Electronic communication is in its adolescence.
Blogging is about twenty years old (the word “blog” was first coined in 1999). For all intents and purposes, text messaging is about fifteen years old (texts could not be exchanged between phone networks until the turn of the century). And Facebook just reached the end of its first decade of public use (until 2006, Facebook was exclusively for college students).
Electronic communication is like a teenager.
And it’s doing what all teenagers do: it’s getting angry.
Online, we’re acting like right and wrong is obvious and what we believe is obviously right. Like uniformity is the only valid kind of community. Like someone else’s opinion is a direct threat to the validity of our own. Like it’s our job to be unwavering. Like talking back is the only way to talk. Like the only way to be yourself is to shout down all other selves.
To be enraged is all the rage.
To rant is to be righteous.
To be verbally violent is to be virtually virtuous.
We have become so comfortable with the everyday Facebook rant, we even expect it from our politicians and our pundits and our pulpits. In fact, we demand it.
I may not rant on Facebook, but I’ve been watching myself closely, and I have plenty of anger in me—dark stares and distraught sighs and dangerous sarcasm. Why? Because I’m ordinary. I’m human. We are, all of us, carrying within us an awful lot of anger, whether we realize it or not.
Anger isn’t new.
It’s been seething beneath the surface of our complicated humanity for millennia. Our anger wasn’t created by Facebook and Twitter and instant messaging and all our many forms of electronic communication. But they have given us just enough degrees of separation to feel comfortable unleashing it. And the problem is, once unleashed online, it gets hard to cage it again. Once typed out, it gets way easier to act it out. Then it becomes a habit. A way of life.
Fortunately, there is a way to grow out of our online adolescence.
It’s called uncertainty.
Last year, our family moved from the suburbs of Chicago to a small town in rural Illinois. One late night, shortly after the move, my son and I were standing in the middle of a dark road, looking up at a night sky he had never seen but through the veil of city lights, when he asked incredulously:
“Dad, where did all the stars come from?”
He was seeing things he didn’t know existed before. Entire suns and constellations of suns and galaxies and a whole universe sprawling out before him that was previously invisible to him.
We talked about how we were still only seeing a fraction of what was right in front of us.
I think that’s what growing up is really all about. It’s not about knowing every constellation by heart and immediately, unequivocally, and aggressively telling anyone with a different vision of the night sky they are wrong. Growing up is more like gradually moving out to the countryside, where you begin seeing stars you never knew existed before.
It’s about venturing out into the dark until you can see more light.
It’s about looking back at your journey and knowing only one thing for certain: that your previous certainty was based on a limited view of the world and, therefore, your current certainty is probably based on a limited view, as well.
It’s about staring up at a night sky and wondering, with wonder, “Where did all the stars come from?” until the only thing you know is you don’t know all things. Or maybe anything for certain.
When that kind of uncertainty gets paired with anger, then anger remains just that. It doesn’t rage. It doesn’t become violent. Rather, it becomes a mirror, reflecting back to us a little more of who we are. It becomes an “X,” marking the spot where our wounds and our fears are buried. It becomes a line in the sand, showing us where our boundaries are and giving us an opportunity to set them with affection instead of aggression. If we listen to our anger, rather than responding with it, it becomes a signpost, showing us which parts of this broken humanity matter to us most.
Then, we’re free to spend our days lifting this world up, instead of shouting it down.
At least, I think that’s why rage is all the rage right now. And I think that’s how we can begin to grow out of it. But I can’t be certain.
After all, I can’t see all the stars yet.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.