Monday, February 23, 2009

Blogging and Lent

It happens every year about this time: Catholic blogger after Catholic blogger announces that he or she will be taking a "blogging break" during Lent.

Some are big names, voices which I'll miss during their forty-days' self-imposed silence. Others are smaller or less well-known, friendly mommy bloggers who make the announcement of their decision to drop out with confidence, hesitation, or anything in between. Still others make some small changes to their blogging habits, blogging only certain days a week or on certain topics, restricting comments or temporarily disabling their stat-tracking so they can't worry about the number of visits or comments they get, or otherwise tackling aspects of blogging they think are becoming too great a temptation to some kind of sinful habits, like gossip or the desire for attention.

All of that is fine, so far as it goes. I can't imagine ever telling anyone that his or her personal sacrifice wasn't a good idea (unless that person is one of my daughters with the annual question, "Can I give up math for Lent? It would help me control my temper..." to which the answer is always some variation on the phrase "Nice try."). But adults, presumably, know their own temptations and struggles best, and if reading blogs, writing blogs, reading or participating in comment boxes, etc. have become either a temptation or perhaps an unwise use of one's time, that's for the person making the sacrificial decision to decide.

What concerns me about the "I'm giving up blogging for Lent" announcement is the copycat behavior it sometimes inspires.

In my earlier Lenten post I wrote about the struggle that would go on at my college when some girls would give up makeup for Lent. Pretty soon, some of the simplest, kindest souls would be agonizing over the question: shouldn't I give up makeup, too? Isn't it just vanity to wear makeup? If I don't give it up, doesn't that just prove that I'm too vain, too worldly, too focused on appearance? Doesn't it just prove that I'm not holy?

My forty-year-old self can say to these young girls that as we get older sometimes the wearing of a little makeup (at least in public) is an act of charity--but I digress. In all seriousness, though, one person's temptation is another person's indifference; the sort of girl who thought makeup was a bother but at least covered up a vexing blotchy complexion problem probably isn't motivated by overweening vanity to wear it in the first place, and shouldn't be troubled if her own conscience leads her to give up afternoon coffee, instead.

And just as the motivations for giving up makeup vs. continuing to wear it vary, so do the motivations for giving up blogging vs. continuing to blog vary. What can be troubling, though, to some souls is the way the "I'm giving up blogging" announcement is sometimes made.

Suppose a fictional blogger says the following: "I'm giving up blogging/reading blogs/commenting for Lent. I've become too focused on blogging and not focused enough on God. I'm prideful about checking my stats. I want the attention of lots of comments, and get disappointed when I don't get many. I waste too much time blogging instead of living my vocation as a wife and mother. I get hurt too easily by negative feedback and think I need to spend more time nurturing the real relationships in my life instead of the virtual ones."

That might be very honest for our fictional blogger--but sometimes others who read this kind of statement become as bewildered as the girls in my college used to be when a popular girl would announce her decision to give up makeup in order to be less vain, less tempted to shallowness, and less focused on appearance. This is because some people read this, not as a personal list of what blogging is in their life (which it is, and which I'm sure it's absolutely meant to be) and instead as a definitive list of the factual deleterious effects blogging may have on the Christian soul.

In other words, the confused Catholic blogger may read these kinds of posts from people he/she admires, and start to think that the following things are universally true:
  • blogging distracts us from God
  • blogging fosters pride
  • blogging feeds a disordered desire for attention
  • blogging gets in the way of our attentive living of our proper vocations
  • blogging creates situations for hurt feelings
  • blogging is too removed from the "real" world to have any value
All of these are possibly true for some bloggers at some times. But none of these are universally true, and none of these are specific to blogging at all!

Spending too much time reading novels can distract us from God. Surrounding ourselves with people who admire us can foster pride. Being the first person to sign up for every parish ministry opportunity can feed a disordered desire for attention. Spending hours on the phone each day can get in the way of our attentive living of our proper vocations. Any kind of human contact can create situations which involve hurt feelings. And almost any sort of hobby can have the sense of being removed from the real world (e.g., what good is stamp collecting, etc.?) but that doesn't make them worthless.

Those people who decide to give up blogging for Lent are doing so because they see some spiritual value in doing so--but that doesn't mean that giving up blogging for Lent has some kind of across the board, special value for everyone. For myself, the situation is a bit different, at least right now; I find myself on the brink of answering a call from God to use the writing talents it has pleased Him to give me in a way I've never been able to do before, but before I reach the point where I'll really be able to consider myself anything more than a clumsy novice in this particular art, I've got to get more practice in. And that means writing, not just for myself, not just in a private journal locked away from the world, but out in plain sight, where my deficiencies can be noticed and corrected and my strengths sharpened and tuned, so to speak. It means writing on a daily basis, on whatever topics are at hand. It means writing whether I feel like it or not, whether I'm satisfied before I hit that "publish" button or not.

The limits I've set on myself so far have only involved weekends, when blogging is more difficult for me. So during Lent I'm going to try to write at least one post over the course of the weekend, too, even if it's very short and not even remotely news-driven. My keeping my weekends "writing-free" isn't something that a "real" writer gets to do, after all; most of them have deadlines and contracts and other forces pushing them to do at least some writing on Saturday or Sunday as well as during the week.

Now, I'm not suggesting that others ought to take up more blogging during Lent, because I know that what is a sacrifice for some isn't for others, and that only we ourselves can ponder what God wants of us, and listen to His voice as we try to discern His will. Whether we decide to blog more, blog less, quit blogging for Lent entirely, or some other action is up to us. So long as we're focused on our own spiritual challenges, and avoid the temptation to think that we should do what everybody else is doing, we'll make the right decisions about our Lenten sacrifices.

