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The Wonder Report: May 21, 2021
Hello again! We made it to another Friday. The weather is supposed to be downright gorgeous this weekend — dare I say, even hot? — so look for me and my family outside and in the shade.
We’ve been talking over on Instagram this week about the ways weather and nature can influence our desire, and even will, to gather. For me, spring just makes me want to be with people. Several others expressed something similar. While I’d love to spend this week’s Wonder Report talking about the connection between nature and gathering, I brought up that Instagram conversation because I actually want to talk about the realities of gathering online.
I’ve been pretty open about my misgivings with social media. In another post, I wrote about how leaving social media for about 18 months helped me realize that the problem is bigger than just infinite algorithmic feeds. I struggle with many aspects of new technology, as Cal Newport defines it in Digital Minimalism, which ranges from smart phones, to the apps they host, to social media, and even to streaming apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime. New technology comprises all those “digital tools that are delivered through a computer screen or a mobile phone and are meant to either entertain, inform, or connect you,” Newport writes. He even includes text messaging and websites as “new technology,” and I’m here to tell you that I struggle with all of it.
But at some point along the way, I started missing some of the better parts of new technology that allowed me to meet new people, have meaningful conversations with the folks I already know, and generally redeem the Internet for good. I documented here how I waded back into Instagram a little over a year ago, and though I’ve questioned a few times whether it’s a good idea for me to be there, I generally think the good outweighs the bad.
Now I’m wondering, in light of our conversation this month, if there’s a way to make Instagram and Substack and all the other places I show up online not just tolerable but hospitable and welcoming? If in my in-person life I’m trying to be a good host and gather with purpose, can I do the same in my virtual life?
I see it as providential that I returned to Instagram just two months before the world shut down because of COVID-19. Though I certainly didn’t (and don’t) want social media to replace the slow, messy, meaningful relationships I have with people across many platforms and in person, when the options to connect were greatly diminished by stay-at-home orders, and when everyone was suddenly reeling with how to make sense of a pandemic life, I was glad I had already re-established myself on Instagram. I’d venture to say that the pandemic probably would have pushed me back, had I not.
I’d already been reconsidering my decision to leave social media for a few months prior. While I had few regrets, I did have this one: What if not being on social media is perceived by people as being “anti-social”? I had attempted to make myself easily accessible through my website. I also regularly reached out to people through texts, email, and even snail mail. But despite it all, I still had this unsettling feeling that in my attempt to protect myself, I’d actually done myself and my readers a disservice.
Then I read Jen Pollock Michel’s January 2020 Christianity Today article “Love Your Neighbor in the New Year: Answer Their Emails and Texts,” where she makes a compelling argument that “while a lot of people are resolving (rightly) to curb their digital addictions in this new year, many of us might need an urging in the other direction.”
Here’s why: “The most virtuous among us might not be those who conspicuously publicize their return to various forms of analog life. Instead, those most like Jesus might be the ones who decide to become more digitally available, not less,” Jen writes. “Digital isolation is a privilege afforded to the few, especially when the capacity for insulating ourselves correlates directly to our ability to foist the hassle onto someone else.”
While I wasn’t doing that … my insulation wasn’t causing a burden to anyone else, as far I know … I did find that I wanted, maybe even needed, the beautiful, messy, sometimes complicated, and often time-consuming task of gathering with people online, if for no other reason then I felt God was calling me back to it. The struggles with time management, distraction, and overwhelm that social media would certainly add back into my life would be worth it because I’d be reconnecting with people. Real people God would bring into my life through those platforms.
Which leads me back to Priya Parker and The Art of Gathering. The questions she asks about about in-person gatherings, like What’s your purpose? and Why is this gathering different than every gathering like it?, and the principles she provides about who to include and who to exclude, about the spaces to gather, about hosting and leading a gathering, and about creating a temporary world, can all apply to the online gatherings we host, too. From a virtual summit to an Instagram story, “it’s the way a group is gathered that determines what happens in it and how successful it is,” Parker writes.
