I don’t ever want to go back to believing life is meaningless. I know there are biochemical causes for some forms of depression, but I wish people who struggle against dark thoughts would risk their hopes on living a good story – by that I mean finding a team of people doing hard work for a noble cause, and joining them. I think they’d be surprised at how soon their sad thoughts would dissipate, if for no other reason than they didn’t have time to think them anymore. There would be too much work to do, too many scenes to write.
I took an inadvertent break from online thought-life during my last six weeks in Madison. Between blogging, uploading photos, and interacting on Facebook and Instagram, I was just exhausted by the pace I had set for myself to continually process my offline life through online conversation. (It’s times like these that remind me I’m an introvert at heart…albeit an extroverted one.) Yet in this hiatus, I’ve had time to examine my heart posture in artistic creation, especially social media. And God, doing what he does best, made a beautiful thing out of a broken thing and renewed my desire to build up community and point to Him with my story.
It all began with one hour of quiet time in June. This wasn’t any quiet time; this was “protected creative brainstorming time” for the upcoming Urbana 15 Student Missions Conference. In other words, trust Scripture to inspire you with a video. I had never before viewed Scripture as an origin of videos that make an impact, but it’s amazing what God can do with the little we bring. The stories of costly discipleship in Matthew 8 eventually caught my attention, and soon enough God was inviting me to see a dichotomous parallel between the sacrificial relationship Jesus invites us into when he says “Follow Me,” and our casual invitations to subscribe to each other on social media (“Follow Me on Instagram!”). Long story short, from that one hour sprang the seeds of a plenary video about cultivating an online ministry of presence in digital spaces, which has since led me to cross-examine my own social media presence: Why do I do what I do online? If following Jesus means following Him to where people are, and everyone is living in digital spaces today, then how can I live an authentic human story, offline AND online? What does my community need from me, and how I can I use my online presence to serve them?
I stopped blogging in July because my motivation had changed. Instead of writing out of a wonder at what God was doing in my life, I was drafting blog posts out of fear. I had this realization on July 27 in the middle of (surprise!) studying Matthew 28, in which the most oft-repeated commandment in the Bible appears twice: Do not be afraid. I looked at myself and blanched at just how much fear had crept into the sulci of my creative mind. Fear that I would miss a life-altering revelation if I didn’t write everything down. Fear that I would fall behind other artists in content creation. Fear that people would think I’m unreliable, inconsistent, uncommitted, or lacking in meaningful thoughts. So. Much. Fear. What kind of existence is that? Surely not one we were created for.
Earlier this month, I read an article about campus suicide and depression. Among the many truths it articulated about mental health, it highlighted the real and insidious insecurities spawned from the gap between the private/offline and public/online stories we live:
In the era of social media, such comparisons take place on a screen with carefully curated depictions that don’t provide the full picture. Mobile devices escalate the comparisons from occasional to nearly constant. Gregory T. Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University, believes social media is a huge contributor to the misperception among students that peers aren’t also struggling. When students remark during a counseling session that everyone else on campus looks happy, he tells them: “I walk around and think, ‘That one’s gone to the hospital. That person has an eating disorder. That student just went on antidepressants.’ As a therapist, I know that nobody is as happy or as grown-up as they seem on the outside.”
This isn’t to say that posting joyful content is wrong. Those moments are important to your story. But so are the ones tagged with fear, shame, and insecurity. How often do we think about being real on social media? To be human is to be imperfect; pristine narratives of perfection are unnatural single stories that only deepen the rift that loneliness leaves in our hearts. In a society that elevates the pursuit of happiness, my challenge to you and me is this: offline and/or online, find a community where you can share your light and your darkness. We grow through failure, so we have to be in environments that encourage us to learn how to fail, and fail well.
After all, no good movie is devoid of conflict. As story guru Robert McKee once said (at least in Donald Miller’s book), “You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been out on the ledge. The marriage is over now; the dream is over now; nothing good can come from this. […But] the whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s a conflict that changes a person.” (180) And it’s that willingness to seek meaning in suffering that enabled Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl to survive the Holocaust. In his own words, “What is to give light must endure burning. …In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
It’s remarkably appropriate that our final project was to create a new 2100 studio tour video for prospective interns. It’s a humorous piece, drawing on the arc of historical epochs to depict the evolution of an idea through collaboration. But in a really meta way, this video about the creative process challenged us interns to process our experience of the creative process, so that we could communicate the creative process, all the while living out the process by collaborating on a video about the creative process. Now if that was confusing, imagine it this way. One moment, you’re dreaming big and bouncing off the walls with the next big idea; the next, you’re in despair, burdened with lots of varying feedback, wondering why you ever thought your idea was worth pursuing in the first place. But as your idea is pruned by different minds and media, it gets better; you too, as a communicator, get better. Collaboration – and the accompanying conflict – nurtures creativity.
Likewise, in everyday life, we need to live in community with people, to become better characters in our stories. There’ll be Dark Ages when people disappoint you, betray you, or just don’t understand; there’ll be Renaissance Eras when people join you, inspire you, and heal you. We are designed to experience life in relationship, and life gets interesting when you take a risk on those relationships and be, well, unapologetically you (#nofilter). And when others open up to you too, you begin to live with grace, because now you know: they aren’t perfect either. I think God delights in vulnerability. It’s uncomfortable, for sure, but these growing pains are inevitable and good. If there’s anything we can learn from social media, it’s that our deepest desire is to know and be known.
Recent discovery: It’s oddly therapeutic to turn pain into art. I suppose it allows me to detach myself from the pain for a moment, but not to escape it, no – to explore it, communicate it, find meaning in it. In July, I was frustrated with myself for recurrent bedtime procrastination. Combined with a truculent phone call with my boyfriend one night, I found myself channeling my bleary-eyed angst into these images. (Manual focus with puffy eyes and salty fingers? 10/10 would not recommend.) But as I composed my gloomy shots, Chris sent me an incredibly gracious text: “Still a privilege,” along with my favorite photo of us. Yup, that triggered a fresh well of tears.
To me, this overall image captures the tension of my relationship with digital media. On one hand, I resent it as a facilitator of distraction and miscommunication; on the other hand, I appreciate it as a conduit for forgiveness and reconciliation. With this unexpected conflux of beauty and brokenness, it’s no wonder that “great art comes from great pain.”
Perhaps it’s unseemly, unprofessional even, to be so honest, so messy, in a public space online. Career-oriented writing certainly downplays the raw fluff of emotions. But emotions are core to our humanity, and in an uncertain and ever-changing world, the more time I take to understand them, the more I know who I am.
I am infinitely grateful for the opportunity to intern with 2100 Productions this summer. By providing me with a safe space to fail often and to reevaluate my purpose as an artist offline and online, my 2100 community and ministry partners have disrupted the fearful story I was living this past year. They have renewed my vision with a hope that celebrates how we encounter God in our stories, and I am a better character for it. As Donald Miller writes, “We live in a world where bad stories are told, stories that teach us life doesn’t mean anything and that humanity has no great purpose. It’s a good calling, then, to speak a better story. How brightly a better story shines. How easily the world looks to it in wonder. How grateful we are to hear these stories, and how happy it makes us to repeat them.” (249)