“I don’t know what to say.” When we’re confronted with someone who is grieving or in pain, most of us feel inadequate and intimidated. But, grieving, suffering people are all around us, and we need to learn how to appropriately engage with them: ignoring them is not an option. On the first anniversary of the murder of the five Dallas police officers, I thought it would be helpful to briefly offer what I’ve learned about speaking to people in pain.
It’s Not About You
Over a decade ago ago, I was working in youth ministry at a church. One afternoon, the pastor of our church came rushing into my office: “Just got a phone call: so-and-so has killed himself.” A high school boy from our church shot himself at home, and his parents had found him. The pastor drove the two of us to to meet the boy’s family. I’ve rarely been so sick with nerves. I was worried that I would say the wrong thing or somehow make the situation worse. In other words, I was only thinking about myself. What I realized after visiting with the bereaved father was that it wasn’t about me at all, and to worry about saying the wrong thing or otherwise making the situation worse was selfish and foolish.
In this particular example, literally the worst thing that this father could possibly have imagined had just happened; there was nothing I could do that could make the situation worse. But, in any interaction with a grieving or suffering person, your words are not going to fix the situation no matter what you say, and if you worry about what you say or how you’ll be perceived, you’ll be making it about you, when it’s really about the other person anyway. So, remember: it’s not about you.
Which is not to imply that in those situations you should say whatever crosses your mind.
Resist the Urge to Explain
It’s one of those phrases my dad always says that has stuck with me: “Resist the urge to explain.” We humans like neat explanations, but one of the problems with pain and suffering is that they are ultimately inexplicable. You and I do not know why that child has cancer or why that couple can’t conceive or why those cops were killed. Do not speak about that which you do not know. What I mean is that we should not resort to greeting card pablum along the lines of:
“Everything happens for a reason;”
“I guess God just wanted another angel;”
“God knew you could handle it.”
Those sorts of statements are not helpful to people who are grieving or suffering. Resist the urge to explain that person’s suffering to him or her. When you do that what you are really doing is making the interaction about you, exactly what I warned against above. There isn’t a neat, clean explanation for suffering, and since there isn’t, resist the urge to explain.
Don’t Compare Sufferings
In the same way that you should resist the urge to explain, you should also resist the urge to compare sufferings with the other person. You don’t know exactly what the person is going through, and it’s unhelpfully self-centered to think that you do. It’s okay to reference your own experience with suffering, but be sure to refrain from assuming that your situation is comparable to the other person’s (even if it seems to be, from your point of view).
Say “I’m So Sorry”
Rather than trying to compare sufferings, I’ve learned that it’s better to instead share 3 simple words with people who are grieving: “I’m so sorry.” That sentiment is always appropriate and has the virtue of being true and normal.
Normal people smile when they greet each other and when they say goodbye. Normal people talk about things in specifics. I’ve found that many people are worried if they should smile or mention the source of the pain when they interact with someone who is suffering, but remember: it’s not about you, and you’re not going to make it worse. (It’s already terrible.) Treat the grieving person as you would any other normal person. This means it’s important to give the other person the courtesy of a smile (even if it’s a sad smile) and a courteous, friendly look when you greet him or her, and I think it’s important to specifically mention the source of the pain. When parents have just lost a child, it’s okay to say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” It’s okay to say to your co-worker, “I heard about the death of your mother and I wanted you to know I’m really sorry to hear that.” I’ve heard people say that one of the ugly parts of grief is that you feel like such a leper–everyone avoids talking to you about your loss or tries to change the subject. When talking to someone who is grieving, therefore, just be normal.
It’s normal to want to remove someone’s pain and it’s normal to want to pray. However, when someone is hurting, prayer isn’t going to change the source of that person’s pain–what’s happened has already happened. What prayer can do is change that person’s future. When someone loses a loved one, for example, you can’t pray that the loss goes away–it’s a real, permanent loss. Rather, what you can pray is for God is be with that person in the midst of his or her pain. I’ve found that it’s helpful to pray a version of 2 Corinthians 4:8-9:
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
When I pray for someone who has lost a loved one, for example, I’ll say:
Lord, this person is hard pressed on every side; let her not be crushed;
This person is perplexed at this inexplicable event; let her not be driven to despair;
This person is feeling persecuted; let her know that she’s not abandoned;
This person is feeling struck down; let this grief not destroy her.
