An Aegis Against Online Negativity: Kyle Webster’s Proof Folder

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I’ve been playing around on the internet since about the mid-nineties, and I’ve noticed something: there is a lot of negativity on the web.

This was true in chat rooms, true on message boards and bulletin board services, quickly became true in the comments sections of blogs, and is now ubiquitious on social media. If you are on the web, you encounter negativity.

If you make stuff, whether it be photogaphy, video, digital artwork, music, articles, sermons, blog posts, academic lectures, poetry, logical arguments, jokes, lesson plans, or whatever, you’ll attract negative vibes. Some won’t like your work. Some won’t like that you are working. If it isn’t you they don’t like, you’ll be adjacent to someone enduring an onslaught of criticism. And it will make you wonder about your own work.

To lead, to make, to do, is to invite criticism.

When we are criticized, it hurts. Even when it comes from someone we don’t know.

Kyle Webster recently wrote about the negative reactions he received on social media after selling his collection of digital brushes to Adobe (the post includes a few graphic remarks). He asks, “Why do negative comments have so much power over us?”

He acknowledges they take hold of us. He offers a few reasons why they do so. Then, he offers one way to disarm those attacks and one way to prevent being overwhelmed by them. What does he propose?

Webster writes:

First and very importantly, you must know and accept this about the vast majority of comments you receive online about you or your work: the people writing them have never had the pleasure of getting to know the real you. They are not your family members or friends, or even acquaintances. To them, the entirety of your being is comprised of a brief bio with a profile picture — nothing more.

Are they insulting your character, your integrity, your true self? Of course not. They are literally attacking some pixels and a few words on a screen—not a human being. Not YOU.

Let this sink in and acknowledge it as an absolute truth.

Second, try this:

  1. Create a folder on your desktop, your tablet, or your phone that reads, “Proof.”
  2. Find any email, tweet, post, comment or message from somebody who has thanked you for something you have created or written something positive about you/ your work.
  3. Copy and paste these positive notes into your “Proof” folder.
  4. Read as many of them out loud as you can any time you are letting the trolls get to you.
  5. Repeat as necessary.

Even if you only have a handful of these friendly comments, remember that they are of huge importance because they are undeniable proof that your actions have had a positive impact on others.

I think that is helpful stuff. I also think we can apply this more broadly.

There isn’t only a lot of negativity on the web. There is negativity out there in the world. The internet just amplifies, concentrates, and directs it, making it possible for us to hear more voices than we used to, and much more quickly. People don’t just make negative remarks somewhere we might read them or hear about them, they can get directly in touch with us, and they don’t even need a phone book.

When the criticism isn’t coming from “out there,” there is the inner critic. I subject myself to self-criticism. And because of the internet, I have more examples I can compare myself to, people who I think speak better, write better, or lead better. The internet has probably trained my inner critic in more ways than I realize. I analyze ways I could have done or said things better. This can leave me feeling as though I’ve had more failures than successes. This can leave me feeling pretty discouraged.

As a Christian person, I’ve had to learn how to defend myself against these feelings theologically. In Romans 8, Paul writes eloquently about the sufferings we now face, the life with God those in Christ have now, and the hope of a coming, future glory. Every sentence in this majestic chapter is part of a larger argument. But Christians are reminded here that we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, that God sanctifies us through our trials, that we are held fast by the love of God, and that even if we are opposed and persecuted by people, even if we are killed, we have been embraced and accepted and approved of by God in Christ Jesus, who died for us and intercedes for us even now. Criticism is for a moment, but Christ is ours forever.

While this theological truth has bolstered me (and it has helped me quite a lot!), an “Encouraging” or “Happy” folder has helped as well. It gives me a collection of temporal things that I can pair with the eternal things, things I can see and touch and experience while I await that day when the unseen becomes sight. I can be thankful for the good things, even though they are passing. I can hope in the things that will last. I have a folder like this in my desk drawer at work. I keep scraps. Pictures. Positive notes. Reminders from when things went right.

This is just another version of the “Proof” folder. Create one. Keep one. Build one. Maybe include more than something someone has thanked you for or said positively about you. Maybe include what God has said about you, the lasting things, the things that are true not because of what you have done, but because of what God has done, and who God is.

