Why Blogging? — This One Life

It has been interesting returning to the blogging space after a few years of hiatus. I have had to confront my former blogging motivations, why I left, and what has changed. It feels a little bit like coming home again, or wearing an old sweater again, or maybe visiting college well after graduation. Things are […]

Why Blogging? — This One Life

If you’re reading this, you probably know that the original #3daysinthewilds, in which a group of intrepid friends leaped off social media and tried to #bloginstead, has grown like a stream running downhill. Now it’s a river, and it’s one I plan to stay on, rowing along with my eyes open for other small craft making the same peaceful journey.

The post I’ve linked above is from Amber at This One Life, one of the #bloginstead pioneers. This post is honest, and I believe MANY bloggers (and former bloggers) will recognize themselves in her look back at why she started blogging. I’m so glad she came back, and especially that she came back AS SHE IS NOW. I believe our redemption lies in communication for its own sake – for the sake of sharing information, perception, faith and hope and love.

Well, I’ve got a hammer

And I’ve got a bell

And I’ve got a song to sing

All over this land

It’s the hammer of justice

It’s the bell of freedom

It’s a song about love between

My brothers and my sisters

All over this land

If I Had A Hammer – Lee Hays, Pete Seeger

Blogtown: Can we build it?

Arriving at lunch time on Day 2 of #bloginstead, I realized that I don’t want this experience to end. I see it growing as people join us and we become more adept at navigating this little virtual town we’re building. It would be sad to dismantle that on Saturday morning.

I’ve been pondering what I’m observing during this vacation from the social media vortex. Some would define blogging as a form of social media, but it is an older form, and it lacks many of the less appealing attributes of its descendants.

What’s good about this kind of blogging?

Looking around our group, I see that we are people, not brands. Our websites are home-made. We are not trying to monetize our interactions. We are not seeking to be influencers. We are not photoshopping the bumps and swirls of our real lives out of our communicated identity. If anything, I see a remarkable (and beautifully articulated) honesty in our posts. And I see the essential kindness in our responses to each other that is necessary to protect that kind of honesty.

Our communication is slower. Writing it takes longer. Reading it takes longer. It’s happening on a human scale, almost in real time.

I keep returning to my sense that #bloginstead is like visiting people in their homes, instead of at a shopping mall. It’s possible to visit in both places, but the quality and intimacy of the interaction will be much higher in the living room than in the food court.

So now I’m asking myself: what can I do to give #bloginstead a longer life? Could it become a movement? How?

Defining the Movement

There’s the long story, full of facial expressions and gesticulating hands no doubt inherited straight from my French ancestors. But in a nutshell? This.

#bloginstead: An intentional community of human beings who use personal blogging as their primary online social space.

If this community has a rule, it is to behave as if you were speaking to each other in person, face to face. Kindly. In good faith. As the beautiful human God created you to be.

The next question – can #bloginstead grow? Yes, it can grow if it has an understandable structure that can be replicated, that doesn’t depend on the herding capabilities of a single person.

The structure is simple. It has two components – people and blogs – and two methods – to be an active poster and commenter, and to invite others to participate with you.

Don’t wait for the fish to find you

Too often, personal bloggers get discouraged because they send a post out into the world and nothing happens. That’s because this is a crowded era, noisy and fragmented. It’s easy to be drowned out.

Blogging with a group solves that problem, but only if you are an active participant. Even in our little pilot group of 28, the people getting the most out of it are thriving because they post each day and then run over to see what their friends are posting and what they can say about it. Be that person.

Don’t come alone

You might think, “The only reason this is working for you is is because it’s so small. You all know each other, so you all comment on each other’s sites. But if everyone did this, people would get lost in the crowd, and blogging would be lonely and frustrating again.”

The solution? Don’t come alone. Decide to #bloginstead and invite your friends to do it with you. Two friends, three friends. You’ll soon make more, but you need people you already know to start you off. The more you write and the more you visit other houses in Blogtown, the more your little neighborhood will grow.

#bloginstead works and benefits us if it is a group activity. Like a neighborhood, we each build and run a house of our own. But we enjoy our time in those houses and benefit from it if we know and serve our neighbors.

Facets of Close Reading

In his Foreword to the Second Edition of The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien remarks testily, “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical….I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

Feigned History

A most fascinating phrase in this rich paragraph is the reference to “history, true or feigned.” We are so accustomed to defining history as the record of what has been true that this seems at first like an attempt to split hairs, perhaps a hopeful weapon against readers who were too ready to assume references in his tales to the World War where Tolkien vigorously denied them. Yet to a man who had invented a complex imaginary world and lived in it for decades, there could be nothing surprising in the idea of “feigned history.” Having taken the giant step from literal to imaginative reality, he could find no difficulty in treating the record of imagined people and events with the same discipline and care expected from real-world chronicles and scholars.

But a record, or study, of what can be found in a work of fiction may not so easily be categorized as “true” or “feigned.” Tolkien, existing in “true” life, must draw on materials from the Creator’s world to create a world of his own, and the reader’s pursuit of his meaning may undermine the idea of allegory as a tool of “domination.” Tolkien notes, “An author cannot of course remain wholly unaffected by his experience, but the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous.” (Read my observations on this subject.) He strikes here the head of the nail that drives through critical debates over authorial intention and the existence of any text as an entity independent of its creator. It is also a touch-point between spiritual and literary theology, a bump against the reality that like God, we must create from our own substance, but unlike God, we are not the originator of that substance.