Suffering is All Around Us
Suffering is a part of life and no one is exempt. One of the ugly parts of pain is that it makes you feel alone. But, there can be a solidarity in suffering, as we reach out with kindness and courtesy to others as they suffer, and when they in turn do the same to us. I hope the thoughts above are helpful to you the next time you find yourself confronted with a person in pain.
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I prayed for my little daughter for more years than I’ve prayed for anything else in my life. What I’m reflecting on tonight is that not only is she an answer to my prayers, but also an answer to the prayers of so many other people. And I’m grateful.
“For This Child I Prayed”
My wife and I have been married for 10 years, and if it had been up to us we’d have had a whole baseball team of kids by now. But, that wasn’t God’s plan for us. Rather, God’s plan for us involved a great crowd of people, praying and interceding for us for years.
The picture above was taken on the day of my daughter’s baptism, last Sunday. My dad baptized her; our family, our staff, and our small group stood up with us. I love the image of all of them praying for us, because I know that’s what they’ve been doing, and I love it that you can’t even see our little girl: she’s literally covered in prayer.
Just tonight, we received a note from someone in our church who said she’d been praying for us for years–I’ve frequently heard that these past 8 weeks, and it makes me so happy. In the Scriptures, Hannah prays for years for a child, and when he comes, she triumphantly tells old Eli, the priest: “for this child I prayed.”
My wife and I could say the same, but we’d have to also add, “And so did countless other people.”
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Exactly four weeks ago my wife coded after the birth of our daughter and was revived. She had a harrowing few days in the ICU, but after a week in the hospital she was discharged. She was weak, but she was well. And I felt guilty about it.
I felt guilty because everything turned out okay for my family, but I know lots of people whose situations are not okay.
Why am I so blessed?
Folks would ask me how my wife was doing and I would truthfully answer, “I think she’s going to be fine.” And I felt badly about that; I was embarrassed by our good fortune.
It’s embarrassing how blessed I am:
- other pastors have congregations who hate them; our people dote on us;
- other husbands struggle in their marriages; my wife is the kindest, sweetest woman I know;
- other people’s kids have chronic illnesses; my kids are healthy;
- I am a rich, white, American man born in the 2nd half of the 20th century. I wasn’t born black in the 18th century or a Russian serf in the 19th century or a Samaritan woman in the 1st century;
- My parents will have been married for 40 years this year and taught me to love Jesus;
- I’m even a great whistler….
I could go on, but it’s embarrassing: I don’t deserve my good fortune. As a pastor, I have the privilege of walking alongside people in every aspect of their lives, cradle to grave, and I know how much people suffer. I’ve lived in Africa and I’ve traveled and read widely, and I know how difficult life is for so many people. I know how often it seems prayers are not answered.
And so, after my wife got out of the hospital the first time, I felt guilty at our good fortune.
And then Wednesday night happened.
My wife had to be rushed to the Emergency Room on Wednesday evening, and ultimately had to have emergency and life-saving surgery, surgery that lasted all night. All night I sat in the empty waiting room, and I didn’t know if she was going to survive. When I learned she would survive, I also learned that she was intubated and on a ventilator, and then I saw her.
Pray to God you never see a loved one on a ventilator, going in and out of consciousness, pulling at her tube with her bandaged hands.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hospitals, but when it’s your wife there in the ICU, it’s almost unendurable.
The next night we had another scare and I was woken up on the pull-out couch with bright lights and saw a crowd of doctors in our room. It was then that I decided that I will never, ever again feel survivor’s guilt.
Survivor’s guilt is a selfish indulgence–a luxury–that I want to forgo forever.
When you are at a point of desperation, when a leaden dread comes upon you, when that of which you are most afraid is threatening to happen, you become painfully aware how foolish and selfish is survivor’s guilt. You think back to the times when you weren’t afraid and everything was well, and you’re ashamed that you were ever ashamed of your good fortune. And in those moments, you would do anything to get back to the times when things were good.
I don’t know why God seems to answer some prayers and not others. I don’t know why some of us receive the blessings we do. But I also know that I don’t deserve my blessings and didn’t earn them–they just came on me, like the rain. My blessings don’t mean anything about me: all they do is point to their Source and Giver.
