so easy for us to fill that hole with anything other than the God who satisfies. Blogging and the comments it brings are just a new twist on an old temptation.

  12. Renee

    Jennifer, thank you, great thoughts. If you care to visit with Starry Night, she too speaks of becoming openly vulnerable with blog writing. It’s definitely makes one stop to ponder what the purpose of writing is about, but why limit ourselves to what other people think, or me thinks one would never take pen to paper, or finger to keyboard (smile).

    I’ve only just discovered your great blog recently and it’s going to take me some time to get it all caught up (lots of tea moments with your writing). I’m adding you to my favorites! Thank YOU!

  13. lyrl

    We get to know God through other people, though. The people who wrote inspirational books, the people who put the sacred writings onto paper for the first time, as well as people we interact with in person and online.

    What situations are best for hearing God’s voice? What are the sins clouding God’s appearance in our souls? We use introspection to answer these questions, but I believe most people require input from other people to arrive at satisfactory answers.

    I read this post and it feels like there’s something important here, but I’m not quite satisfied with the distinction Jen’s made between God’s voice and the voice of the humans we interact with… they’re just so intermingled with each other.

  14. lyrl

    Most of my internet writing has been on message boards and on Wikipedia, where I’m just one of thousands of people participating. It’s nice to get positive feedback on posts or article contributions, but it might be different than having a blog where one is more the center of the community, so to speak. At least, I’d like to tell myself those are inherently healthier place to get feedback about myself. Hmm.

  15. Creative Clayer

    I normally don’t comment at all on your blog, as I usually just agree with everything you say and you’ve said it so well I really have nothing to add. I like to think the lack of comments on my own blog(s) is a result of the same thing. 🙂 hehe.

  16. Tausign

    I began blogging just a year ago as a substitute for actual ‘spiritual journaling’ (which I’ve never been able to sustain for any period). I felt an urge to meditate on topics through writing as opposed to simply letting thoughts come and go. By writing them down I was able to hold down thoughts for inspection and retention.

    I didn’t have much experience with reading blogs either so I was not conditioned or channeled into any particular mode. But I soon realized that I would not do a ‘daily diary’: I also discovered that writing and ‘putting it out there’ would challenge me and force me to be more considered in my thought.

    Blogging helps me to be more coherent about my faith which is the greatest reward. I think the first half year there were only a handful of readers (literally)and that was fine. I avoided hit counters and such for six months and finally succumbed. I only recently added bookmark and feed services mostly for hospitality to my readers.

    The few comments I get usually show me what my reader is reflecting off of my own reflection, which is always enlightening to me. What I’m really trying to ‘harvest’ is the reflection itself, the insight: which often gels as I put it down. I start with some general idea that I want to persue and just let it develop. I’m often surprised with the output.

    My original output goal was two posts a month, forcing myself if necessary as a disciple. Lately I’ve been exceeding that but that’s only cause the Spirit (hopefully) is at work.

    Very important to me is that the blog itself has to be a demonstration of my faith, meaning I want for those who connect to be treated and witnessed to just as they would in the nonvirtual world.

    The only pitfall I’ve experienced in the blogosphere is my own overreaching: trying to follow so many blogs. I have cut back drastically in what I follow as it is not spiritually fruitful.

    So how long to continue? As long as the original goal can be fruitful. I can’t call it an apostolate of writing (the thought has occured to me), rather its an opportunity to think and share in public.

  17. About the site

    Spectacular post! What you wrote transcends the whole subject matter of blogging and site stats/comments, etc. Your post aptly describes the meaning of human existence.

  18. Kate

    Amen. These are some of the very issues I’ve been struggling with (as you know). Once upon a time I had an eating disorder. When I use to starve myself, eating only shards of plain lettuce, I was, no doubt, physically hungry. But eating disorders are not just about being hungry for food or wanting to look a certain way. They are an external and measurable scale of self-worth that offer a means of coping with fears and insecurities.

    For me, being a master of what I ate and the number on the scale was an easy way to feel like I was in control and “good enough.” It also helped me feel accepted to conform to a certain size.

    Looking back, I know I was trying to fill a void I saw in myself that couldn’t be filled by anyone or anything other than God. The best way to fully recover from an eating disorder or body image problem is to fill up on the on the Lord. He offers all the sustenance we’ll ever need. He truly is the bread of life and if we “feed” on Him instead of food, negative thoughts about bodies or a preoccupation with fitness and dieting, we’ll be filled with peace and never be hungry.

    Problem is, I’ve reigned in my eating disorder, but what’s behind it – my need for perfection, control, and approval – often cause me to look to other “gods” instead of turning to the one and only God. I love blogging – it’s both cathartic and a way for me to examine my faith in a new light. However, it’s also very tempting to let others’ approval of me, my words, etc. to be the end all.

    Thanks for the reminder, Jennifer. Even though I’m aware of my struggles and working to overcome them, I can always use the encouragement.

    God bless!

  19. Diva Mom Vicki

    Brilliant post! Off to my printer it goes.

