Monday, February 17, 2014

Understanding Meanness

I have found a couple of blogs recently that I am really enjoying. Both of them were introduced to me by friends on Facebook. The first is Rachel Held Evans and the second is Momastery written by Glennon Doyle Melton. Both of these women, in different ways, are writing about faith and love and hope. They both write in a way that is intimate, that really connects with their readers. To be honest, I wish I could do what they are doing. To write so honestly, so clearly about things that are really important, to speak truth and beauty into the world - what else could I wish to do as a writer?

So it was a shock to me, as I was reading through some different comments about their work, to hear some really mean and hurtful criticism. Not that I don't know about internet trolls. I have a good friend who has been viciously attacked by them in the past. But I couldn't figure out why people were so angry about what these two women are writing? What on earth are they saying to get mad about? They're telling stories, about their lives and about what they see, and doing it in a smart, thoughtful, gentle and often humorous way. I felt pretty angry myself after I was done reading all the mean stuff. I wanted to yell back at all those commenters. How dare they attack these women?

I've been mulling this over, and then yesterday I found myself being really judgmental and mean inside my own thoughts towards a new acquaintance. I am grateful that I've learned the discipline and courtesy to keep my mouth shut, because I was honestly being condescending and contemptuous and arrogant towards this nice woman in my head. She wasn't hurting me. She was just telling a story. It was even an entertaining and positive story. But I was getting really angry and tense and unkind inside. I was surprised at myself when I realized what I was doing, and reminded myself to pull back and stop that train of thought, but then I became curious. It's not like me to be that way (or, well, at least I don't think of myself that way... ) Maybe what was going on in my at that moment is similar to what goes on inside all those people making mean comments? Maybe if I take a closer look at myself I can understand them better as well.

So, what was going on inside? The first thing I identified was envy. This woman's life looks pretty good to me, based on the little I know. It looks easier than mine, anyway. Some of the little comments she's made have given me the impression that she has more than I do. I recognize that this is really silly, because I don't know her that well. I don't know her life, her pain, her times of suffering. I don't actually know that her life is easier than mine. Maybe it's actually quite a bit harder. But at least part of what was going on was envy related to my perceptions about her life. So, perhaps some of those mean commenters are envious. Envy is a tough emotion to tolerate or admit to having. Not only do we know that we "shouldn't" envy others the very fact of envy means that we are feeling a lack in ourselves which is embarrassing. Emotions that you can't identify and tolerate have a bad tendency to be expressed in other ways, so that would make sense.

The second thing I identified was a sense of fear, of being threatened. Somewhere in my head I was thinking that this woman wouldn't like me, wouldn't understand me, would judge and reject me for all the ways I am different from her. I don't have any basis for that idea at all and she's been perfectly friendly towards me, so I'm pretty sure this is just my own particular brand of crazy coming to the front. It's interesting that the things I feel she might judge me for are things I don't particularly like in myself. Isn't that always the truth? Our own perceived flaws are so painful that we imagine everyone around us is judging and rejecting them, and we twist that around into judgment on others. Fear can be another toxic emotion, another one that is hard to admit to having, particularly when what you fear is social rejection. It tends to get twisted around into anger and a "I'll reject you before you reject me" type of mentality. Perhaps some of those of so angry commenters are fearful, fearful that their lives would be judged and rejected based on what they are reading.

Thinking this through does put me in a better frame of mind towards my acquaintance. I'm sure the next time I see her I will be more open and genuinely interested in her. This little exercise also leads me towards compassion for those angry commenters. It's easy to have compassion for myself, to say "well, I wasn't feeling good and I didn't actually say anything mean" when I think about how I was thinking and feeling. It's harder to have compassion towards people I find offensive. I still don't think their behavior is okay. Saying mean things is not okay, not on the internet or anywhere else. But I can feel some compassion for their fear and envy and whatever other toxic emotional states they are nurturing, and I can pray for their healing as I pray for my own.