Rather than feeling guilty, I want to be grateful.
I am grateful for God’s goodness toward me. I am grateful that I did not have to come home in the dark on Thursday morning and wake up my little son and tell him his mother died. I am grateful that my wife survived. And I’m grateful that I brought her home not one hour ago.
I want gratitude to pour out of me. I just went to CVS to pick up a prescription and when the cashier asked me how I was doing, I looked her in the eyes and said, “I am so blessed: my wife just got discharged from the hospital.” And I gave her a big smile.
I don’t deserve my blessings–and I have SO MANY–but I can use them to bless others.
I want to be grateful, and because I’m grateful, I want to be a giver.
Survivor’s guilt? Never again.
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Today is my tenth wedding anniversary. It’s also been 10 days since my wife coded and was revived in the hospital shortly after the birth of our 2nd child. So, I’ve been thinking a bit about marriage today.
Some years ago, Dr. Paul Brand wrote a book about what he called “The Gift Nobody Wants.” The book was about pain. Dr. Brand was a medical missionary for years and he treated patients with leprosy. Without pain, lepers are unable to know something is wrong. No one wants pain, but it has a purpose.
If ever there were a culture totally unsuited for enduring pain it is ours. For most of us, the highest good to be achieved is the avoidance of pain. We spend our days amusing ourselves to death, popping pills and seeking diagnoses, jumping in and out of bed and in and out of marriages, all with the end of minimizing pain and maximizing comfort.
Pain cannot ultimately be avoided, however. You can numb yourself with opiates, but the pain in your soul will only increase. The brief physical pain that comes from dental surgery can be palliated, but soul pain must be endured. Which brings me to marriage.
On my wedding day I said:
Everyone likes those words; those words are why we want to be married in the first place.
But the vows I said on my wedding day also include the antitheses of those words:
“For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health….”
How wise of our ancestors to include in the wedding service the words that nobody wants.
Nobody wants worse or poorer or sickness, and yet marriage includes those words, too. Marriage, like all of life, includes pain. It’s the gift nobody wants.
Last week in the middle of the night, I leaned over my wife’s bed in her ICU room and used a straw to drip drops of water on her parched tongue as she looked at me with eyes wild with pain and fear. Drop. Pause. Drop. Pause. At that moment I was afraid she was going to die, but at that moment I also felt that I was closer to being her husband than any previous moment in our 10 years of married life together.
Pain is the gift nobody wants, and I’m wondering if pain is not also the primary gift of marriage.
Don’t misunderstand: my wife and I rarely fight and our first 10 years of marriage have been exceedingly happy. What I mean is that marriage has a way of confronting you with pain. One day of course, there will be the pain of death and the loneliness of being left behind, alone. There will be the pain of seeing the other suffer throughout your married life together, in small and great ways. And, most importantly, there is the pain of being confronted with your own selfishness. This last pain, I believe, is the primary gift of marriage.
Tim Keller says somewhere that selfishness is the cause of all marital problems. I believe, though, that selfishness is why God calls a man and a woman together into a marriage–to use the husband to confront his wife’s selfishness, and vice versa. When you are married, you are constantly discovering that your heart is much more selfish than you’d previously understood. Men and women are different, and the effect of bringing a man and a woman together into marriage is friction. It’s pain.
That pain is the gift nobody wants.
And yet it’s the pain we need if we are going to become the creatures God created us to be. If there were another way for us to become holy apart from pain, we’d have discovered it centuries ago. But there isn’t.
No one chooses pain. Some people are physically courageous and will endure physical pain, but the deepest pain is spiritual pain, and spiritual pain breaks everyone. A boxer might step into the ring year after year; he can stand the pain of getting his nose broken over and over again, but not the pain that comes when two sinful people are joined together in marriage.
The pain that comes from marriage is a searing pain: it hurts to know that you are not as good as you want to believe, that you yourself caused your wife pain with a petulant remark or hard heart that chooses not to forgive. Sin burns.
It’s not surprising that a culture that sees avoidance of pain as the highest good will struggle with marriage. This is why the Christian story of marriage is so countercultural. Marriage, the church has always taught, is not a contract to terminate as either party desires, but a covenantal promise that includes better and worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. And it’s when we endure the worse, the poorer, and the sickness that we can become wise and good.
