What Motivates Us Besides Fear and Anger?

The other day I learned about a Christian book that combines end times prophecy predictions with extremely questionable but explosive political commentary.

Looking it up on Amazon, it has been selling quite steadily and has tons of positive reviews. As I searched for additional information about the book and the author, I found that he had been promoting it on the television of show of a long time doomsday prophet of the end times, seller of dubious survival kits, and convicted felon.

Red flags were shooting up all over the place for me.

I could go on about my many reservations over an author like this, whose end times predictions would leave my Bible professors speechless, but enough has been written about that. I couldn’t help thinking about how this author had really cracked the code to use anger AND fear mixed together to sell books.

If an author isn’t going to use expertise, research, or experience to sell a book with a compelling or helpful message, anger or fear are usually the two tried and true paths.

As an author who tries to avoid these tricks to sell books, I wanted to pull the curtain back a little bit to ask some questions and to leave us in a place with better information and a hopeful path forward.

How Anger Manipulates Us

Anger focuses on something outrageous and wrong that leaves us livid. Reading a book about that anger helps us feel seen, but it also stirs up the anger and becomes a kind of addiction in itself.

Ironically, we may become angry about something very valid that needs to be addressed. Yet, anger that is used to sell something rarely offers a point of resolution or a path toward action.

For instance, the Poor People’s Campaign is addressing injustice through a moral fusion movement that may leave us feeling angry that so many have been overlooked and exploited for so long. Yet, the goal is to move people toward redemptive, bi-partisan action that addresses the wrongs.

The goal isn’t to make people angry so that they buy something and then stew in their anger. Rage isn’t the end point of the message.

When anger is used to sell a book, the book becomes the end in itself. We could say something similar about news websites that supplement their useful reporting with posts showing shocking and outrageous news stories, whether or not they’re true, in order to get clicks and to then sell ads.

The news event may be true and worthy of being addressed, but the goal of the website goes beyond informing the public. The emotional high of the anger is just a tool to sell ads.

Anger can be used to motivate us toward positive action, but it’s very easily abused, especially when it comes to book promotion and media.

How Fear Manipulates Us

In a similar way, fear can be used as a dead end motivational tool as well that prompts us to take action based on what we fear. We may be prompted by fear to buy a book or to consume media based on feeling safer if we’re in the know.

This was often parodied on the Colbert Report: “Watch this segment. What you don’t know, COULD KILL YOU!”

End times books have been selling access to secret knowledge to prepare us for the end times for generations. On top of feeling safer by gaining the author’s special knowledge, we feel like we’re special because we’re on the inside track!

I confess that I’ve been wrapped up in some of this end times thinking in the past, and gosh, it does feel good to believe I’ve got a special edge on everyone else. I KNOW THE FUTURE!!!!

However, the real appeal I’ve found in these end times books is the way they address our fear of the unknown. They traffic in special insider knowledge that helps us manage our fears a bit better because we can prepare for what will happen next.

Oddly enough, these end times books run the very real risk of leaving us worse off because we are preparing for a future that will not happen!

But wait, there’s more! We also end up relying on this insider knowledge rather than living by faith. By seeking to mitigate our fears with end times predictions, we aren’t trusting our futures to God and facing the unknown with trust in his indwelling Spirit and the victory of his Son.

It’s all a really big mess.

What are the alternatives?

Empowering People with Expertise, Research, or Experience

I’ve had a front row seat watching my wife and several friends get a PhD. They spend years learning how to responsibly research topics, evaluate their findings, and then present them in a way that honors what has been done before.

While working on my MDIV, I saw the folks on track for a PhD in a theological discipline, and I thought to myself, “No thanks. I’m out.”

Those folks had to read, remember, assimilate, and evaluate A LOT. They seemed to be reading all of the time. When I’d ask them about a topic, they wouldn’t mention the chapter or two of a book they’d read. They’d discuss multiple books, articles, and theories.

Just to write an academic article requires diving into multiple fields, each with their seminal texts, regarded experts, and intellectual land mines. The width and breadth of research is enormous!

All of this to say, getting expertise that you’d find in a seminary or university is hard and time consuming.

Even worse, by the time you’re done getting a PhD and writing for so many academic folks, it’s challenging to transition into writing and communicating for a popular audience. It can be done, but that’s a whole OTHER skill set to learn.

