“Sir, Please Step Back From the Computer”

Have you noticed how much of our lives are being shaped by the barrage of news and social media we encounter? Especially lately! I’ve written about this in the past, but right now, there’s another element that we need to think about: we’re not just weary, we’re traumatized. Daily news about COVID19, the stress of lockdowns and job losses, horrific footage of police brutality, mass protests, riots, and looting … all of this has become a form of trauma for many of us.

In March, when news about COVID19 was exploding, and states were first issuing “stay at home” orders, I spent hours reading articles, surfing social media, and watching news videos, trying to understand what was going on. Then, weeks later, when the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests and riots happened, I had the same experience. I told myself I was doing this so I could preach and teach others, and also help lead our church in its response to these events.

But something else was going on too: my overdosing on news was like when you drive past a horrific car accident, and you find yourself unable to look away. We’re drawn to terrible stuff, and some part of us overrides our own good judgement and makes us look.

But here’s what I know: these kinds of events are traumatizing to many of us. We feel heightened levels of sadness, anger, and anxiety about what we are seeing and experiencing. A phrase I’ve heard people using over and over in the past few months is: “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Vicarious Trauma

Psychologists know that we can be traumatized when we simply observe horrific things. These horrific things don’t need to happen to us; just witnessing them happening to others can be traumatic. A recent article in Psychology Today (written in 2020, shortly before the COVID19 pandemic hit), says this:

A concept that may be misunderstood, or unknown by many, involves the vulnerability of the human brain to be negatively impacted by traumatic events even if we haven’t personally experienced them. This concept is called vicarious traumatization. Vicarious traumatization has given us an understanding that witnessing traumatic events or even just having knowledge of the events can have negative consequences on our mental health.

Vicarious traumatization has been well recognized as a struggle that mental health providers, first responders, medical professionals, and other professionals who are routinely exposed to trauma may experience. Yet, research is now discovering that there may be a link to traumatic stress, distress, and the witnessing of traumatic events in the news. More specifically, research is finding that the bombardment of traumatic materials in the media can lead observers to experience anxiety, difficulties in coping, immense fear and feelings of helplessness, and in some cases even PTSD (Ramsden, 2017).

What happens when people are traumatized? They become brittle and reactive. They are “on edge,” like a stay at home parent who’s spent 8 hours alone with crying babies and fighting toddlers. It just takes one small thing — a word, or even a look — to set them off into a fit of rage or tears of despair.

I think this is why we’re seeing so many articles and posts being written that are so over the top. People are jumping on the bandwagon of crazy conspiracy theories, and are jumping down each other’s throats when they disagree. I see so much reactivity and anger and suspicion on social media — and in fact I’m also seeing it more and more in traditional mass media “news” outlets. We are living in the land of outrage.

The Problem of Angry, Reactive Christians

As a Christian, I believe that we have an important opportunity — and special resources — to help us live with calm and grace during difficult times. Some people are stepping up and doing exactly this … but unfortunately, many are not. In fact, some of the most reactive and toxic people I encounter online are people who claim to represent the Christian faith. Fellow people of faith are raging, espousing baseless allegations and conspiracy theories, and forwarding hateful articles, tweets, and other social media posts.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In fact, it shouldn’t be this way … it must not be this way. Not only does this toxic reactivity and hatefulness drive wedges between people within the faith community, it’s very damaging to outsiders, and to our children and young people, who are leaving the Christian faith in droves.

Just a quick look at Bible teaching on this subject should be enough to cause every Christian to pause, and hesitate to write that caustic tweet or comment on social media:

Proverbs 15:18 “A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel.”

Proverbs 20:3 “It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel.”

Ecclesiastes 7:9 “Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.”

Matthew 5:22 “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

2 Timothy 2:23-24 “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.”

We need to do something. We need to make changes, so that we are not getting worked up all the time, and set up some controls, so we’re not so quick to react. I propose three main strategies:

First, be kind to yourself and recognize the trauma you’re experiencing

As I wrote about in my book “Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Mind,” you and I were not created / evolved to thrive in the kind of world we are living in. For all of pre-history, and the vast majority of recorded history, people were only exposed to suffering and tragedy that happened to them personally, and others in their immediate vicinity. Of course there was plenty of suffering, pain, and loss in that small world … but it was your — and your immediate tribe’s — suffering, pain, and loss. In that sense, it was somewhat manageable. What happened to people in tribes on the other side of the mountain, let alone the other side of the world, was largely unknown to you.

But not today. Now we hear about everything. We see and hear everything. If a tragedy happens on the other side of the world, we hear about it. We see pictures, even video. We see the tragedy unfold. We can hear people screaming and crying for help. We learn about the backstories of the victims. It’s like we’re there as it happens. And we encounter all this suffering and tragedy every day, all the time. It’s overwhelming.

But now it’s even worse than that. Because of the need to drive viewership (mass media) and engagement (social media), these massive media companies utilize the latest insights of psychology against our better interests. Even though it’s clearly damaging to us emotionally, psychologically, and socially, they push content that is calculated to instill fear, horror, and outrage in us. They’re competing for our attention, and they know we’ll pay more attention to this kind of content, even though it’s bad for us.

So not only are we exposed to an unprecedented amount of horrific news and information, we are increasingly at the mercy of media companies that are financially motivated to manipulate us by driving content that is specifically tailored to instill shock, fear, and outrage in us.

No wonder we are stressed-out and on edge so much of the time. We are traumatized by all that we are experiencing. And the crazy thing is, do you know what many of us do to relax? To chill out from all this stress? We go back to our computers, TVs, or smart phones to access more content, which only makes us more unhappy, anxious, and angry!