What are the basic tools for living a calm, meaningful, and productive life? Consider Newport’s Four Keys

I listen to Cal Newport’s Deep Life Podcast. In Episode 272, Cal begins the show by identifying four foundational tools for productivity. Watch the first ten to fifteen minutes. What are these tools?

  • Calendar
  • Obligation/Status List (More than a to-do list, could be mangaged with a project board like Trello.)
  • Multi-scale Planning Documents (Daily, weekly, and quarterly outlooks, and a review framework like you find in David Allen’s Getting Things Done.)
  • Core Systems Document (A snapshot of how you work and the tools you use.)

These tools are applicable to your job but can be useful in other dimensions of life. They can help you manage your household, lead your family, pursue your hobbies, priortize your volunteer pursuits, or practice your craft. They can help you be a better student if you are in school. How? These tools help you organize your time (calendar), capture your tasks and ideas (obligation list), methodically complete projects (timelined planning documents that interact constructively with your obligations and calendar), and focus your approach to accomplishing your goals (core systems reflect your process–you know how you do it).

When students ask me for advice on ordering or stewarding their life as a follower of Christ, I talk to them about calling, vision, giftings, discerned commitments, and time. Reflection in those areas defines the framework for moving forward. Then, calendar, tasks, pace, and process become tools that can serve us in working out the call, living into the vision, faithfully sharing our gifts, keeping our commitments, and ordering our days as servants of God.

These tools are not only useful for doing more things more efficiently in our jobs, they are also useful for the keeping of time and space to contemplate great truths, rest in God, pursue leisure, find renewal through practices such as retreat and Sabbath, involving oneself in a community of faith, appreciating the riches of human culture expressed in music, art, theatre, and film, and building meaningful friendships and relationships through the intentional cultivation of and participation in community.

Proverbs 6:6-11 says:

Go to the ant, you sluggard;
    consider its ways and be wise!
It has no commander,
    no overseer or ruler,
yet it stores its provisions in summer
    and gathers its food at harvest.

How long will you lie there, you sluggard?
    When will you get up from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest—
11 and poverty will come on you like a thief
    and scarcity like an armed man.

And Proverbs 21:5 says:

The plans of the diligent lead to profit
    as surely as haste leads to poverty.

The diligent person approaches their life deliberately and with wisdom. They learn how life works, how the world works, and come to an understanding of matters human and divine. They develop a vision of human flourishing, which in the Christian worldview, includes reconciliation with God and ambassadorship in Christ’s kingdom, not only as bearers of a message, but as witnesses to a redeemed, restored, and renewed way of life.

The outworking of this life finds expression, then, in our families, workplaces, churches, and our broader community, whether city, county, state, nation, or across the globe. We have agency and responsibility. There is an element of life that must be worked out, and faith, in this respect, is not only something we have but something we exercise and learn. We order our lives, not so that we can produce more, though we may, but so that our lives might be used as God would intend, toward the end of blessing our neighbors and, ultimately, the glorification of God (Matthew 5:16).

The Service of the Theologian

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Human life requires God. The theologian offers his or her mind in the service of saying “God” in such a way that God is not reduced or packaged or banalized, but known and contemplated and adored, with the consequence that our lives are not cramped into what we can explain but exalted by what we worship.

Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality, p. 124

I believe God is personal. I also believe God is wonderful, glorious, the most splendid being in all of existence. I believe this God has made himself known, and can be known.

But it is possible to talk about God in such a way that is impersonal. We are capable of god-talk that is informative but uninteresting, accurate but unmoving, static rather than dynamic, cold rather than radiant, dead rather than alive.

I once heard a person described as a good theologian who didn’t care much for God. I think this is possible, albeit tragic. If human life requires God, as Peterson claims, we need more than knowledge about God, we need intimacy with God. The theologian can serve us by helping us gain a greater understanding of God. This is a worthwhile beginning.

But the best theologians, I think, present God to us with the voice not only of a priest or a prophet, but a poet, someone who can help us through language behold the God who has been revealed as the Word of Life (1 John 1:1-3), a God that can be seen and felt and touched, a God who has drawn near to us in Christ Jesus, a God through whom we not only are invited to elevate our thoughts concerning, but a God who has extended to us the gift of fellowship, of eternal communion, now and always.