The other paths of experience and research for writing a compelling book are challenging as well, even if they aren’t quite as demanding as becoming an academic expert. And even if you have lived through an experience or invested months or years into research, there’s no guarantee that you’ll catch anyone’s attention.

In fact, you’ll most likely look at best-selling authors who use fear, anger, or a mix of the two and wonder what you’re doing wrong!

When I look at the books that have been most helpful for me, I find that the offer some mix of hopeful change and practical guidance. Things can get better, and this book will show you how.

That message can certainly be exploited with a shallow, quick-fix solution that doesn’t actually work. Yet, a genuinely hopeful message is a bit harder to capture. It’s not easy to articulate hope and change in a brief media hit today. For new authors, this process is especially agonizing as they try to cram a 50,000 word message into two sentences.

It’s no wonder that folks who don’t want to spend the time gaining expertise or conducting research or living through a series of experiences and who don’t want to bother with formulating a hopeful message opt for the shortcut of fear and anger.

The good news is that people are motivated by things other than fear and anger. We are motivated by hope, goodness, and the possibility of change, but fear and anger can become addicting if we are exposed to them over and over again.

Perhaps the most helpful way for us to confront the fear and anger we confront in our world is to remain aware of how they are impacting us. Can we step back from our reactions and thoughts to become mindful and prayerful?

How can we bring our fear and anger to God today?

As we see our fear and anger for what they are, we can regain some of our agency and then ask the next question: How can I join God in bringing hope and change to the fear and anger in our world?

My prayer is that we are motivated by God’s hope and loving presence, even as we are surrounded by anger and fear today.

 

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How Social Media and News Work Together to Crush Your Soul

If I had to choose between shouting out my front door, “Hey, what’s happening today?” and learning about current events on social media, it’s at best a toss up in my mind with a slight edge to my neighbors.

That isn’t to say that I follow unreliable people on social media or that my neighbors are all current event experts. My greater concern is with the medium of social media itself. If I want to fast track my overreactions, fear, dread, and envy, then social media is the perfect place to go.

While I can and do log on to social media in order to find the viewpoints of experts, I am also exposed to despair, conjectures, and divisive remarks. The most extreme versions of popular viewpoints are sure to pop up one way or another. It doesn’t take too much to spark some fear and to send my mind spinning off course.

Of course these conjectures or despairing comments may not be true, and they may even be said in jest. Yet, they still get the job done: introducing troubling thoughts into my mind.

I have learned how to better manage these thoughts, but they remain a distraction that can leave me sidetracked and struggling to get back to a more productive direction with my day.

Heaven help me if I jump into the fray with a comment on a controversial post. That’s a whole other downward spiral of defensiveness that leaves me with a lingering desire to appear clever.

This particular week American news stations and social media networks are speculating on and lamenting the possibility of further escalation of military conflict with another nation. It’s a mess. I could spend the better part of my afternoon wringing my hands about it on social media, reading endless analysis, speculation, reactions, and predictions.

Or, I could spend two minutes reading an article about the main contours of the situation and avoid social media conjectures and debates like the plague. I will likely come away knowing just as much about the issue at hand and have far less fear, anger, and dread consuming my thoughts.

I love the way that social media exposes me to a wide variety of perspectives on the issues of the day and gives a platform to smart, prophetic people who may otherwise be overlooked. Yet, tapping into the best of social media often results in exposing us to its worst aspects as well.

In certain current event situations, the best way to remain informed and level-headed may include a bit of a fast from social media–at least that’s true for me. Perhaps you can sort through the speculation, fear, and hysteria, only holding onto what actually helps.

Personally, I’m not at that place with social media. I need to limit my access to social media in a time of public crisis, but any time really since everything can be turned into a crisis, because it crushes my soul with conjectures, fear-mongering, and seething anger.

If your soul is feeling weary or even crushed this week, consider how you can make a bit more space for silence, prayer, and simple awareness of what’s on your mind–especially if you feel unsettled. Consider where the troubling thoughts on your mind are coming from and replace those soul crushing sources with something you find life-giving.

