Dangerous Instruments: Your Online Life And Your Creative Legacy

I get email inquiries all the time from visitors to my side project, CatholicBarcelona.com, which is an online guide in English to all of the historic churches, monasteries, etc. in Barcelona. People want to know which sites are closest to their hotel, or if I can recommend a particular Sunday Mass, or where they can get married. A common question involves requests for Masses in other languages.

Some months ago I received an email from a lady whom I will call “T”. T had recently moved from her country to suburban Barcelona, but she had started to look into becoming a Catholic before she had left her home country. She wanted some suggestions on joining a parish, and also whether I knew of anywhere that she could receive instruction on Catholicism, through the program commonly known as RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I gave her a couple of recommendations and wished her luck, assuming I would never hear from her again.

Then yesterday morning, I received an email from T, some four months after I last heard from her. She told me that not only had she joined the parish I suggested would probably work for her, but one of the priests there was giving her private RCIA instruction. She is thrilled and hopes to come into the Church next Easter.

Now at the end of the day, what is happening in T’s life is the working of the Holy Spirit, not me. If she hadn’t found the information she was seeking through me, she would have found it somewhere else. However I wanted to share this story with you for an important reason.

There’s no question that the connections we make via online media can be toxic. All you have to do is read the comments section on just about any blog to realize that there are a lot of bitter, unhappy people out there, who not only espouse crazy theories, they are more than happy to share them with you. Twitter and Facebook, at times, can seem little more than a flame war, while even the most seemingly innocuous Instagram account can take on a different tinge, when you look not at the images being posted by that user you’re following, but at the images that they are “liking”.

I‘ll be the first to raise my hand and declare that I’m as big and bad a sinner online, as I am in real life: the Seven Deadly Sins and I have been shacked up for quite a long time. It’s easy to think, when we look at someone’s online presence, “Wow, what a hypocrite/whackjob/jerk!” Except that if we turn the mirror around, I expect most of us will find ourselves doing the same things.   

Online media is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool: a means, not an end. It can be a tool of darkness, absolutely, for it can create all kinds of evil things. Yet it can also be a tool for good. We all, myself included, need to take a step back from time to time and ask what sort of online instruments we are.

Certainly we are all rusty, dangerous instruments when we chose to do evil. The fellow downstairs is more than happy to use us to injure others, if we let him. In the process, we end up injuring ourselves, becoming weaker and duller until we eventually snap and get tossed in the garbage.

Yet if we put ourselves in God’s hands, even in our sorry and decrepit state, by choosing to work the way that He wants us to, we can be as beneficial and healing in our online relationships as a well-wielded scalpel in the hands of a gifted surgeon. That is where, as the saying goes, the struggle is real. And it is a struggle all of us, myself included, need to be reminded of, when we are doing anything online.

Whether you are writing a blog post or tweet, sending a direct message or chat, or uploading an image or document, in creating online content you are creating a body of work that speaks not only to who you are as a content creator, but also about whom you are taking as your creative advisor. You can be an instrument for creating good, or you can be an instrument for destructive evil. Don’t let that choice go by, unexamined, in your online activities.

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"Against The Common Good" by Francisco de Goya (c. 1814-15)

>One Man’s Trash: Evangelization and the Passive-Aggressive

>Back in an antediluvian age of the world, when I was an acolyte at Farm Street Parish in Mayfair, one of the English Jesuits made a wonderful suggestion – whether in the course of a homily or at the “coffee and biscuits” hour after the high mass I do not now recall – that it would be a very good thing indeed to share a copy of the parish bulletin with people we know, or to leave it somewhere where others might pick it up and read it. Certain now-aging elements of the Order aside, given the views of the average cleric at that particular parish in London, both in terms of its history and location, I do not believe he was intending to suggest that the parishioners engage in something as tacky as an act of civil disobedience. It would be hard to fathom a church where Evelyn Waugh set some of “Brideshead” advocating intentional littering when one alighted from a cab, was perusing the aisles at Fenwick, or had dinner at Scott’s. Still, the idea had legs, insofar as I perceived it, and it began a now well-ingrained habit with me which an uncharitable mind might consider a passive-aggressive form of evangelization.

While the great Catalan Dominican preacher St. Vincent Ferrer, whose feast day is today, was a fiery orator and evangelist, most of us are granted neither celestial visions nor such extraordinary capabilities of inspiration and persuasion. Even if we happen to strut and fret our hour upon the stage as an actor, politician, lawyer or so on, and are compensated for our ability to do so persuasively, when it comes to spreading the faith it is fair to say that the vast majority of us must perform our apostolate of preaching the Gospel by the way in which we live and in our relations with one another, rather than through standing in pulpits or on street corners proclaiming Christ’s message. This, in my view, is rather a good thing, for too often we are presented by the media with those who have achieved recognition in one of the aforementioned-spheres of professional development, who are held up to preach to us on matters related to theology, Church history and Catholic moral teaching of which it is self-evident that they know little or nothing. Would that St. Vincent and Congresswoman Pelosi, for example, would be able to appear together on something like the old “Firing Line” series: what an amusing, light-hearted evening’s entertainment that would be.