Stop doing that. Give yourself more breaks, not just from work, but from media. At least from media that makes you angry and sad. Recognize that what you put into your mind has huge effects in the quality of your life.

Never were Paul’s words to the Philippian church more relevant to our lives today: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8) Pay attention to what you pay attention to … and focus on things that are true, good, and uplifting.

Second, build some time into your life when you can be quiet and decompress

For centuries Christian teachers have been talking about the value of solitude, and never was this practice more important than today. Solitude is often thought about negatively — it’s about being alone, away from friends. We might associate it with loneliness. But it doesn’t need to be a long-term state … it can be a temporary, deliberate practice. We take time away from engaging with others — both in person and digitally — so that we’re able to calm ourselves and be “recharged.” Then we re-engage with others again, this time with more clarity and grace. Practiced deliberately like this, solitude makes us less lonely, not more.

Solitude is essential for anyone who is a spiritual leader or teacher. I think of it this way: as I work to support and teach others, part of what I seek to do is reflect back to them a clear picture of what I’m seeing and hearing from them, and relate that to what I’ve learned about God and the spiritual life. This only works if I am calm and clear, like the still water in a pond. If that pond is stirred up, the ripples on the surface of the water keep it from being able to reflect, and the mud that’s been raised from the bottom of the pond make the water murky and unclear.

What’s needed is to pause, to be still — so that the surface ripples calm down, and the mud settles to the bottom. Then, the surface will again be able to reflect clearly what is there.

I think of this image often. When my mind is cloudy and unclear, usually it’s because I’m “stirred up.” I need to take time to be quiet. I need to stop taking in more input, to remove myself from things that agitate … then things will “settle” and my understanding of the people and events around me will become much more clear.

I recently came across the following quote about the life and teaching of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. During her long and fruitful writing and teaching career, she reflected on how the German people had succumbed to Nazi fascism. She wrote and taught about how citizens of any country can be loyal to their nation, but also discerning about evil that they encounter. One of the keys to doing that, for Arendt, was the willingness of people to stop and think about what is happening around them. To do this, in Arendt’s experience, requires solitude.

“In the 20th century, the idea of solitude formed the centre of Hannah Arendt’s thought. A German-Jewish émigré who fled Nazism and found refuge in the United States, Arendt spent much of her life studying the relationship between the individual and the society. . . . She understood that freedom entailed more than the human capacity to act spontaneously and creatively in public. It also entailed the capacity to think and to judge in private, where solitude empowers the individual to contemplate her actions and develop her conscience, to escape the cacophony of the crowd—to finally hear herself think. …

“In our hyper-connected world, a world in which we can communicate constantly and instantly over the internet, we rarely remember to carve out spaces for solitary contemplation. We check our email hundreds of times per day; we shoot off thousands of text messages per month; we obsessively thumb through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, aching to connect at all hours with close and casual acquaintances alike. . . .

“We crave constant companionship. But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away,’ as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’—no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly.’ Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness—and conscience—but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life. Before we can keep company with others, we must learn to keep company with ourselves.”

Jennifer Stitt

Third, establish guidelines to keep you from being reactive and destructive in your use of email, social media, and texting

The Internet is changing. Social media is changing. Our circumstances are changing. And so now, we have to adapt. Because of the changing nature of social media conversations, and my role as the pastor of a politically diverse church, I’ve stopped using social media to comment on things of substance. I’m just addressing them in my in-person teaching, and in my newsletter. But that’s just me. Here are some other guidelines I seek to employ — sometimes I forget or fail — that you might find helpful:

  • Establish a “cooling off period” between the draft of a social media post, email, or text. Write a draft when you feel the need to say something, but BY ALL MEANS DO NOT SEND IT. Stop what you are doing, and do something else for a while. Ideally, let yourself sleep on it. Come back the next day, and see if you might want to reword it, or maybe say nothing at all. Would this slow down our communication? Yes. Would this cause us to have fewer social media posts, texts, and emails? Probably. And that would be a very good thing.
  • Never forward something that you haven’t read yourself. This should go without saying, but it’s amazing how often this happens. Remember that there’s a lot of mis-information being shared on social media, and make a commitment not to add to it.
  • Stop arguing about things you haven’t studied and don’t understand. It’s amazing how many people are posting their opinions online and in social media, as if they are public policy and infectious disease experts. Likewise, people are commenting by the millions about the protests, who (a) were never there to see what was going on, and/or (b) have never lived as a person of color and been on the receiving end of bias and discrimination as a result, and/or (c) have never been in law enforcement, and have no idea what it’s like to have a make split second, life-or-death decisions. Just shut up about things you don’t know.
  • Discipline yourself to wait until you really understand an issue before you comment about it. How can you be sure you really understand something? There’s a very simple and important test: You don’t KNOW about an issue until you are able to accurately describe the views of people on both sides of the issue, and are then able to articulate why you believe your side makes more sense than the other. If you’ve done that work, then your opinion means something, and chances are you’re going to put it much differently than you would if you were ignorant of all the issues involved.
  • Remember that we are currently living in an era where our ability to understand and discuss what’s happening is really, really challenging. We are on the receiving end of unprecedented levels of media overload and deliberate misinformation. We are not simply uninformed, we are often MIS-informed. And this mis-information is sometimes deliberate. Recent reports of coordinated attempts by foreign agents to spread misinformation should make us all pause.
  • Pray for the person before you respond to the person. Years ago I was taught why it’s so important to pray for people with whom we are in conflict, and/or are tempted to hate. When we pray for someone, we start to see them as God sees them. If nothing else, we start to see them more as a human being than an ignorant enemy. Chances are, if we pray for someone before we write a reactive, emotional response, our words will be more thoughtful and less caustic.