Interacting without (non-clinical) Anxiety (or, how to not be a troll)

The other day I came across an article entitled “Holy Trollers: How to argue about religion online”. An excerpt:

When I first started writing about religion for an online news site, I eagerly turned to the comment section for my articles, fishing for compliments and wondering if I had provoked any thoughtful discussions about faith.

I don’t wonder anymore.

When I look at the comment section now, I see a whole lot of “yo mamas” being tossed about. Readers exchange juvenile insults, condescending lectures and veer off into tangents that have nothing to do with the article they just read.

The author then goes on to list and discuss the different types of commenters he’s encountered over the years. It’s an entertaining, if not completely accurate, article.

calvinsuzieAs our nation has polarized, and especially in this contentious political season, I see a whole lot of “yo mamas” being thrown around, and, ultimately, a whole lot of (non-clinical) anxiety. I’m reminded of some theological work done by LeRon Shults on a matrix for theological inquiry. In this matrix, he formulates that the ways people behave and perceive the world are based on how they deal with certain kinds of desires, which produce anxiety, as outlined in the following table:

A Matrix of Theological Inquiry
(from Transforming Spirituality: integrating theology and psychology, 2006; p.63)

Desiring Truth Desiring Goodness Desiring Beauty
Human Knowing and Personal Identity Human Acting and the Doctrine of Sin Human Being and the Image of God
Epistemic Anxiety Ethical Anxiety Ontological Anxiety
Omniscient Faithfulness Omnipotent Love Omnipresent Hope

While this isn’t always the case, most of the time people tend to act and respond to anything they truly care about out of a place of anxiety. They’re worried that they won’t be able to secure whatever good thing that is the object of their desire. Maybe they don’t know enough to defend their views on something they are passionate about, or are afraid of what will happen to their standing in the community if they don’t behave properly, or who they’ll become if they don’t hold to some personal belief about who they are. These anxieties, unfortunately, tend to run amok in the human psyche and drive many of us to behave badly. Anger, name calling, stonewalling, hate, refusal to interact, and even depression are all signs of this everyday anxiety getting the better of us.

Interacting with anxiety-producing things that are “out there” in the world requires us to handle our anxiety in productive ways. In this political season, we, as a nation, have done this pretty poorly. The democrats accuse the republicans of things like supporting a misogynist, racist, homophobic idiot. The republicans accuse the democrats of supporting a deceitful, corrupt, evil politician. This name-calling  is driven by a desire for truth, goodness, and beauty, as our communities (aka, political parties) have defined it, but the anxiety around obtaining truth, goodness, and beauty gets in the way of us actually being able to achieve it. In short, we’re all prone to being trolls because it makes us feel better, and because we believe it will secure good things for us, but is actually counter-productive. 

Shults (and his writing partner, psychologist Steve Sandage) argue that, in our pursuit of good things, anxiety will often turn us into grotesque, inwardly focused versions of what we are trying to become. And when “the other” holds a mirror up to us, and we see that we’ve become something other than good, true, and beautiful, our self-loathing and shame causes our desires to become more acute, making us even more prone to the harsh demands of anxiety. In this grotesque state we justify the unjustifiable, and entrench ourselves in our mistakes, because we can’t stand facing what we have become in our effort to be good.  Kierkegaard describes this as standing at the edge of a cliff, filled with fear that we might fall in, but also strangely thrilled at the thought of jumping off.

Anxiety has the ability to be both the precursor to sin, and to be the thing that awakens us to who or what we really are. Anxiety can be the path to either choosing wisely, or to becoming that grotesque creature. It all hinges on how we deal with our personal anxieties. Do we let them define us, or do we find avenues to deal with them productively?

With that in mind, here are some Christian suggestions for interacting with others while keeping (non-clinical) anxiety in check:

  1. When you find yourself getting riled up, ask yourself, “Why?”
    Asking yourself why you feel the way you do can help you identify what anxieties you are dealing with. To use examples from current political topics, maybe you are anxious that Hillary will raise your taxes and appoint judges that will curtail religious freedom. Maybe you are worried that Trump will further income inequality and drag the nation into unnecessary international conflicts.But why are you REALLY anxious? In the case of Hillary appointing judges, perhaps you are afraid for your own personal safety because you are a person of faith, and you think that being a Christian in such an environment will make you an object of persecution, and you fear persecution because you live a comfortable life. In the case of Trump furthering income inequality, maybe you are concerned about your own economic stability, and believe that income inequality has reduced your value as a human being, and you believe that your value needs to be recognized.There is a technique used in many industrial quality assurance departments called “5 Whys”. The short version of this practice is that you ask the question “Why?” five successive times in an effort to get to the root cause of the quality problem. This practice can be useful in determining the root cause of anxiety as well. And being able to speak truthfully about your own anxieties, and realizing how they are affecting you, is an important part of seeking truth, goodness, and beauty. I’ve found that most of the time, the issues people talk about are smoke screens for a deep, personal insecurity.
  2. Associate with those who produce the results you want to see in yourself.
    I’ve read plenty of commentators in this political cycle to regress to name calling and fear mongering to get their point across. But on substantial topics, people don’t change their minds when pressured. People change their minds after prolonged, non-anxious contact with ideas that they eventually come to see as better. Some studies even suggest that a person changing their mind is linked with a change in that person’s perception of their identity. But any way you slice it, changing your mind about issues that produce anxiety simply takes time. Most of our communities are used to shouting their stances in angry terms, and then being shouted at by the other side. That’s a waste of time, and doesn’t produce results beyond self-flagellation. If you just want to shout, you’re doing the right thing. If you want to interact productively in the world, you need to find a different path. People need to find those in their communities (or sometimes, outside of it) that can speak the language of persuasion. It could be someone you know personally. It could be someone you know from Facebook or from a blog, or off of YouTube. It could be an author, living or dead. Just find someone who can speak the language of persuasion. Not cheap or manipulative persuasion, but the kind of persuasion that meets people where they are, invites them into a world where change is possible, and joins new and better ideas with personal identity.  This sort of magic isn’t common in our polarized society, but associating with those who have practiced this skill is crucial to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness, and to interacting with anxiety in check.
  3. See those you disagree with as also pursing truth, goodness, and beauty. Humanize them.
    When I was a kid, I would walk away from conflict over topics I was passionate about secretly happy that God would one day punish or “show up” my conversation partner(s) for their errors. Maybe this was something I was taught in church, but maybe not. In any case, I’ve become convicted that this is a desire for revenge, and it has no place in the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. It’s a sin.Instead, I’ve come to realize that, as warped as people might be, they are all trying to secure good things for themselves. It’s just that they have been vandalized by their experience, the lies they’ve been told, and their understanding of what “good” even is. They are human, and looking for the same faith, hope, and love that I’m looking for. Thinking of those with whom you disagree with contempt – as dirty or evil or especially deserving of heinous punishment – is an evil in itself. For Christians, all humans are made in the image of God and are sacred spaces, vandalized by the powers of the world. Let’s all work on realizing that we are warped in our pursuit of good things, and have grace with each other as we work through how to find truth. Those of us who are Christians need to be about the message of reconciliation, not condemnation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21). How can we do that when we can’t even have a conversation about the price of gasoline without conflict?
  4. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.
    At the risk of irony, I’ll say more about this. We talk too much, and don’t listen enough. On my Facebook feed, I’ve been fortunate to have people on both sides of the Black Lives Matter movement, some condemning it, some praising it. I’ve been able to ask questions of each side and listen to the answers. Sometimes, the answers rile me, so I have to go back to suggestion #1 and figure out my anxieties. But at the end of the day, listening to both sides and talking to real people who represent them has been worthwhile. Most of the time when there is conflict each side is looking for truth, goodness, and beauty, but they don’t understand each other. I personally believe that most people who condemn the Black Lives Matter movement haven’t calmly dialogued with a single person in the movement, humanizing them as they listen to their story and their goal.  I also believe that most of those who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement haven’t spent enough time understanding the opposition. They just chalk up the opposition to “privilege”, when most people I’ve talked to who are against BLM are bewildered by the term. Nevertheless, supporting one side or the other in any debate (or choosing a third option) must be a deliberate choice based on listening non-anxiously to others. I admit that sometimes, this can be challenging. People tend to have pent up frustration over long-standing issues, and their voices and attitudes reflect anger or depression. Sometimes this emotional response or challenge to the status quo is justified, but even if it’s not being able to listen through the anger is valuable.
  5. Learn to live with anxiety as a human condition, with its dissipation in God.
    Everyone’s desire is that, after they do all of these things, their (non-clinical) personal anxiety will be vanquished, and they’ll live happily ever after. I wish that was the case. Anxiety is part of the human condition. In Christian anthropology, anxiety is what all humans feel as we navigate the world separated from God, who is the source of all truth, goodness, and beauty. Until the day comes when we see Him face-to-face, we will continue in this state of anxiety about how to know, do, and be “good”. Even when Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane, we see him struggling with anxiety when he calls for “this cup to pass” from him. But in response to his anxiety, Jesus turned his face towards God and continued on the path set for Him, even though that path led towards a gruesome death. Jesus shows us that anxiety is part of humanity, but that it finds its dissipation when the God of all creation welcomes us into His omniscient faithfulness, omnipotent love, and omnipresent hope, which can give is the confidence we need to interact with the world with our anxiety in check, producing fruit in our question for truth, goodness, and beauty.

For me, at the end of the day, interacting without anxiety is about finding God’s peace in the midst of what seems like chaos and purposelessness in the world (see the previous post). In the last two generations, too many christian communities have been doing a poor job of realizing that truth, and have instead been consumed with anxiety over doctrinal debates, sexual purity at the expense of personal holiness, and a fusion of US American political ideology with faith in Jesus. The ways in which we’ve attended to our anxieties have caused us to be known as grotesque creatures that lack grace but claim faith in the author of grace. God provides shelter for us, despite the vandalized and warped ways in which we seek him, and offers transformation out of the chaos of our anxieties into beings with a purpose. In Him we are invited to (non-anxiously!) live and move and have our being.