What is the average Catholic meant to do, therefore? Certainly taking advantage of social media is one way in which to witness to the Gospel, and when directed at the right target it can be a very effective weapon for dispelling ignorance or misconceptions about who Catholics are and what we believe. Though if we tweet or post to our wall some link, quotation, or media that reflects our Christian faith, we know that while there is a possibility of ridicule and attack, there is also an equal if not greater possibility of a kind of payback from our friends and supporters. In other words, we can receive an immediate, direct pat on the back for our efforts in the form of positive retweets, laudatory comments on our blog or wall posting, and so on, from those who share our views.

This does not mean we should avoid such opportunities of public witness, but since many times the reward is near-instant gratification, or there is a far greater upside than downside in the responses we receive, there is a slight whiff of preaching to the choir in such actions – particularly when all or most of one’s friends or followers just so happen to be practicing Catholics as well. The harder and oftentimes more unpleasant task is to reach the hard of heart, or the indifferent.

What I would suggest that you consider instead, gentle reader, is to consider an effective example of getting a message across which an old housemate of mine used to employ. If a dirty plate or utensil was left in the sink, he would take it out and put it in the center of the kitchen table, in order to draw attention to the fact that house rules mandated the cleaning and proper storage of such items for the general welfare of all. Annoying an act as it was in its passive-aggressive quality, it was devastatingly effective. By placing the object in public view, the viewer was more inclined to deal with it than if it lay hidden in the depths of the kitchen sink.

Like many Catholics, in addition to the church bulletin I find that I am inundated with Catholic printed material which appears in my mailbox on a regular basis. Give one donation to a particular Catholic institution and you will suddenly find yourself flooded with unsolicited paper. Yet rather than throwing these things away, I keep a continually-replenished stack of such materials – so substantial is my horde – from which I select those items which I do not want to keep for myself, but which I take with me as I head out and about, to leave where others may find them. It could be considered a passive-aggressive act, for it forces someone else to look at something, whether they are picking it up to read it or picking it up to throw it away, though I prefer to think of it as an attempt to even the playing field – and quite a trash-strewn playing field it is, too.

Those of us living in urban environments, in particular, have often become so deadened to messages celebrating human degradation/objectification and promoting neo-pagan secularization, that we oftentimes no longer notice the painful and misleading messages which flood our senses. We do not necessarily stop and think about the dangers of such media, because we train ourselves to ignore or dodge it: we may be grazed by the bullet, or it may completely miss us, but it rarely hits home. We do not, however, always consider the direct and catastrophic impact that these messages are having on those who are outside of the faith, or floundering in it. In turning what would otherwise be considered trash into potential treasure, we can try to address that imbalance, by sending out messages of encouragement, love, and a true reason to hope.

Unlike the earlier-mentioned examples of using social media to support the Church, with the possibility of instant reward from within our circle, this almost confetti-like method of spreading the Gospel is wonderfully non-responsive. We will likely never know whether anyone has read that bulletin, looked at that card or leaflet, which we left on the table at a cafe or on a park bench, or whether it simply got thrown in the trash. And that is the point: by choosing to take on a very simple role as God’s instrument, and doing so not only completely anonymously but also with no way to know whether our message has been received, we remove ourselves from the equation entirely. God will know whether that message has reached His intended target, and we will not: there is no direct payoff for us other than the joy in doing His work, and that is as it should be. That old germ of an idea from Farm Street can grow and blossom into a very practical way of going about the job of the disciple, and it has an additional benefit to us as well in our not being able to claim it as a self-congratulatory act.

>Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?

>Continuing with some themes I explored last week, gentle reader, I had a very good and productive exchange via GChat last evening with a contact made through Twitter – not only about arranging an in-personam meeting later this week with a mutual friend, but also about the use of that particular branch of social media. As he has considerably more followers than I, we discussed some of the benefits, methodology, and pitfalls of Twitter, as well as some negative aspects of the behavior on the site. Following our conversation and before turning in, I was doing a bit of bedtime reading, and it so happened that I selected St. Josemaría Escrivá’s “El Camino” (“The Way”) off the shelf.

I should preface my next remarks by declaring that I am not now, nor have ever been a member of Opus Dei – let alone the Communist Party, the Bilderburg Group, or the Mickey Mouse Club. That said, Escrivá’s writing is appealing to me in its very Spanish directness, often quite blunt indeed. My shelf of spiritual books runs the gamut from St. Francis de Sales to Thomas Merton, but the shortness of the passages in this particular book makes them more easy to digest if you do not have a great deal of time available to you – or your eyelids keep closing.

When I do spiritual reading, I will sometimes choose to open to a page or a passage at random, and reflect upon what catches my eye. In this case, we can translate the passage I stumbled across as follows:

Better to burn like a torch, setting fire to all you touch,
than to glitter like a star in the heavens.

In other words, rather than seeking to become famous and shine from on high and far off, we should make more of an effort to burn strongly where we are, bringing light and heat to the world, or at least the corner of it which we inhabit.