Of course not every online connection has to be a formal “gathering,” just like not every in-person meetup has to meet the criteria of delighting guests and transforming lives. Sometimes, you’re just hanging out online, just like you might do with your family or friends in person on a Friday night. But when you have a purpose for being there, a purpose that Parker describes as “specific, unique, and disputable,” then why not take your online interactions to the next level and make them a gathering that people will remember?
There are so many tips in the book for making this happen, but I love the three condensed tips Parker offers in her TED Talk, Three Steps to Turn Everyday Get Togethers into Transformative Gatherings.
If you have 10 minutes, I highly recommend watching the video, especially with the idea of gathering people virtually in mind. If you don’t have the time, here’s a quick summary of her 3 steps:
Embrace a specific, disputable purpose. Parker never exactly defines “disputable purpose,” even in the book, except by example. She says having the purpose of “to celebrate love” for a wedding isn’t really disputable. (Who would argue with that?) But saying your purpose is to repay your parents for all you’ve done for them, then that helps you make decisions related to the gathering, like inviting your parents’ life-long friend rather than your spouse’s college buddy when the guest list needs winnowing. When you embrace a specific, disputable purpose for your Substack newsletter or your YouTube channel, it begins to define your content, your timing, the guests you’ll invite, the audience you hope to attract.
Cause good controversy. “Human connection is as threatened by unhealthy peace as by unhealthy conflict,” Parker says. She suggests adding a little heat to your gathering by creating the right conditions for it. In online gatherings, this might mean asking a hard question or adding a poll in your Instagram stories. It might mean hosting a panel on a relevant but difficult topic, all within the boundaries you set (time limits, comment policing, limited invitations, etc.).
Create a temporary, alternative wold with pop-up rules. “In this multicultural, intersectional society, where more of us are gathered and raised by people and with etiquette unlike our own, where we don’t share the etiquette, unspoken norms are trouble,” Parker says. Perhaps this rule, even more than the others, seems to apply to our online gatherings, especially with the potential of gathering with people even more unlike us than in our in-person lives. Of course, algorithms are notorious for creating echo chambers of like-minded people, so this rule comes with the encouragement to first branch out to a broader group of people in your virtual gatherings. Then consider what pop-up rules might carry the most force in your gathering.
Of course I’m not just thinking about the implications of gathering virtually with people; I want to make some changes, too—to embrace some of these rules of gathering that will make our time here, and in other spaces, more meaningful. You’ll begin to see some of these changes even next week, as I invite other people in to share with The Wonder Report readers and look for ways to gather us together more intentionally to talk about books and ideas and the faith that brings all things together.
I say it often, and I really mean it: You are a big part of my purpose for writing, and especially for writing in this space. I look forward to gathering with you more and better in the coming days.
How can you transform your online activity into meaningful gatherings?
I guess this is the question at the heart of this week’s Wonder Report. Too often I feel like a victim of social media or a casualty of publishing norms that require me to have an “online platform” in order to be successful. Of course I could always eschew the virtual world altogether, becoming a Luddite and avoiding the problems of the Internet. Or, I could recognize the risks and pitfalls of the virtual world, and be present on my own terms (recognizing at the same time that no platform or app is entirely neutral).
Here’s the challenge: Take an inventory of all your online activity. Using Priya Parker’s three rules from her TED Talk, how can you move from passive participant to gracious gatherer in the online spaces you occupy?
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
1. My husband and I moved to be near friends by Heidi Haverkamp for The Christian Century. I’ve moved for many reasons in my life, and the one priority I make in every new location is making new friends. But I never once prioritized a move because of friends I already have. This essay has made me rethink that decision.
From the essay: “In the United States, we prize the self as the key to happiness and the good life. Perhaps this is why loneliness has become so endemic. We may have crippled ourselves with our focus on the personal, the individual, the wellness of me instead of us. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, individual physical and security needs supposedly must be met before the need for love and belonging means anything. But I can’t help but wonder if we actually need love and belonging before security means anything. What if we even need belonging more than food?”
