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.
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