How very well Escrivá’s thought ties in with yesterday’s mass readings, which talked about the importance of light – and not just the physical light by which we see with our eyes, but the light by which we not only see ourselves as we really are. We hear of Samuel discerning David as the future king of Israel through God’s instruction, not through his own eyes; St. Paul reminding the early Christians of the light of Faith and how their lives have been changed by that light; and finally the superb recounting in St. John’s Gospel of Christ opening the eyes of the blind man. As Monsignor Langsfeld pointed out yesterday in a very well-crafted homily tying all of the readings together, it is often that we think we see, when we are in fact blind to what is going on both in front of and within us.

Then through courtesy of a Catalan friend – also made through Twitter over the course of several months’ exchanges – this morning I read a very interesting interview with professor Jordi Llovet, a well-known Catalan critic, translator, and philosopher, on the occasion of the publication of his new book, “Adéu a la Universitat” (“Goodbye to the University”). While Dr. Llovet is a modern humanist, as is the case with any men of true intelligence he can not only see the trees, but the forest as well. His words immediately struck me, for he is casting light on why our society is faltering.

Dr. Lllovet writes that the university, in his experience as an academic and thinker, is in great need of reform, because Western civilization has collapsed from a lack of any values beyond those of materialism and the desire to be famous – or at the very least to be popular. He maintains that [N.B. please excuse my imperfect translation] what drove mankind in previous centuries – whether God, humanism, reason, etc. – has been replaced by a completely financial and profane motivation. Thus, even his own field of education “has taken the basic form of love for business, consumerism, the accumulation of goods, the illusion of “welfare” and, something new, a mentality and everyday culture derived from present-day forms of entertainment and new technologies.”

Dr. Llovet goes on to observe that

The new generations seek fame more than greatness, they want acclaim more than recognition, and build self-sufficient small societies through the mobile phone, chat and Facebook – all of which is ersatz social and political life, in a global sense. This all follows a law of present-day history, according to which the past is something discredited and any theory on the future leads to a likely scenario which it is better not to think about.

How very much I see myself, in my worst moments, as well as many people I know, in his observations.

The temptation to make ourselves little gods of our own universes is so great, and so easily achievable through manipulation of social media, that we now have the commonly observed example of someone becoming famous for doing very little. The question “Why is so-and-so famous?” has been beaten into the ground long ago, arguably starting with “The Real World” and picking up steam with “Survivor”, “The Simple Life”, and moving through to “The Hills”, the Kardashian sisters, the “Real Housewives” and so on. The question keeps being asked, but no one really wants to hear the answer: these people are famous because we want to be famous, too.

We willingly follow, like lemmings off a cliff, those who say, “This person is worth your time!”, suspending our disbelief and joining in the attention being heaped upon someone who is often either unintelligent, untalented, unattractive, or all three. We do so in the hope that we will somehow belong, or be thought cool, hip, and so on. We also hope that we, too, may become famous, or at the very least end up with more followers on Twitter, more friends on Facebook, and more contacts in our iPhone. The end result of that effort will, if we are honest with ourselves, therefore hopefully make up for the fact that our lives are marked by the accumulation of useless “stuff” and the pursuit of fleeting, sometimes immoral pleasures, which ultimately leave us unsatisfied.

I have great admiration and respect for the men and women I have come to know through social media who are not only very competent in what they do, but use social media to its best ends: the establishment of contacts and the exchange of information. Their behavior is that of the adult, who does not need the adulation of others in order to have fulfillment. Those such as the manufacturer, the writer, and the photographer, for example, can reach an enormous potential market base through social media networking.

For his part, the individual who does not use social media either primarily nor secondarily for professional efforts, can use it to find others who share their interests far more easily than was ever possible before. It is also, no doubt, an extraordinary opportunity to reach out for charitable and philanthropic purposes. All of these are rational, adult methods for the proper use of social media. And most of us, dare I say so, who are active in social media fall very short in our efforts to remain adults in our activities online.

So the challenge that I present to you, dear reader, and one which I am going to try to take on for myself as well, is to make my use of social media more meaningful. Those of you who read these pages know that I do not generally produce the written equivalent of fast food in my work: I hold not only myself to a higher standard, but also my readership. I do not assume your ignorance, but rather your intelligence. You would hardly spend any time here if you were incapable of reflection on issues which cannot easily be addressed in a sound bite or a single 140 character statement. And that leads us to our point: it is time for those of us who employ social media to grow up, and to be a man. (Or lady, as the case may be.)

If Escrivá is right, if it is better to set others aflame and illuminate truth through one’s efforts and example, then the well-placed thought, even a brief one – such as, indeed, he himself often wrote – can do a great deal of good, if it is handled in an adult fashion. Yet at the same time Dr. Lllovet’s criticism of Gen X, Gen Y, etc. is well-founded, in the manifestations of our use of social media that are so easy to observe. The adult solution to this seeming dichotomy, and the childishness of social media as it clearly is employed at present by alleged adults, is to continue to employ it, but with more discernment and discretion. It may be that we should not seek to glitter like the stars, but we should not seek to behave like toddlers on a playground, either.