2. To be more tech-savvy, borrow these strategies from the Amish by Alex Mayyasi for Psyche. Like the author, I thought the Amish forbade all new technology in their communities, except I always wondered at what point they stopped embracing new things. For instance, even iron plows pulled by horses were revolutionary at some point. But here’s the thing: The Amish don’t actually forbid all new technology. “Instead, the Amish make slow and deliberate decisions as a collective. Rather than rushing optimistically or blindly into the future, they move forward cautiously, open but sceptical”. And that slowness and collectiveness is what Mayyasi commends to readers.
From the essay: “As it happens, Amish communities are home to plenty of tinkerers, hackers and technophiles. Just like early adopters who read the news online when ‘the internet’ was still a strange term, they rigged up light bulbs, bought telephones and surfed the web before their peers or church leaders knew much about them. Due to the decentralised nature of Amish religious life (there’s no Amish pope), no one set a policy for addressing these novelties. Contrary to what outsiders might expect, early adopters often aren’t censored, nor necessarily discouraged.
“Nonetheless, in their small, tight-knit communities, neighbours and church leaders will take note. Many Amish communities shunned car ownership after watching car-owning families drive away for the weekend and play a reduced role in small-town life. Many banned phones in the house once their threat to the cherished tradition of neighbourly visits became clear.”
3. Endless scrolling through social media can literally make you sick by Julie Sklar for National Geographic. I included this article because I’ve been hearing more and more about this phenomenon from people I know. It’s a downside to spending too much time in our virtual spaces and another reminder that we need a rich life away from technology, just as much for our physical wellbeing as for our minds and souls.
From the essay: “The pandemic has forced most of us online at incomparable rates. It’s where we’ve worked, taken classes, attended parties, and gotten lost in 2020’s voracious news cycles. But our bodies were not designed to primarily exist in virtual space like this, and as our collective digital time creeps upward, something called cybersickness seems to be leaking into the general population.”
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from the Gathering Theme
In this section, I'll highlight visual and performing artists and talk about how their work inspires mine. I'd love to hear about artists you love and whose work you admire.
As you know, for the month of May, I’m sharing the work of Amy Grimes, an artist who calls herself a story painter. This week, I’m sharing a painting I don’t know the name of, one she shared on Instagram that nearly took my breath away.
As I was thinking about my online life and the art of virtual gathering, it feels kind of like stringing lights on trees in an otherwise dark forest. It’s not always an easy space to occupy, but we can leave our mark and light the way for others.
Here’s what Amy writes about this painting: “I love trees. Last week I was thinking about all the trees that were recently knocked down by storms in my part of the world. And that got me thinking about Heavenly trees. I imagine storms won’t knock them down and fires won’t burn them there. Isn’t that a lovely thought? And that’s why I decided to paint some Heavenly trees— or at least my attempt at them.”
**Remember, I’ll be giving away a print of Amy’s painting “Wonder” at the end of the month, so be sure to watch for more details to come.**
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
The writing life is definitely not an easy life. The interior inclinations that bring so many of us to it feel contradictory to the public life authors are required to have. At other times, young writers are drawn to the writing life precisely for the public parts they’ve observed in their favorite authors, not recognizing or understanding how very hard it is to come to the blank page day after day after day.
Alejandra Oliva’s recent essay in The Christian Century, “Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life wasn’t made for times like these,” offers some poignant reflections on how one writer grew into the writing life and then found it all threatened when the pandemic happened. As the title suggests, Oliva taps into the wisdom of Annie Dillard’s classic The Writing Life to make her observations.
For me as for everyone I know, the past year has meant swinging wildly from anxiety to loneliness to grief to occasional islands of feeling alright. Monkishness, when unchosen, when surrounded by death and sadness and no way out, is oppressive and terrifying. Most days I miss my parents, my siblings, and my friends who live far away so badly I can taste it.
But in comes Annie Dillard again, like a strict teacher. Her book was not made for times like these, but it can serve through them. She reminds me that, as a writer, this is a more extreme example of the life I’ve chosen; that as much as my worst days require gentleness, a schedule will help me keep hold of them; that it’s important to keep following the line as I go.
Whether you are new to the writing life or have settled into it after years of practice, Dillard said it best in her famous line: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Let’s spend them all well.
Well, you’ve come to the end of another Wonder Report! Thanks again for sharing this time with me. If you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
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Until next time,