Allegory

“Allegory,” we are told, is “a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.” By this definition, despite Tolkien, every literary work is an allegory.  There is something about our means of communicating that cannot be one-dimensional. “All these things spoke Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spoke he not unto them” (Matthew 13:34). Language itself is allegorical at the most basic level – words describe meaning the way music notes depict sound. The marks themselves are nothing but what we agree to attribute to them. Communication is an equation, an exchange of factors that must always be interpreted to exist at all. Thus, a writer striving to escape interpretation is a paradox.

Alfred Tennyson is a good example, a witness against his own attempt at escape. Despite his expressed irritation with attempts to pinpoint such “hidden meaning” in his poems, he was the master of deeply symbolic, allusive language. The smallest details of vocabulary, meter, and description are laden with “meaning.” (But that is a subject for another day.) “I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses, in the poem that bears his name. This is a statement he makes to himself, claiming himself as an influence on the lives of others. But so must those others be a part of him. So are we all constantly brushing against each other, leaving streaks of color, infringement, motivation, reaction, inspiration. So are we all constantly affected and affecting.

Interpretation

In my own years of reading and seeking, I have arrived at a sense that it is not the impulse to interpret and decode that is at issue. Rather, it is the counter-impulse to accept only one interpretation, to open the door in search of meaning and then slam it shut as soon as the first glimmer appears. Tennyson abhorred interpretation that reduced his poems to mathematical simplicity – this means that, this stands for that, as if the poem were a code and a single idea could decipher and replace it. This kind of reading inevitably reduces literature, or any art form, to one dimension. It collapses tension, removes whatever is dynamic or uncertain, and flattens the living entity into one cramped and stunted viewpoint. Too much is lost, too little gained.

The same tight-fisted over-simplification appears in religious life too frequently as well. God eludes us, and instead of pondering the largess of Infinity, we strive feverishly to equate Him with something more manageable. When it is used in this way, allegory is guilty as Tolkien charges it. It is an imposition rather than an interpretation, a willful choice of anxiety over comprehension. Again we collapse the tension we cannot handle.

Meaning

Meaning should be the fruit of any quest for meaning. It seems too obvious to need stating, but replacing the multi-faceted gem with the plain line-drawing is an unworthy fruit, or no fruit at all. Replacement is not the goal.

Real art explores and celebrates what is beyond its ability to depict. “Parables” are necessary because they allow the indescribable mysteries to be carried along in the limitless spaces left for them around the words and ideas we are able to describe. We “read between the lines” instinctively because we are created this way. We know there is “more to this than meets the eye.” We are wired to seek revelation because we are created in the image of the Revelator. Our ability to use this gift will be in direct proportion to our faithful confidence that our own perceptions are a tool of the revelation, but not its final boundaries.

We read closely not to reduce or replace, but to enter fully into what is present, what might be present, in the text and in ourselves. Done correctly, reading enlarges the text as we discern layer upon layer within it. Whatever we find within it, and within ourselves, the object is not to achieve the inner stillness of single meaning. The object is to draw near to our own incarnational connection with the Infinite.

 

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash

Mercy and Complexity

One of the blessing curses of being a writer is the refined ability to step inside another character’s worldview. You do this so that you can write the character, but the longer I live, the more my brain tries to hop worldviews in real life. To do it well, you must be able to envision motives and emotions for an identity completely separate from your own. But, especially if you’re going to do it in real life, you must complete the exercise without falling into the trap of believing you can actually read another person’s mind.

Although there are genuinely malicious people in the world, I don’t believe they are the majority, or even close to it. Most people, no matter how wrong-headed they appear to their peers, believe there is a valuable or at least necessary reason for their choices. If you are writing this wrong-headed person, or pondering them in real life, you will quickly discover that perception and empathy create confusion.

What’s the first dysfunctional human situation from your own life that springs to mind? (Don’t raise your hand or shout it out. Just think of one.) If you climb out of your own position in the situation and walk around the table, so to speak, it will become harder and harder to decide who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy.” It seems to me that the core of our human judgment of other humans rests in whether we think they meant well. Were they trying to do something they thought was good? Were they trying to do harm?

Our cultural paradigm is to solve or explain a situation by identifying a protagonist and an antagonist. We can then support the one and the condemn the other with an easy mind.

But the more you seek the details of human psychological and spiritual complexity, the more difficult it becomes to decide who is the antagonist. “There is no one who lives who is without sin.” We are all antagonists. But all creation is lifted up in Christ. We are all protagonists.

This is not an argument for relativism. There are good acts and evil acts, good motives and evil motives. But we have lost our desire or ability, as a culture, to accommodate the presence of spiritual tension in everyone around us, and in ourselves.

Perception, empathy, justice, mercy – all of these open us to unwanted depths of meaning and accountability. We are too tired and frightened to be attracted by the chance to understand and care for each other. And our weariness and fear are strengthened every day by the failure of our peers to understand us and care for us. That is the cycle that wants breaking, in my view.

-Photo by Akshay Paatil on Unsplash

Beware the Fire Hose

In the age of outrage, it’s important to know the difference between a marathon and a sprint. This is especially true if you hope to be heard by your fellow human beings, and if you hope to galvanize them to action. Whoever you are, and whatever your cause, you must never forget that for all practical purposes, you are speaking directly into the blasting stream of a fire hose. Always. If you fail to accommodate this reality, the best you have to offer will end as nothing more than a wet spot on the pavement. Continue reading