Monday, February 4, 2008

Whistling in the Dark...

...or, Why I'm Starting this Blog. Which feels a little like whistling in the dark - which is all about hoping that the dark's not all that there is, while being acutely conscious that the dark seems big and scary and full of space to swallow up your tune. Is anybody else out there?

Quick intro - I'm a thirty-something job-hunting ex-hospice chaplain and current volunteer campus minister who really needs paying work. Do I have time for something like this? Does it serve any purpose?

Ultimately, I've never really understood blogging. I mean, I get that there's LOTS of interesting stuff out there - lots to learn and read and cool and amazing people and ideas to discover - I get the addiction, really. That's part of what bugs me, I guess - I'm already addicted to the information and entertainment and endless possibilities of the internet, and I don't *want* a horde of exciting new virtual possibilities.

It's not being a techno-phobe. I think gadgets are as cool as the next guy (or gal). I love epic fantasy, but I can go in for some sci-fi, too. I didn't learn everything I needed to know watching Star Trek - but my parents once gave me a poster that said I did, and there was a lot of truth to it. (But I still wear red shirts.) And when I'm beating my friend and fellow Star Wars nerd in ping-pong, which I taught him to play (such as he can), I like to say things like "you must unlearn what you have learned!" when he serves. I'd love for us to further explore the solar system, I'm amazed by my flash drive, and while I'm bitter about not having the George Jetson car that my childhood promised me, the fact that I can record a voice message on my phone and then send it to everyone in my contact list simultaneously almost makes up for it.

Plus, the voice commands on my cell crack me up - it doesn't know how to pronounce "Micah" (my ping-pong friend) so if I want to call him I have to say "call mee-kah mobile one!" Which is funny.

So thumbs up for tech. But...I'm suspicious of it, too. I'm the guy who always resisted getting a cell phone because he values privacy and doesn't want everyone to be able to get hold of him right away. (I want privacy and I'm starting a blog? I am large, I contain multitudes. - Walt Whitman) Now, sure enough, I'm as addicted to my phone as anyone else, I talk while I drive, and I regularly call Mom from the grocery store when I want to know what goes in a recipe or where in the supermarket they'd keep something. And, also sure enough, people (especially Mom) expect to be able to get hold of me practically instantly. Factor in some global warming and species extinction and smog and strip-mining and oil dependency and atom bombs, and the virtues of our technical society have, er, a definite downside. (And all too often, we know it and are just whistling in the dark, believing our way of life must be sustainable - empires never fall...)

Blogging (the ostensible reason for the post, I hasten to remind myself) always seemed weird to me. Why assume your thoughts are so engrossing that perfect strangers would want to read them? Don't they have friends or family to inflict their meandering thoughts upon? Are they so desperate for attention? (Dear reader, I'm not really insulting you, it only seems that way. Really I'm showing how mistaken I was.)

Well, in this tech-and-prosperity glutted but community-starved society, maybe so. After all...I am. I've great family and great friends - but I'm single, often alone, and contain multitudes (thanks again, Walt) of oft-conflicting thoughts. And if I've learned anything as a chaplain to dying patients, it's that people need to be heard. This is how they know they matter. This is how they know they are loved. I'm no different.

(Crikey, this is long.)

The need to be heard is real - but blogging isn't really the answer to it. In many ways, I suspect it's a counterfeit. St. Augustine comes to mind here - don't have the specific reference here, but in The Confessions he expresses a distrust of drama (and by extension, any art or literature). This fear is in part that a person watching a drama gets trained to feel emotions but not to act on them. In particular, you watch someone experience pain or hurt or fear, and you respond emotionally, but (because it's not real) you don't respond concretely. And unconsciously, you've learned the lesson that if you feel bad when you see someone hurting, then that is the same as compassion. Compassion is reduced from its root (etymologically L. com- "together" + pati "to suffer") - from entering another's suffering in order to ease it - to feeling kinda bad about that and, at best, sincerely wishing the pain would end. Acts of mercy get reduced to feelings of sympathy - and if we feel like we care, that's the same as being a caring person, right? (Cf. James 2:14-17.)

