Like a parent preparing a child for the first day of school, it takes nerve for any beginning blogger to gather together a few words, dress them up with an image or two and send them off to fend for themselves in the big, wide world. It’s an anxious and uncertain time. There’s no way to know how those young words will be received, and impossible to predict whether they will be accepted, ridiculed or ignored.
Parents know that some neighborhoods are tough and not everyone is kind. For every open smile and extended hand, there can be hidden agendas and mixed motives. Bloggers have to learn that, in the blogosphere as in the schoolyard, there are bullies as well as potential friends, trouble-makers as well as peace-makers. Programmers may tout the virtues of WYSIWYG, but sooner or later every blogger learns the hard lesson: what you see isn’t necessarily what you get.
When I first experienced true nastiness in a comment appended to one of my early posts on another site, my initial response was shock. An anonymous reader criticized my choice of topic, my writing style and my conclusions, adding a few uncomplimentary personal remarks for good measure. Today, I would acknowledge the comment and move on. Then, with far less experience and with words like “troll“ and “sock puppet” still missing from my vocabulary, I worried and stewed over my response for a full day. Finally deciding not to confront the criticisms directly, I added a few bland and meaningless sentences, hoping I had concealed the agitation I was feeling because of that single, anonymous comment.
Unfortunately, as days passed the comment continued to echo in my mind. Inexplicably upset and embarassed by its presence, I began to obsess over it . Each time I began to write, I heard that disembodied, critical voice braying in the background. I found myself avoiding my blog and eventually contemplated ending the venture entirely.
After two or three weeks of turmoil, I happened to be talking with a friend who does a good bit of writing herself. She asked how the blog was going. By the time I finished my story, she was bubbling with laughter. “Look,” she said. “This one is easy. All you have to do is replace that critical voice with another, more affirmative voice.”
I explained I’d been trying to do just that, attempting to persuade myself no comment was worth such upset. Always more practical than analytical, she said, “You can’t think your way through this. You have to be much more concrete. Do what I do from time to time. Find a song that makes you feel good, one that embodies where you want to go and what you want your writing to be. Listen to it every day. Listen to it every time negative thoughts pop up. Keep listening until it’s wiped your mind clean of those nasty, negative voices.”
Of course I thought she was crazy. On the other hand, it wasn’t going to cost me anything to give it a try. With Lent just around the corner, I already had begun my annual search for something to “give up”, and it occurred to me that giving up an unhealthy attachment to the voice of an anonymous, negative reader might be just the ticket. Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life always had appealed to me. When I went back for a listen, I discovered it not only embodied the kind of positive, energetic, in-your-face attitude I needed to hear, it had a great beat that would be perfect for a brisk walk.
My commitment was made. Every day during that Lent I set off for what turned out to be a two-mile journey: past the palms, down to the water, around the lighthouse and back home again. As I walked, my steps set themselves to the rhythm of the beat and my mind emptied itself of everything but the words.
Unbelievably, my friend’s suggestion worked. The heavens didn’t open, no doves or angels descended, no Charlton Heston voice rent the air, but one day I realized the seemingly-impossible had happened. I spent an evening writing and experienced it as pure pleasure. I posted without anxiety. I read my comments with anticipation. The negative voices were gone.
Later, as I considered my experience in a larger context, I began to wonder how many of us still misunderstand the original intention of Lenten discipline. The purpose of discipline isn’t to eliminate the pleasures of life, to constrict our lives or constrain them. Rather, the “season of focus” is meant to open us in new and unexpected ways to all of the possibilities which lie buried beneath the surface of the life we have been given.
While Lent points us toward divine mystery, it does so in the context of an equally important human reality. None of us is meant to travel another person’s road. None of us is called to take our neighbor’s path or speak with another’s voice. We are meant to discover the open highway running through our own heart. We are called to claim our right to travel freely to our own destination and rejoice in the pleasure of telling our journey’s story with our own voice.
If there is a caution, it is that we need to choose our traveling companions wisely. One of the best bits of advice I ever received was so simple and so simply put I’ve never forgotten it, even though I’ve sometimes chosen to ignore it or attempted to reject it outright:
Be careful who you listen to,
because their voices will influence your own.
It’s another way of saying, “What surrounds us, becomes us”. If we choose to tolerate an atmosphere marked by hatred, we are more likely to speak in a hateful manner. If we continually hear echoes of cynicism and negativity, we are more likely to become cynical and pessimistic ourselves. If we listen to those who preach certain failure, success is not likely. If bitterness, paranoia or dismissiveness is the air we breath, we may choke to death on the fumes. We have the ability to choose which voices we will attend to and cherish and which we will ignore. We need to make those choices carefully in order to nurture and protect our own voice.
Two years ago, my slightly unusual Lenten commitment to listen on a daily basis to Bon Jovi’s voice rather than the voice of a cowardly and snarky reader brought me to the point of making another commitment. Not long after Easter of that year, I posted my first entry at The Task at Hand. I did so with a clear sense that it was, indeed, “now or never”, even though the title of my first entry, Dazed and Confused, suggests some residual ambivalence. But as I said then,
The question no longer is: do you want to write? For good or for ill, read or unread, poorly scribed or passionately sung, I will write. At the edge of the precipice, a bit dazed, a good bit confused, I have made my commitment. Let the perseverance begin.
For two years I have persevered, with pleasure. This year, my Lenten commitment is somewhat different but Bon Jovi’s words still resonate, and the beat goes on. I’ve come to understand that “now or never” lies at the heart of every moment of every day, and I cherish that understanding. As for that open highway, I suspect Bon Jovi would agree with another lyricist’s view of the human heart: that “we must teach ourselves that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching ourselves that, forget it forever, leaving no room in our workshops for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart.”
It’s as simple as that.