Social Media Trade-Offs

Social media applications on mobile

Writing about individual choice and social media technology for Discourse Magazine, Bryan Gentry argues:

Any time that we spend on entertaining technology is time for which we sacrificed something else. A 2007 study found that teenagers who played video games for eight hours each week spent less time reading and doing homework than non-gamers, and less time with family and friends (except when playing games with them). In 2016, researchers in a U.K. study found that time spent on social media meant less time being physically active and lower physical fitness.

Time trading may also change our values. A study earlier this year found that teens with more screen time prayed and read scripture much less often, even those from highly religious families.

Gentry draws from Lois Lowry’s The Messenger and Son, and dubs our choice to be on social media (or other forms of entertainment technology) instead of engaging in other worthwhile activitie, like exercise, socializing, or prayer “time trading.”

We’re not only trading time. We’re trading well-being and human flourishing. We’re trading connection. We’re trading creativity and insight. We’re trading deep meaning discovered in moments human and divine.

For years I’ve heard people say, “No one ever says at the end of their life, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.'” In another fifty years, people may say the same about time on a smartphone.

Receiving Silence and Resting in Prayer

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In his Spiritual Letters, Abbot John Chapman offers this counsel regarding the practice of prayer, away from efforts that are strenuous and exhausting, and toward an experience of prayer that is contemplative, restful, and peaceful.

What does Chapman think is the right way to approach a contemplative experience of prayer?

I think the right way is (1) indirect and (2) negative.

(1) Indirect. Practice prayer, as much as possible, in the quiet way of contemplation: the effect follows of itself, out of prayer.

(2) Negative. Avoid distractions, as far as possible. Cultivate the habit of getting a few instants or a few minutes of peace as often as possible. It is like opening a window to let peace flow in: or, still more, like shutting a door to keep noise out. But you can’t make silence. You can make a noise. But you can only “make” silence by stopping the noise, or stopping your ears. Hence the way to get that “recollection,” which is simply interior peace, is not by any positive effort, but only negative effort;–that is, the cessation of acting or thinking.

Consequently, it ought always to be a relaxation, not an effort. Consequently, it ought never to cause fatigue, or overstrain, or headache.

I think all this is true, and I hope it is clear. Beginners have to meditate, work, tire themselves. But contemplation is rest, peace and refreshment; and its effect is extraordinarily strengthening. Just as the body is after sleep, so the will is after prayer.

The bold emphasis is mine. I say it this way: You can’t make silence. You can only enter it, or receive it. The silence is there waiting for us to cease our noise making and to quiet ourselves. It is something to rest in. When entered, we are invited to notice God, to pay attention, to listen, to “be still” and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). And if we know God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ, resting in him is an experience of true sabbath (Hebrews 4:1-13).

Silence, received as gift, can be given. How? By keeping it, by refraining from making a noise. Silence, then, can also be shared, and in sharing, there can be another gift: presence. We can be present to ourselves, to the other, and to God.

Chapman writes, “contemplation is rest, peace and refreshment; and its effect is extraordinarily strengthening. Just as the body is after sleep, so the will is after prayer.”

How does silent, contemplative prayer strengthen and refresh us, reinforcing the will? By reminding us of God’s character, beauty, and grace, and by alerting us to our weakness, infirmity, and humble position. We consider anew the grandeur of who we serve, and renew our commitment to glorify God. We also contemplate our lowly estate and need for divine help. The needy ask for help; God will supply it (Psalm 72:12). We are thereby emboldened and humbled, simultaneously, by silently attending to God.

Getting “Unstuck” in Prayer

Have you ever felt stuck when trying to pray?

Do you ever feel distracted, confused, frustrated, or at a loss when attempting to communicate with God?

Have your efforts in prayer felt like failure?

Have you ever said your prayers to God should feel and sound and be some way other than what you are experiencing?

What do you do?

In his Spiritual Letters, Abbot John Chapman writes:

Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.

Take yourself as you find yourself, and start from that.

Remember, God sees your desire to pray. And where do you think that desire comes from?

Simple prayers, earnestly spoken, are a wonderful way to begin. And I’m encouraged to know that when I am without words, the Spirit intercedes for me (Romans 8:26-27).

Accept where you are, trust what you have, begin where you can, be grateful for what you have (the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, collects and good liturgy, memorized, reliable words given to you by other Christian people), notice your longing for God, and patiently wait on the Lord.