Blogging, I suspect, is prey to the same dangers. Say that blogging is driven, at least partially, by a desire to connect. You post your thoughts and feelings, you wait for comment, you respond to the comments - you're experiencing community, to a degree.

But not community with skin on it. It's the difference between knowing God through Law - through words - or through the Incarnate, flesh-and-blood, arms and skin and body-heat presence of Christ. Real people - real community - can't be turned off, which is occasionally inconvenient, but it can hug you when you're worried and pick you up when you fall.

So...why I am starting this blog? Why am I sitting in a quiet room typing, instead of being in the real world with people I can help, who can help me? People I don't just "feel" for, or write to, but whom I can touch and come alongside to share suffering or joy?

First, I've found some blogs I really like, that have inspired or energized or even comforted me. (The one I keep going back to is called The Jesus Creed.) Maybe I can contribute a tune to the cyber-world, and maybe somebody will carry that tune out into the real world. It's a worthy aspiration, especially for using those times when I'd be alone anyway. (Better use of time than video games, certainly - though some of those are really cool...)

Second, this blog can enhance rather than replace community. (Which is part of the purpose of blogging - I get it. Any tool can be double-edged.) There are often thoughts I'd like to share with my family, or a friend, or a student or my church...this will be a way to give more access to the people that do know me - so they can know me better, and make themselves better known.

Third, I know from past experience the value of journaling, getting your thoughts out. I often recommended it to members of my bereavement support groups, in fact. I generally don't have the discipline to journal, but blogging, can fulfill the same function. With the added payoff of possible interaction from and with others, I might just stick with it.

The point here is that expressing your thoughts helps to shape them. If I can take the time to listen to others, and I'm to love my neightbor AS myself, then I need to listen to myself, too. (And so do you.)

And if this is open to family, friends, and others, that feels more communally oriented - more life-affirming - than does scribbling in a notebook.

Whew! Hopefully I'll not always be so long-winded. (My family is now mocking that statement.) Whistling in the dark. It may not make the dark go away - but it's a way to let the dark know you're not intimidated by big empty space. And if someone else out in the dark hears the tune, and knows they're not alone...then a whistle is a kind of light. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it." John 1:1, 5

The Light be with y'all.


Heather and Jeff Ladine said...

Thus far our own blog has been somewhat of an "adventure/travel" blog. Although I guess our last one contained some potentially inspiring content...yours has encouraged me to seek to do this more intentionally. Glad to see you joined the world of blogging :)
Heather Ladine <><

Debbie said...

What I'd like to know is if you gave yourself a deadline, like say an hour or so, to type all this and then sat there and thought about it for 50 of those minutes and then produced this essay in say, oh, the last 10 minutes?? (I know by asking that i'm not allowing for personal growth since Intro to Religion, sorry :) Glad to see you've joined the blog world, it is nice to here your whistling tune!

Debbie said...

Sorry, I do know how to spell "hear". I was being assulted by a 3 year old with a blue lollipop!

Debbie said...


i'm hopeless.

Chris Cottingham said...

Hey Heather - I'm glad you posted, as it reminds me that I need to add you guys blog to my links. Heather and Jeff, folks, are fellow members of EmergentColumbia posse (my sister thinks I can't get away with using words like posse - but I maintain that I am secretly cool).

By the way, all, please note that I have inspired someone else to be more intentional - which I am translating as "do more work". Again I repeat - I have
encouraged someone to work. Those who can, do; those who can't, i.e. me, teach.

Kidding aside (yes, that was a joke - reread it), knowing some folks who had a blog is actually one of the things that encouraged me to start mine. So, thanks, and thanks for stopping by.

Chris Cottingham said...


did I still write essays that way in Religion!??! I thought AP English mostly cured me. (With a definite relapse in seminary, but that was their fault. Really.)

This is the peril of letting people who've known you half your life hanging around. On the plus side, this "enhancing community" thing is working already - as, due to my lameness in responding to emails, this is the most we've talked in ages. Great to hear from you. Tell Rob, Jack, and Eli I said hi. Hm...I'll have to visit sometime, since the boys would have no idea who I am!