I don’t want pain. I don’t want the pain of watching my wife’s vital signs taper off, and I don’t want the pain of being confronted with my own selfishness and sin in the daily work of marriage. And yet I know that pain is a gift, even if it’s the gift nobody wants, and I’m grateful.
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As I’ve done for the past three New Year’s Days, today I’m choosing a one word theme to live into for the coming year. I’ve made goals for 2017, too, but there’s something I like about the simplicity of choosing just one word to knit all my goals together.
My One Word for 2017
My one word for 2017 is early.
- wake early
- pray early
- workout early
- arrive early
- get things done early
- finish my sermon early
- get to bed early
What about you? What’s your one word for 2017? Why?
P.S. Fox and Hedgehog
The Philosopher Isaiah Berlin, drawing on a line from the Ancient Greek poet Achilocus, wrote a famous essay in 1953 entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The basic idea is that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Foxes have a variety of interests; hedgehogs have one stubborn idea.
In this space, I follow my interest wherever it takes me (like a fox) while always writing in the service of The One Big Thing (like a hedgehog).
What’s that One Big Thing? You’ll have to read to find out.
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I was at my polling place (a beautiful old church in East Dallas) 10 minutes before the polls opened this morning, and there were already 10 people in front of me. Voting always makes me reflective, and here are some of my thoughts and reminiscences, in no particular order.
The sacred solemnity of peaceful voting always strikes me. There is just something about being surrounded by my fellow citizens, who may or may not share my beliefs, as we all line up peacefully and patiently to cast our votes. There is just something sacred about walking into the voting booth as a free man. I think voting represents America much better than fighter jet flyovers at NFL games–that’s just a show of power: our real power lies in the peaceful ritual of Election Day.
Nothing is more important than the peaceful transfer of power. There are lots of issues I feel very strongly about, issues I believe matter to God. But I don’t think anything matters more than the peaceful transfer of power. This 229 year-old experiment we have with our Constitution is exceeding rare in human history, and unless we are governed by laws with a peaceful transfer of power, nothing else is possible. I lived in West Africa as a small boy, and I distinctly remember watching from the verandah of our house, which was perched on the side of a small mountain, and looking down at the capital city below as the sirens sounded and soldiers shouted: there had been a coup attempt. Nothing is more destructive than chaos. May our system continue long into the future.
God bless the election volunteers. I remember the first time I voted (must have been November, 1998). I was home from college and I went with my dad up to our polling place, which was a school I’d attended. In the 1950s era gymnasium/auditorium/cafeteria, we checked in with the volunteers and I was surprised to see I knew all of them–they were ladies from our church. I was impressed then with their civic commitment, and I have been impressed with election volunteers ever since. These people make our freedom possible.
The longest line I ever waited in to vote was in 2004. I was living in Richmond, Virginia, off of Monument Avenue. I went to vote around midday, and the line wrapped around the city block. No one complained.
It is shameful that I don’t know more about the down ballot races and propositions. I am an educated guy. I read the newspaper every day. I care about local issues. And yet there were a few races on my ballot this morning that I knew nothing about. There was also a long and complicated proposition having to do with the pension fund for civilian city employees. I was mortified to read it and realize I didn’t know what I should do. I left it blank. That is unacceptable. I never want to be in that position again. It is my responsibility to be more informed.
But it is also shameful how our media don’t prepare us for these important races and issues. I have a good memory and a varied media diet, and yet I walked into the voting booth knowing very little about issues beyond the headlines involving our leading presidential candidates. I know that there may not be a market for journalism devoted to issues, particularly down ballot issues, but I still think it’s shameful how little space our media devotes to anything other than the presidential horse race.
I wonder if a variation of the “Bradley Effect” will play a role in this election. The Bradley effect derives its name from the 1982 candidacy of Tom Bradley for governor of California. Mr. Bradley, a black politician, was ahead in the polling before the election, but lost the actual election. Why? Political scientists concluded that potential voters were not honest with pollsters, telling the pollsters that they were going to vote for a black man (the socially acceptable answer), while not actually doing so in the privacy of the voting booth. I wonder if the same thing might happen today with regard to Mr. Trump–are there people who will privately vote for him, even though they’d be embarrassed to say so publicly?
