If I’m honest, I’ve really been struggling to keep up my online profile in recent months. It’s not just that life inside and outside work have been busy – I think at some level I’m finding social media difficult. Not theologically suspect or anything – but just an effort to work in a different way to that in which I usually conduct myself. It’s probably no accident that I’ve spent a good proportion of my career involved in research because the way I start anything, including conversation, is often to ask questions. It’s a comfortable mode of operating for me – I’m interested in other people. But I’ve also come to realise that it asking questions of others offers a safe route away from having to talk about myself too much. From somewhere – possibly something innate, possibly from my upbringing, possibly… well who knows?… there’s a small but persistent voice inside which keeps pressing that talking about oneself, sharing one’s thoughts, is at some level boastful, showing off. Better by far to keep quiet until actually asked for my opinion – being asked is a sign that someone else is genuinely interested. No risk of boring them, no risk of misreading someone else’s level of interest in me. No danger of exposing the fact that I might not have as much valuable to say as others either imagine or expect. Likewise with social media. Do people really want to read my opinions? Isn’t that just showing off? Viewed coolly and rationally I know the answer is ‘no’, but that doesn’t stop the insistent voice – ‘come on, are your thoughts really all that interesting?’
Obviously it is easy to get sucked into an unhealthy pressure to post – to keep that online profile interesting, witty, provocative or original, as though it was a measure of our intrinsic usefulness or worth or a true reflection of the character of our lives. For those whose life is found in God our worth as human being is measured ultimately simply by being created and loved by God. But is there a more positive reason to keep posting? Recently I’ve started reading the late Dallas Willard’s modern spiritual classic The Renovation of the Heart (2002). In the introduction, he quotes the following from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Communion of Saints: ‘whereas the primal relationship of man to man is a giving one, in the state of sin it is purely demanding. Every man exists in a state of complete voluntary isolation; each man lives his own life, instead of all living the one God-life’. This struck me very forcibly. How often do I unconsciously expect people to draw stuff out of me rather than giving freely of myself? In its own way, it’s a relationship of demand, not of gift. Rather, if Bonhoeffer is right we give because it is because we are created to give (in this particular respect mirroring the image of our creator who cannot but create, and love) – not necessarily because we think we have anything particular to share but because through the mutual giving and receiving the life that God wants begins to be cultivated. One of the books to have impacted on me most is Heather Ward’s The Gift of Self – in particular in helping me to see that the most important thing about myself is that my truest self is a gift from God, and therefore something that (whilst I should nurture it) retains value beyond and through whatever are the strong or weak points of my personality. But whilst ‘self’ is a gift (from God) the title of Ward’s book is true in a second sense – when we are actually fully, humanly as God intended, we make a ‘gift of self’ to others. We are, in Ward’s words ‘the self that gives itself away’. I suspect that if I could grasp the truth of that deep down, seeing my life as a gift to receive and to gift to others would have a revolutionary effect on more than just my social media posting. However, for the moment, perhaps it’s renewed encouragement to persist with Facebook, Twitter, blogging and the rest, not as a way of drawing attention to myself or because I think I have anything particularly special to say, but simply as a way of making small ‘gifts of self’ to others.