It’s brought us to a place were dialogue is strained, where people are reacting-at each other, rather than responding-to. Particularly on social media where—thanks to a virus that won’t seem to quit—many of us are doing the bulk of our talking, people are snarling, going for the ad hominem early and often, and tossing labels about with reckless abandon.
It’s easy to do this on social media; we sit behind screens that block us off from anything but the words before our eyes and then forget that there is a living, breathing person on the other side—someone with whom we share more commonalities than we may realize, even if that notion seems impossible to us. Someone who (perhaps like you), knows what it is to be bullied, or abandoned, or neglected; someone who has been abused in ways physical, sexual, or psychological—or all three. Someone loved into being by a God who gifted each of us with a purpose and potentiality, but whose opportunity to develop it has been thwarted—sometimes because of the color of the skin, or the shape of the eyes, or the gender, or the disability, or the family dysfunction, or all of it, or none of it. Someone who has endured loss, suffered privation, suffered loneliness and self-doubt; suffered unendurable grief; suffered failures; suffered from a lack of encouragement, or support, or nurturing love.
Suffered . . . well . . . has suffered. Just like you. Just like me.
In truth, most of the time we have no idea who we’re talking to, even if we personally know someone and are somewhat familiar with their stories, because—as the poet Miller Williams put it—“You do not know what wars are going on / down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
That realization alone should be enough to influence our online engagements for the better, but it usually is not. As we focus on our own concerns, our own passions and beliefs, we easily forget about each other’s bone-deep realities, and how all of it impacts everything, for everyone.
We just get busy throwing each other away.
Because we so easily forget about the actual person on the receiving end of our output, we might do well to take a few tips from St. Benedict of Nursia, whose Rule, written around 515 AD, remains relevant and instructive, particularly as a guide for creating and living within a healthy society. Perhaps as we prepare to engage with others online, we should make a habit of remembering these five sound instructions within the Holy Rule:
It is the first word of Benedict’s prologue, and in many ways this single word encompasses the entirety of Benedictine spirituality. To listen with an intentional ear means to pick up something beyond the noise, something contained in the small, still voice that pronounces wisdom. To hear without listening opens us up to flawed interpretation, hasty judgement, and—too often—the resounding echo of our own thoughts rounding back upon us, having never been absorbed by those to whom we have not first listened. “Listen with the ear of the heart,” is what Benedict advises, which is another way of saying, “Take in what you are being told, until your own heartbeat helps to inform your understanding.” Doing so will charge your thinking, and sometimes change it; it may also change your words, that they are better heard.
Receive everyone as Christ.
This is challenging, indeed, because it means engaging the other with the honor we would give to Christ. Another way to think of it is as acknowledging the God-createdness, or “God-spark,” within each of us and treating it with respect. Doing so immediately calls forth a recognition that whomever we are talking to is in no way “lesser” than ourselves, but equal-in-God. For an atheist, this might be construed as acknowledging a foundational commonality of humanity. For Catholics, especially, note Benedict’s further thought within chapter 53: “Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal. 6:10) and to pilgrims.” We must consider any non-Catholic as a “pilgrim,” and consider how well or poorly we embody the life-in-Christ to others.
Be a bit humble.
In chapter 7 of the Rule, St. Benedict writes extensively on humility, citing a “ladder” comprised of twelve particular steps. Each one necessitates a lifelong practice, but for our purposes, perhaps numbers five, seven and eleven are most relevant:
Number five tells us to willingly confess our wickedness. On social media, that could play out as being willing to admit when we have made a mistake, or misunderstood, and apologizing, even days later, most particularly if our error has cost someone something.
Number seven instructs us to believe we are the least gifted, rather than the most. It is a surprisingly freeing practice if we dare to try it. It means we need less of everything, including praise, notice, or the shallow push-button-likes of the rest of the world. We find ourselves no longer needing to interject and pronounce on all things at all times.
Number eleven advises that when we speak up, we do it gently, succinctly, and without raising our voices. Yes, it’s difficult. On social media it sometimes means waiting before responding to something until one has managed to get past an initial reaction to a more thoughtful response—if, after consideration, one still thinks a reply is actually necessary.
Laughter, or the absence of it, is actually discussed within the ladder of humility, and the saint warns us to guard against it. This does not mean we are not to enjoy each other, or find humor in things, but that we are not to use humor at the expense of another, to debase, or to dismiss. Nor should we use it to pile on, or feel –“in on the joke,” which is always dishonest. Nor are we to dive into the stale pool of easy sarcasm that might (might) raise a snicker from someone besides ourselves. Sarcasm is not humor; it is simply a lazy antithesis of mercy. Shared laughter that takes its cue from what is beautiful, good, and true, or that celebrates the other, is often a great joiner of souls and healer of rifts.
Run the way of the Lord.
Returning to the invaluable prologue of the Rule, we find St. Benedict referencing the Psalms, which Benedictines pray daily. He writes, “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall ‘run on the path of God’s commandments’ (Psalm 119:32), our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”
That sounds nothing like what is currently found on social media. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if, by each of us trying harder, we could help to make it so? One way to “run the way of the Lord” is to take breaks from these platforms, occasional internet “fasts,” during which time you replace the frenetic flow and nature of Twitter or Facebook with long-form reading: Scripture, lives of the saints, instructive treatises and novels—material that can instruct or broaden one’s point of view and refresh the mind and soul so that, when the fast is ended, we are able to re-enter the fray in a less weary, and therefore healthier, frame of mind.
St. Benedict made a point of saying that his rule required “nothing harsh or burdensome” of its readers and adherents, and in this commonsensical way, it has managed to remain wise, relevant, and true for 1500 years. Perhaps there, too, we could learn from his Rule. Restoring the health of our society will be a long haul, and we’ll get nowhere by daily riding each other’s backs.