Update: Thanks to Patrick Archbold, I realized that I forgot to link to the earlier post which explains the reference to girls giving up makeup for Lent; I've added that now. Gentlemen readers may still want to skip over that part, as you have no idea how insanely competitive Catholic college girls can get over their Lenten sacrifices (all with the goal of winning the Most Holiest M.R.S.-degree Candidate Ever award, which presumably comes with a cute Catholic marriage-minded guy so swept off his feet by all the holiness that he can't wait until second-semseter senior year to pop the question.)


Anonymous said...

Yes, our children wanted to give up Math for Lent too.

Not that I am a writer as you and others, I do spend way too much time on the computer. So, I am not Xing out blogging altogether. I would loose my one reader!!! LOL!
Great ideas. It is easy to get on the band wagon and copy what others do.

I liked the one about disabling the statcounter! Hahaha so true!!

Charlotte said...

Good discussion, Erin! Likewise (and I link to you), here is my discussion about Facebook:

KatieButler said...

Erin, great post. I'm not a blogger but blogreader. Last Lent I gave up reading altogether--which in retrospect, was a good thing because it helped me to 'thin out' my Bloglines subscription.
This Lent, I'm thinking of something more along the lines of limiting my online time, whether it be to certain days of the week, or a set amount of time per day.

Dawn said...

Everything you say is true. I was not a blogger last year but I was confused and I dropped off the internet to finally just center myself on what God and my husband and myself want for my family. I was always too quick to assume that the opinions of others I read online were the 'right' opinions and mine were wrong. Months later I came online again and have been able to keep my autonomy amidst the steady stream of information.

I enjoy your writing. I enjoy writing and it wasn't until I started a blog in December that I realized that I've missed it. I haven't done any creative writing since high school. It's why I'm not giving up blogging for Lent. I do become concerned with the idea of "is anyone reading" but mostly because I figure it would not be worth my time if I wasn't reaching anyone.

I've enjoyed both of these posts you've put up about Lent. Also, I learned that you are trying to improve your writing by...producing writing.


Anonymous said...

Am I just crazy or is this practice of telling people what you're giving up for Lent a new thing? Back in "the day" one would never share that information. Shouldn't your sacrifices be private, as Jesus asked for them to be? Anyone who announces the nature of their sacrifice in public is looking for something other than spiritual improvement, I figure.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Giving up such things as blogging, email groups and forums can be great sacrifices, much to the benefit of those who seek this type of penance. But I also see the copycat thing, and sometimes there is an attitude of "this is what is right" with this type of thing and it seems that sometimes those universal suggestions about the spiritual dangers of blogging or forums or email lists are pronounced for the masses. Probably that is not the case for most, but the danger exists as you rightly point out.

I've seen boards and email lists taken "offline" for lent because "WE don't need to be doing this. WE need to spend that time in prayer or other worthy pursuits!" ~ as though these forms of communication are inherently unworthy. So one or two people impose this "fast" on a group of 15 to 150 people because, of course this is the "right" thing to do. For everyone. Just ask the ones who made the decision.

At least bloggers are shutting down their own, individual blogs, not everyone else's too.

As far as the sacrifice being private, else it equals vanity, as suggested above, I don't think that's it at all. If a blogger goes silent with no warning, regular readers will be concerned. Nothing wrong with saying, "hey, i'm doing fine, just taking a break for lent," if that's what they're doing.

Dawn said...

I've been in the church for only 10 years and I've always ever known people to discuss their Lenten sacrifices. I thought this was towards accountability and also just to inspire others with ideas. I can see, though, after reading the previous comment how it could seem vain to pronounce them. But again, it goes back to the person's own unique tendencies towards sin, no? Perhaps some struggle with vanity in this area and others don't.

Tim J. said...

"My forty-year-old self can say to these young girls that as we get older sometimes the wearing of a little makeup (at least in public) is an act of charity..."

Heh. You funny.

Really, though, that is an aspect of personal appearance that is sometimes overlooked... that we dress nicely and groom ourselves and other things as a *gift* to others. Beauty - especially feminine beauty (if you will excuse my saying so) - is a gift that is in some sense meant to be shared.

Within reason, of course... ;-)

Hélène said...

I have been thinking about your post for a couple of days and agree. It is one thing to discern that this is a sacrifice that will help you spiritually, and another to see everyone else doing it and be guilted into doing it yourself. A similar thing that I have often encountered is giving up sweets or alcohol for Lent. I witnessed several times when someone was offered a drink or a sweet, the person's reply, "No thanks. *I* gave it up for Lent." I have also witnessed the more humble response of people who gave it up declining politely without making it obvious why they were declining. There is no need to feel superior about giving up something that many people enjoy.

One year when I was in college I decided not to give up sweets for Lent. It was the first time in years that I hadn't given it up. My father sent me a box of cookies at one point and my roommate was scandalized. "Your father sent you cookies during LENT?" They way she reacted to it would have been more appropriate if I had eaten meat on Friday, not merely eaten a cookie.

JennGM said...

Great post, Erin! I get tired of the peer pressure or the "one-upping" on the personal penances of Lent. Not that everyone has a holier-than-thou attitude, but there is a sense of that in some circles. I don't like to know what others are doing, nor do I like to share my penance.

My dh agreed that for many, wearing the makeup should be the charitable act to DO for Lent, not giving up. That's one of the craziest penances I've ever heard.