Pray Before You Post

smartphone-iphone-internet-social-mediaI don’t like to write political posts. Not because I have no political opinions. But because they attract edgy comments.

You might blame social media. But you would be wrong. It’s the people, not the medium.

Years ago, when the internet was still a twinkle in its creators’ eyes, I loved reading and writing letters to the editor. Here, I thought, is the real heartbeat of the news, a record of what ordinary people think and feel.

Once, a local newspaper published my letter criticizing a politically biased guide to U.S. colleges. In response, I received an anonymous handwritten note at my home. “Dear Ms. Kaplan, based on your letter, I bet you eat p***y.”

Another time, I wrote a letter about a beloved indoor-outdoor cat. After the letter was published, I received an anonymous typewritten letter. It seemed to come from a militant advocate for indoor-only cats. The letter, which the author claimed would be cc’d to my boss, said, “I hope they throw your dead cat on a pile of used tampons.”

You might think I could escape this by sticking to spiritual posts. By focusing on love, reconciliation, and peace. By expressing compassion all around.

No such luck. If you express compassion, you are “asserting a false moral equivalence” between the good and evil sides. If you use humour but a humourless reader takes your words literally, “you are truly an evil person.”

How do I respond to such comments?

Politely: “Thank you for your kind note.”

Kindly: “I’m sorry. It was not my intent to harm anyone or to fail in empathy.”

Generously: “Although your email is anonymous and nasty, it makes some good points.”

The comments leave me feeling hurt and angry. But I don’t respond with righteous indignation. I don’t see how that would help.

My not seeing indignation as helpful could be a fault. Unhappy friends have criticized me for it.

“I wish you would be less like the peacemaking Aaron and more like the angry Moses on my behalf.” “You give people the benefit of the doubt way too much.”

Secretly, I experience these criticisms as compliments. Actually, they identify virtues that I work hard to cultivate. Daily, I reflect on my feelings, trying to get between triggers and reactions.

Inner work is not in and of itself political activism. But refining my feelings seems like taking a stand for something. The human world is simply a network of people. One less conflict, one more accord, strengthens the web. Or so my temperament teaches.

I know others disagree, believing that when you ignore a slight directed at you, your social group, your political or religious beliefs – why, you’ve let it stand. You’ve tacitly agreed with it. You’ve failed to defend yourself and those you claim to care about.

For these others, indignation, affront and anger are important inner postures. With these inner postures, one can protect people, communicate values, and preserve legacies. Holding them is a kind of political action. But is blurting them out an effective action? Perhaps the rude letter writers believe it is. But most of the letters missed their marks of protecting, communicating or preserving.

I don’t want to miss the mark – in social media, personal conversation, or formal dialogue. So I reflect, every day, on a personal prayer of 4th century Jewish spiritual teacher, Mar bar Ravina. Mar’s prayer appears in the traditional siddur, at the end of the Amidah’s daily silent reflection:

My God, stop my tongue from gossip, and my lips from haughty speech. When others curse me, quiet my reactions; help my being be as porous as dust.

Imagine if each of us recited this mantra just before hitting “send” or “post.” How would our inner lives change? And then our communication? And our political discourse? And maybe even our politics?

Originally posted at Rabbis Without Borders

  1. Today, the world’s culture seems to be feeling and acting upon an undertone of anxiety, and maybe it is justified. The balance of good and evil is clearly shifting; many feel that evil is winning and God is hiding. The inner work and level of understanding required to affirm life and approach a response to criticism with caution takes more thoughtful energy than blurting out a knee-jerk passionate position. I think many people today just lack the self-restraint and God-guidance to do as you do. YOU are my heroine. I want you to know that your deep energy and manner of being has affected me in ways I do not yet even know.

    1. Thank you for your insight about today’s world and responses to it. And thanks generally for this beautiful comment.

  2. I share your reluctance to post political words because we seem to have forgotten rules of civil discourse. I am sometimes surprised at the attacks that come from a place of what seems to be deep anger. And anger as a response is not generally effective as a communications tool, if actual discussion is what is desired. But too often, I don’t think that’s the end people really seek. The cries in the wilderness that something is being–or has been–taken away from them–the hope for the future they expected, the legacy and rights they thought would be their inheritance… But threats and meanness that the internet allows (and apparently your physical mailbox as well) often do their job, by stifling reasonable engagement…

    Thank you for the prayer. It will come in handy.

    1. Thank you, Meredith. A “cry in the wilderness” is an excellent description – very appropriate sometimes. And thank you for the reminder to resist being stifled by rude discourse and continue with reasonable engagement.

  3. Thank you so much for this post, Rabbi Laura! I just discovered your blog thanks to a friend’s Facebook repost and really look forward to following it. I especially love your attitudes and responses to “edgy” comments. How great to conceive of them as an opportunity for inner work!
    Shavua tov,
    Izabella Tabarovsky
    Center for Embodied Judaism

  4. Years ago, I ran into an “e-mail prayer” — to be used before clicking on “Send”. I can’t find it now — a Google search only reveals hints on running e-mail “prayer chains”.

    I’ll see what I can dredge up. It’s not nearly as poetic as Mar’s prayer. And thank you for providing a source for that — it’s the “period” at the end of the Amidah.

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