Reflections On Internet Engagement

Each day we wake, new opportunities face us. The most important opportunities, however, are the relational ones.

We roll out of bed with our spouses, what words pour out first? Loving words, spiteful words, grudging words? Or we hit school or the work place, each step through the door, another opportunity to bite and bicker, love and encourage. 

And what about the virtual relationships, the social media interactions, the rogue blog-commenter, the public figures we read about, their lives now oh-so-public?

It occurred to me that our culture encourages an observational approach to maintaining and engaging our relationships. We watch and react. We observe and respond. We read and comment. We skim and tweet.

It's the way of it.  

But another way exists. 

It does not begin on the outside looking in. Rather, it originates from within. The most intimate of positions.

In a short essay titled "Meditation in a Toolshed" C.S. Lewis described a dark toolshed in which he was standing. The sun poured through a crack at the top of the door and into the shed. From his position outside of the beam he could easily say something about the shaft of light entering the toolshed. 

But then something changed. 

Lewis moved from his position and stepped into the beam. 

Within the beam his perspective changed. Through the crack he saw leaves swaying, and beyond that the sun shining 90 million miles away.

"Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences."

You and I, we're creatures of observations. We enjoy looking at the beam. It's much safer, and the view is great for we can see everything; at least we like to think we can. We can make keen observations about the beam of light and the surroundings. 

From our outside view we, then, create theories and rules about everything we see. 

Lewis was not fond of theories.

He did not think general laws (theories) could explain human behavior. We can't understand one another from the outside looking in. We can't create theories and psychological laws about one another and think we've solved the human conundrum of we-ourselves. 

Rather, we must daily strive to understand why a person acts a certain way based upon their explanation. And we must do this from within the relational experience. 

You let the kettle boil but do not make the tea. I ask, "Why?" to which you reply, "Because I did't feel like it." This may lead to an argument, or it may not. What it does lead to is the fact that we give ad hoc reasons for actions based on personal desire. Those desires, in turn, may hurt or help another person. But this is way of it, and no theory can determine our random actions within relationships. 

We may also not do something another person was expecting us to do because we thought it was wrong. Here we give moral reasoning for our actions based on reflection of the situation. 

Each day, then, on and on we interact based on personal desires and moral reflections of situations. "Soon," writes philosopher Paul Holmer, "we are all caught up in a web of everyday explanations by which we understand human actions." (Holmer, 26)

We're caught in the ad hoc everyday whim of explanations, the inside view, the inside interaction of being in the muck of it with those whom we encounter. This is how we know, how we climb inside one another. 

Rules break and fail, and what do we have? 

We must rely on our understanding of the person. And how do we achieve such an understanding?

We must be close enough, within the beam of relationship, to discern when the web of the ad hoc everyday explanations make sense, when our stated motivations are true, when our love for one another is real and not pretense.

This is understanding, and understanding begets wisdom. 

I suppose today's ramble is more for me than anything; a thinking through, a reminder:

I must adjust my position if I seek truth and wisdom about others and situations. And that is no small feat. What do I know about the co-worker in front of me, the school mate next to me, the public figure who messed up? If the answer is, "Not much," then perhaps I should hold my tongue, my pen, my blog post, my news article, my ___________. 

"Ah, but Tim, it's all well and good to desire intimate knowledge before we speak, but the public square is different. Hoist up the poles and burn the heretics, for we now have new means of accountability!" 

Do we, now? Does not the word itself presuppose a relational foundation: of friend to friend, of student to teacher, of husband to wife (and vice versa), of pastor to church and so on? 

Accountability cannot be divorced from understanding, from wisdom.

And that is what we find within the beam; not only the wisdom to truly see those we encounter, but also the grace afforded to us from others.

For there we stand, exposed in the sunlight and yet it is only from within the beam we find the ability, the grace and humility to truly understand, to truly know.

Take a few moments and listen to my friend Joy Eggerich's thoughts regarding our online engagement. 

Timothy Willard is the author of three books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life. He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. He lived in Oxford, England for two years studying beauty in the works of C.S. Lewis. He earned his PhD in Theology under the supervision of world-renowned theologian Alister McGrath. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.