I certainly don’t run every morning with the Jesus Prayer on my lips because I dig waking up at 5 am, but that bit of mindful and prayerful headspace always feels better than scrolling through social media in fear of the latest insanity du jour.

 

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Why Smartphones Are Terrible for a Little Bit of Zoning Out

“I’m just going to zone out on my phone for a little bit.” I’ve said that many times, assuming that staring at my phone would somehow be restorative or relaxing. I hear it quote often from others as well.

When I felt tired, stressed, or overwhelmed, I typically needed to take a break for a bit of zoning out and restoration. In the past I may have turned to a book, a run, or to even a darkened room for a little bit of rest. Then I started turning to my smartphone.

It felt a bit like giving salt water to someone dying of thirst or dumping a bag of lollypops on a dinner plate.

I noticed this tendency to zone out on my phone the most while parenting. When my kids wore me down with complaining, arguing, or crying, I began to zone out on my phone or tablet to give myself a break.

This is a common solution among parents and many adults I know. Smartphones have really useful and fun apps, from games, to articles, to friends on social media. A bit of fun on social media may feel really great in a moment of exhaustion or distraction.

The problem with using a smartphone for distraction is that phones and apps are designed to be as irresistible as possible. When we’re tired and worn down, our willpower is especially vulnerable, making it hard to set limits on our time or to respond to troubling news in healthy ways.

If Facebook alone aims to hook us for 50 minutes every day, and if the engineers who designed autoplay on YouTube or the infinite scrolling on Twitter and Instagram can’t regulate their own usage, we should beware using these apps for aimless diversion when we are most worn down.

Considering that thousands of engineers and psychologists have teamed up to make these networks addicting and consuming, it is ideal to only use them with intention and limitation.

Perhaps it’s most helpful to ask why we believe that using our phones will actually be restorative or helpful in times of stress or exhaustion. Do they actually help? Perhaps certain apps can, but for the most part social media also exposes us to disturbing news stories, divisive reactions, and the latest controversies. A game may be fun, but is it allowing our minds to process the day and to unwind what may be bothering us?

Perhaps it will be more helpful to plant a garden, to start a craft project like woodworking or knitting,  to keep a writing or art journal, or to go for a walk or a run when we feel most worn down.

The more space we give our minds to process our days, the better prepared we’ll be for the highs and lows of each day. That will also help alleviate some of the swirling thoughts that make it challenging to pray.

If I turn to my phone for a distraction or an escape, I try to ask myself what I’m running from and whether there is a better way to restore my mind or spirit. In my experience, turning to my phone as an escape has often left me feeling more trapped than when I began.

 

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Saving Our Souls from Social Media Division, Despair, and Deception

social media distraction

There’s nothing like a national crisis to stir up a bit of trouble on social media.

I frequently turned to social media for curated reflections in 2016 and early 2017, and it proved to be severely detrimental for my mental health.

So far as I can tell, I had relatively good motives. I was seeking out the opinions of a wide variety of experts in real time.

Why would that leave me feeling anxious, sad, or hopeless?

Divisive, Extreme Views Thrive on Social Media

The challenge with social media is that it rewards the most divisive, shocking, and reactionary voices with more attention, not less. Taking the most recent news of Greta Thunberg’s advocacy to take action against the global climate crisis as an example, the critics who shared some of the most controversial or even cruel responses to her received the most attention on social media this week.

That’s just how social media works.

As I have used social media with more awareness (and MANY more limitations), I’ve noticed how the most extreme and divisive views tend to get the most interaction and responses. Even if I want to seek out helpful perspectives on social media, I’m also exposing myself to the toxic actors as well.

Most bloggers and social media users know that the easiest way to draw a crowd online, or anywhere really, is to start a fight.

Even worse, numerous reports and studies of social media trends have found that more groups and nations than ever are employing automated “bots” or programs written to promote certain content. Pew Research estimated in 2018 that 66% of links shared on Twitter were shared by bots. In other words, there is an unknown amount of manipulation to social media trends.

We Are Exposed to Despair on Social Media

If you’re already a bit nervous about an issue, event, or an individual, you will most assuredly be exposed to a wide array of responses on social media that may leave you wondering about your own views.

Perhaps the person voicing reasons for despair or a lack of hope will place just enough doubt and unease into your mind to leave you feeling unsettled. In fact, you may even know on an intellectual level that such a despairing view is most likely wrong, but just knowing of the possibility may be enough to disrupt your day.