I don’t know why cell phones are banned at polling places, but I’m glad they are. In Texas, cell phones and other “electronic communications devices” are banned within 100 feet of voting stations. I don’t really see the problem with a ballot selfie, but I’m not complaining.
Finally, the Presidency isn’t going to save us, and our future will not depend on tonight’s results. I believe it matters whom we elect–I want good people serving in office, from dog catcher on up to President of the United States. But, our ultimate hopes do not lie with our politicians, and the church does not depend on politics to carry out its mission; our hopes lie with God, and the church depends on him.
In other words, Jesus is Lord, today, tomorrow, and forever.
The fox knows many things;
The hedgehog knows one big thing.
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I just got back from a month-long vacation. (I know, I know: nice work if you can get it.) I also took off blogging, dear reader, so allow me to fill you in on what I did on vacation. Or, to be more specific, here’s what I didn’t do on summer vacation.
I Didn’t Feel Guilty
“You’re gone for a whole month? [eye roll] Must be nice….. ” I’d get this response when I’d tell folks we were taking a month-long vacation. I realize how blessed I am to be able to take that kind of time off (most people in my church are lucky to get a week), and I realize that lots of people don’t understand why a pastor needs vacation at all (“I mean, what do you really do anyway?”). But, I’m unapologetic in taking vacation time, because I know that I’m running a marathon in ministry, not a sprint, and if I don’t care for my soul and my family, I could lose my ministry, my family, and even my soul.
Being a pastor is not like other jobs–my job is to pour myself out for my congregation and my community. I’ve written elsewhere about the pressure that comes from preaching week after week, year after year. In addition to that, I need to be able to be present to people in all aspects of their lives–joys and sorrows and sicknesses–and, paradoxically, for me to be present with people, I need some regular time away from my community.
Being a pastor is also a burden on the pastor’s family. We can’t take weekend trips. We can’t travel on Christmas and Easter. We don’t go out on Saturday evenings. My family knows that there are phone calls I get that mean I need to make a late-night visit to the hospital or have a long conversation about a failing marriage. My family sacrifices a lot for my ministry, and I owe it to them to have some time away from the relentless needs of our community.
The very first day of our summer vacation–the very first day–I read a news story about how South Carolina megachurch pastor Perry Noble had been fired from the church he founded for personal issues that included a dependence on alcohol and a failing marriage. I don’t know Perry personally, but I’ve heard him preach several times and was extremely impressed with his ministry from afar. Perry appears to be a talented and faithful leader, and yet the pressures and demands of ministry got the better of him.
I’m going to do everything possible to make sure that doesn’t happen to me.
I Didn’t Look at Email for 30 Days
I don’t need to tell you that to be truly off from work, one needs to be off email. Completely. This summer I had all my work email forwarded to my assistant for the entire time I was gone. I needed to do this for 2 reasons:
- for the health of my soul and my family, I needed to be completely off email and not tempted to check it from time to time;
- I didn’t want to return to thousands of unread emails.
I know this arrangement was inconvenient for some people who needed a timely response from me, but I also know that I’m not able to be present on vacation if I’m still virtually in the office.
I Didn’t Check Facebook
I’m not a fan of social media, but I use it. I’ve found, however, that for me social media is not life-giving. So, I decided to completely stay off Facebook for 30 days. I can honestly say I didn’t miss it at all.
I Didn’t Skip Church
I tell my congregation that I believe that they should be in church every Sunday unless they are sick or out of town, but honestly, I should really tell them that they should be in church every Sunday even when they are out of town. Whether I am at home or on vacation, I need to be in worship every Sunday.
- church reminds me that life is not about me;
- church reminds me that God is in control;
- church reminds that Jesus rose from the grave;
- church reminds me that all I have comes from God;
- church reminds me that I have a reason to be grateful in every circumstance.
So the four Sundays we were gone from Munger, we were at church. We attended:
- Church of the Outer Banks (an Anglican church start that meets in a YMCA in Kill Devil Hills, NC);
- Redeemer Presbyterian Church (their downtown location on W. 14th Street in New York City);
- Brewster Baptist Church, twice (an American Baptist congregation on Cape Cod, Massachusetts).
