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In Praise of Social Networks

In Praise of Social Networks May 9, 2013

quality-friendsI tend to be hard on myself.  I’ve never understood people who nurse high views of themselves because for me my flaws are always front and center.  Some of that is natural to my own psychological make-up.  It’s typical for an introspective, reflective person.   But some of that came from the version of the Christian faith on which I cut my teeth.  I am personally convinced that low self-esteem is one of the primary ways that evangelical Christianity does us harm.  The ill effects of it linger with me even now, nearly four years after I quit believing in the whole thing.  Someday soon I’m gonna write some about that.  Shoot…a whole book needs to be written about that one thing.  But I digress.  Right now, I’m talking about me :-)  Except in the end it won’t only be about me, so hang with me here.

I’ve been going through a difficult challenge these past few weeks, and it’s at times like these that I get pretty down on myself.  I fight replaying my own shortcomings on a continuous loop in my head.  The negative voices get loud, and I second guess decisions that I make even when I know that I did the right thing.  At moments like this, the encouragement of friends come to mean an awful lot.

Except I’m so good at being down on myself that I am highly skilled at deconstructing and dismantling even the positive and encouraging things they say to me.  No one knows how to critique me better than me, and my ability to criticize myself is usually superior (in my mind, anyway) to the edifying abilities of others on my behalf.  Usually.  But lately here, my inner critic has been up against a formidable foe:  Social Networking.

Yeah, yeah, I know the downsides to social networking as much as the next person, with its superficial connections, its frequent triviality (here’s a picture of my supper!) and its tendency to inspire hiding behind false identities.  But for all its quirks and pitfalls, it can also be an incredibly potent tool for purposefully connecting people who may have no other way of connecting.  It can take people who are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles and unite them around a common interest or experience.  And for people who feel very much at odds with their surroundings, social networks become a lifeline, a connection to a larger world that has a place for them when the smaller one they live in doesn’t.  For atheists living in the South like me, this can be a life saver.

The last few days have brought me a world of encouragement.  It’s been a shot in the arm at a moment when I frankly felt beat down and defeated.  I shared my struggles with a network of friends (some I know only virtually, others IRL) and felt support and encouragement that was sincere, intelligent, and passionate.  Given that they’re mostly realists and skeptics, I don’t recall any of them blowing sunshine “where it don’t belong”, but rather they managed to be encouraging in ways that were pointed and true to my situation.  It’s been quite touching.

Then I posted a video and braced myself for either no response at all (which is the worst) or else for all hell to break loose in my personal and/or professional life (which in some ways I’m already used to).  The second outcome is still a possibility since so far the video has been shared primarily by people already sympathetic to the message.  But after 7,000+ views the overwhelming majority of responses has been incredibly positive and complimentary, expressing heartfelt approval for the overall purposes for which I shared the video in the first place. Several people have either commented or messaged me personally to express their gratitude for offering a presentation of skepticism that is friendly and conversational.  People who have been unable to speak with friends or family members about their atheism for years have shared the video because it expressed the very things they wanted most to say but could not.  This…this makes my day.  No, my year.  Maybe even the last two or three years.  It gives me reason to believe that, if I may borrow from my evangelical vocabulary, the trials of the last two or three years of my life may very well yield fruit in due season.

I usually don’t let encouragement like this soak in.  It’s a quirk of mine and none too healthy, I’m sure.  I’m working on it.  But the last few days people have done a bang-up job of getting past my defenses and making me feel like my contribution to this struggle for understanding is worth something to somebody.  It’s like a jug of cold water after a long, parched journey through a desert.  And the more I’ve heard from them, the more I’ve come to realize that their responses and their excitement are not just about me and what I posted.  Their reactions stem from their desperate need as skeptics and freethinkers and humanists to find a voice in a very oppressively religious place.  Like me, they’re all fighting a battle to be seen as regular, healthy people whose viewpoints and intellectual commitments are simply different from those around them.  The plugs for videos like mine are evidence that we need more voices out there who are willing to say, “Yes, here’s another example of what an atheist (or humanist) looks like.  It’s not all that scary, really, is it?”

So let this be a thank you to anyone who reads this and has encouraged me over the last few days and weeks.  You know who you are.  Your words have meant something to me, and this makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

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