Even when I’m expecting to find people on social media who are drowning in despair, their comments on otherwise informative posts can still change my mindset.

Social Media Can Spread Deception

If the primary way to get noticed on social media is to trigger a reaction of any kind, then the truth of a statement is less important than the sentiment it stirs up in readers. In fact, we all struggle with confirmation bias that expects people to act in certain ways.

Narratives, whether based in reality or in a twisting of the truth, can be woven on social media and passed off as factual because they fit within our expectations.

If we’re already despairing of a situation on social media, then we may be more likely to believe a story that alleviates that despair.

If a particular narrative, whether true or not, has already left us angry or divided from others, then we may be more likely to believe a story that justifies that anger or those divisions.

Finding confirmation bias in my own social media use has been humbling but quite good for my soul.

Saving Our Souls from Division, Despair, and Deception

Now is a great time to ground ourselves in silence before God and awareness of our family and friends immediately around us. Social media can sweep us away in a current of emotions that can leave us feeling fearful, angry, or uncertain.

There’s only so much we can do in a given day, and most of what we can do that will make the most difference for our souls and for our neighbors won’t require extensive time spent on social media or any digital devices.

If you need to check on the news, consider going to a few different news websites rather than subjecting yourself to the chaos of social media. While there may be a time to engage experts on social media or to share posts on social media, beware the way that we can be swept away by the emotions, divisions, and narratives placed before us.

Social media is not designed to help our souls to thrive, and any benefits it offers for connection come with perhaps even more serious threats for disconnection from one another and from God’s present love for us.

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Social Media Puts Me in a Position to Lose, So Now What?

When I log on to social media, I feel like I’m destined to lose.

Not to brag, but I follow some really smart and interesting people. It’s tough to stop scrolling through their posts, often to my own detriment. There’s only so much you can learn while scrolling through social media.

The infinite scrolling feature on most social media sites ensures that I’ll literally never run out of something else to find, not to mention the promise of refreshing my feed for the latest posts.

Then there’s the matter of notifications, because who can resist a bit of affirmation? I can get a daily dose of likes and compliments if I play my cards right and avoid controversial topics.

Two unhealthy false versions of myself face off, as the lazy, distracted side of myself meets the side of myself that craves to be viewed in a positive light as an insightful writer.

I can’t afford to let either fabrication override my true self that is a mix of both and a whole bunch of other things. That’s why I’m so uncertain about what to do with social media these days.

I’ve studied the tricks that include red notification buttons since red gets the most engagement, auto-playing videos that make it as easy as possible to keep watching, a spinning update wheel that resembles a slot machine when refreshing a feed, and even a slight delay in revealing notifications in order to build suspense.

I know all of these tricks, and yet I feel sucked in by them. Knowing that the creators of the red notification button and the infinite scroll buttons can’t resist them either makes me feel better, but only drives home the point that with social media the average user is destined to lose to the engineers because the engineers are even beating themselves with their design.

I simply don’t know what to do with social media. It’s conventional wisdom in marketing and publishing circles that Facebook offers great engagement per post, but I’m not sure how present to be when I know that I am more likely to lose time, attention, and focus when using social media, let alone my concern for other social media users.

Perhaps the question is this: What do we hope to gain from social media? And then there’s a follow up question about whether it’s actually delivering those things.

Is social media promising us a certain level of connection and interaction and then pulling a bait and switch with extremely addicting features that make it difficult to stop and do something else more beneficial with our time?

If our goal is to deliver a lot of data and view a lot of ads, then social media is working just fine as it is, but I don’t think the goals of social media companies line up with the best interests of their users.

As of right now, I’m not sure how to use social media, but I sure about how to not use it. I’m using time limiting apps, blocking apps, and tracking apps in order to keep my usage under control even if I can’t make good choices in the heat of the moment.

If the makers of social media are devoting so much time and so many resources to capturing our attention and time, it’s time for us to use time and resources in order to guard our attention and time.

 

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I’ll be sharing more about these ideas in my newsletter and in my upcoming book, Reconnect: Spiritual Restoration from Digital Distraction (releasing June 2, 2020).

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