There are lots of dead churches in America, but I do my best to avoid these. Instead, I like attending churches (big or small, traditional or contemporary) that are full of LIFE and the Holy Spirit. The churches we attended on vacation this summer were all very different from each other, but each was alive and reminded me that God is active in the world, and that the Lord has faithful witnesses everywhere.
And I Didn’t Not Want to Come Home
I know that’s a double negative, so let me explain. The first couple weeks we were away, I did my best not to even think of home. I love Dallas and I love our church, but the worry that comes from being a pastor never stops, and it took several weeks of being away before I could feel relaxed. However, with about a week left in our vacation, I began to feel eager to return. I think that eagerness was a gift from God, and although I was sad for our time away to come to an end, I wasn’t sad at all to be returning home.
And now, I can’t wait to see my church on Sunday.
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I haven’t yet come up with anything interesting or helpful to say about the murders in Orlando, so I haven’t written anything. But I read something my friend Jacob Sahms wrote that struck me, and I share it below.
Reading and hearing the responses to the violence in Orlando, I’m struck by the outrage – and the way fingers start pointing at anyone but ourselves. If we’re going to be the peacemakers who are called the children of God, then the solutions all start with us.
Do we talk and act peacefully? (Yes, that includes driving.) Do we recognize that we’re all children of God, even the people we don’t agree with/like? Do our dollars and our votes endorse peace? Do we teach our children peace and love for all? We can pray all we want for peace, but if we’re not part of being peace, then “thy kingdom come” isn’t actually something we’re part of.
He’s totally right: “the way fingers start pointing at anyone but ourselves.” Certainly true about me, and I don’t like it.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace….
I wrote a post last week suggesting that, in its quest to capture our attention, it’s almost as if Facebook wants our worship. I meant the post to be provocative, and at least for me, it was: the post has provoked some further thoughts, which I share below.
My Name is Andrew and I’m a User
I have a Facebook account and a Twitter account, I use YouTube, and I carry around an iPhone that enables me to be connected whenever I want. It’s precisely because I’m a user that I’m concerned about what Cal Newport calls “Internet tools” (search engines, social media sites, online encyclopedias, etc.): I see their effects on my own life. It is because I’ve seen what these tools are doing to me that I’m calling into question our naive and uncritical adoption of Internet tools.
Facebook Is Shorthand
For me, Facebook functions as shorthand for all the other Internet tools. I don’t have anything against Facebook per se.
Social Media Is Different Than Television
One commenter wondered if I should have included television in my critique. I don’t think television and Facebook are apples to apples, for several reasons:
- Television goes in one direction only: I receive it. Facebook, on the other hand, allows me to transmit messages to the world, and the very act of transmitting those messages in that medium promotes narcissism: it’s all about me.
- Television isn’t one thing, but a grouping of many things: networks, advertisements, writers, actors, etc. Facebook is a for-profit monolith. It’s ubiquity and power make it more dangerous than old media.
Social Media Promotes Narcissism
The very nature of the social media promotes narcissism, because they encourage me to make everything about me: my updates, my likes, my reactions.
Social Media Isolates
For all the talk about connectivity, I find that social media and the other Internet tools are more likely to isolate than connect us together. The more time we spend looking down at our blinking smart phones, the less able we are to cultivate presence and mindfulness.
Social Media is the Enemy of Patience
Everything about Internet tools is about immediacy: immediate reactions, thoughts, and gratification of desires. If I want something, I buy it on Amazon; if I have an opinion about a current event, I share it to the world. This immediacy keeps us from developing the virtue of patience, and patience matters because the important things in life require that we wait.
Social Media Trains Me to Need Constant Stimulation
It is shameful how often I find myself in a line somewhere, only to pull out my iPhone. The way Internet tools have trained us to need constant stimulation is what scares me the most about these tools.
Social Media is the Message
If the medium is the message, then it’s not the content of the various social media platforms that ought to worry us, but the very nature of these platforms themselves. In other others, it could be the case that even if we eschew all the destructive and evil things on the Internet (pornography, terrorist death videos, etc.), these tools might still warp our minds and twist our wills.
At least, that’s what I’ve started to worry about.
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