Henri Nouwen on the Social Media Cycle

Out of SolitudeReading through Henri Nouwen’s short work Out of Solitude the other day, I came across this wonderful quote that describes the constant temptation to define our worth in terms of what we’ve accomplished and the feedback we receive:

When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. This dark power has driven many of the greatest artists into self-destruction.

This spiral gets can worsen as we age because unlike when we were 18 and everything was open to us, every passing year means that we have fewer and fewer options. But it also seems to worsen as we age because many of us have experienced the elation of success and then find ourselves doing everything we can to recreate that feeling.

I think a similar phenomenon can happen with social media and internet “success.” Just as we learn to crave the kind of evaluation we get from high grades, thank yous, and so forth in our everyday life, the immediate feedback of likes, retweets, and hits leaves the distinct impression that hitting certain numbers determines the value of not only what we do online, but who we are.

It’s easy to mock silly metrics like Klout scores, but even the best of us check our numbers sometimes. And in those moments we must remember that those numbers might in fact be useful as measurements of our job or a task we’ve been given, but they don’t measure anything eternal – like the value of your personhood and the eternal soul that God made and is redeeming through his son Jesus.

But now, by all means, please like this post.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

9 thoughts on “Henri Nouwen on the Social Media Cycle”

  1. Reposted. Note that the quote did not show up clearly set apart in the email version. We do strive for achievements. That was a hard thing to face in retirement. I know we are to continue to ‘run the good race’ and finish well, but OK to take a rest too.

  2. Yes, living for the approval of others can be a dangerous snare. And social media can aggravate the problem. However . . . our labors and efforts can and sometimes do please God and do have “eternal” value. In this life we ought to strive for “success” as God defines it (Joshua 1). We ought to look forward to hearing well done good and faithful servant. That is the approval of God. What about the approval of people? Jesus says seek the approval of God, not people. But we ought to thank others for their labors and contributions. Does this thanksgiving/approval produce “elation” in the one thanked, and does elation become a temptation? Could but shouldn’t. We ought to thank people even though it can be a snare. I suspect you agree with all (only some?) of this. But what you wrote omits all these considerations. That omission bothers me and provoked my comment. Why does the omission bother me? Don’t know. I wonder what Nouwen would have said about that.

  3. Thanks for that. My friend once said that the only thing we take with us is the love we’ve given away. All of our cherished models of worth, of good and evil, propositional certainties, dependent dualities… all of it will fail. Harkens back to Gen 3:5.

  4. Hey outstanding blog! Does running a blog similar to this take a massive amount
    work? I’ve no understanding of programming but I had been hoping to start my own blog soon. Anyhow, should you have any suggestions or tips for new blog owners please share. I understand this is off subject but I just wanted to ask. Thank you!

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