    This is exactly what I’m working on with my Spiritual Director. Finding validation from HIM only.

    Thanks for some great thoughts to ponder.

  20. Jennifer F.

    I’m a little late on this and just have a second, but I wanted to take a sec to respond to some of the great comments.

    Anon –

    Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your blog – by the comments, the need to post consistently, the pressure to post original thoughts, etc? If so, what do you do?

    Actually, I usually don’t. If I ever do start to drift towards feeling that way, I remind myself that my #1 goal is simply to share my story in a way that is relaxing and fulfilling for me, that doesn’t interfere with my vocation and that, in some way or another, hopefully brings glory to God. If that means I have one reader or 1,000 readers, so be it. (I’m not perfect about remembering this 100% of the time, but that is my philosophy.)

    While I don’t think that looking at stats or getting new readers is necessarily bad in and of itself, growing traffic cannot be my primary goal — if it were, I would definitely feel stressed and overwhelmed. Trying to gain and maintain traffic to a website can drive you crazy.

    If you’re considering starting a blog and worry about this, I recommend setting a specific goal for what you want to do with your site, and write it down. That way, if you start to feel stressed about peripheral things, you can look back to your original vision and refocus.

    Ginkgo –

    This is a little like something I was reflecting on today, that it takes a fair bit of narcissism and arrogance to blog… at least it does for me. Who am I to think that my opinions are so valuable that other people ought to read them? For that matter, it takes narcissism to write at all, other than in a private journal.

    I have a different take on that. I don’t think that we blog, write, etc. because we think that are opinions are just SOOO valuable that we must share them. 🙂 I think that we sense that there’s value to having one more voice added to the mix, one more perspective in the marketplace of ideas. Surely it’s not a good thing to only have a small elite sharing their opinions with the world.

    And, for those of us who are believers, our blogs or other public writing are always opportunities to give glory to God in some form or another, whether it’s writing about politics or theology or simply sharing glimpses into our daily lives with our families. I know that when I was an atheist the Christian bloggers I would come across made a strong impression on me, even when they weren’t trying to.

    Ack! I wanted to respond to more comments but I’m out of time… 🙂

  21. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience

    I found this conversation, and the link to the Emily Gould piece fascinating, compelling… and, in some ways, disturbing.

    As a Christian, I don’t want to invest in narcissistic endeavors, sensationalism, or online confessionalism. Why *do* we write online? I pray that it is about glorifying God, pointing not to ourselves, but to Him who is the Word.

    And no, I don’t have comments in my quiet place so that, I pray, I can hear His still quiet voice better… and yet, I wonder…

    To be still and hear and know and taste Him…

    As always, you give me much to think about, Jennifer, and I deeply appreciate it. Thank you for sharing your pilgrimage with us…. a privilege to walk this way with you…

    All’s grace,
    Ann

  22. MooBeeMa

    How can I continue to lurk and draw life from your wonderful blog with out letting you know I’m here?

    Your blog is a balm to my soul. And it’s hard to read such life-giving words without wanting to nod or shout an AMEN to the screen or wipe a tear from my cheek.

    Every post I’ve read so far helps me, as a believer, get off my high horse and remember what is TRUE; a relationship with a person named Jesus. Not legalism, or religiosity or judgement.

    Your words are a breath of fresh air for anyone searching for TRUTH in this hurting world.

    Keep filling your hole with God, dear sister, and let our comments flow directly to Him.

    He is worthy to be praised for pursuing and capturing your heart.

  23. graceunbound

    OK, I really needed to read this today. I get so caught up in my blog stats, feeling crushed and invalidated if my number of page reads drops, feeling great if it soars. And when no one comments (as they usually don’t) I wonder “Does any of it mean anything? Am I doing this for nothing?”

    And then I remind myself of my goal, to try to blog only what I felt God was putting on my heart. Sometimes I get a post half-written and think “Nope, that’s not quite His voice yet.” And I drop it for awhile until suddenly something comes together and I know what He is trying to say.

    I’ve always had a tendency to try to fill the empty places in my life with the approval of others instead of with God. Thanks for the gentle reminder that I still have work to do in this area.

  24. Tim & Richelle

    I’ve been thinking, mulling on this same topic quite a bit – and as I was studying through the book of John – in particular the account of Nicodemus, followed almost immediately by the Samaritan woman at the well – the still small voice spoke quietly in my heart: What do those two persons have in common? They have a reputation…other definitely had opinions about those two people; Nicodemus was well thought of while the woman was not so well thought of by her community. Yet we are told in Phil. 2 that Christ made himself of no reputation – he did not allow others expectations or opinions to dictate his actions/responses/etc.

    And as you have so accurately and honestly shared – we too are to make ourselves of “no reputation…”

    Thank you.

  25. (((((HUGS))))) sandi

    OUCH! This hurt REALLY GOOD! LOL! I recognize your blog~you’ve given me other good smacks between the eyeballs, and in truth I APPRECIATE IT! (((((HUGS))))) sandi

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