“It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.” – Marcus Aurelius
In 2003, I started a blog.
At the time, I owned a small bookshop in a historic part of Memphis, TN, and I thought it would be an excellent way to market the shop. Blogging was a small world in those days, and we had meetups where Memphis bloggers would meet up in real life.
It was a different time. But the key takeaway is that I got used to talking about my work in public.
Here’s a neat thing we are selling. Here is a picture of this new author that popped by. Here is what I think of Peter Taylor’s books (Spoiler alert: swoon!).
Here is something I noticed and wanted to share with you.
I learned to watch out for things that were worth sharing. And by sharing them, we attracted people who were the same sort of weird we were. I loved that shop.
(It is also worth saying that I was detoxing from a decade of working in one toxic environment after another and was just learning how to be weird. I feel like I owe a constant apology to everyone who knew me in those days. It was season one, and we were underfunded and were not yet sure who the characters were.)
When I transitioned to nonprofit work a few years later, I learned to write newsletters as both a way to share my work (here is this cool thing that happened and what I learned) and also as a way to raise money. And the more I shared my work, the more money I could raise.
I learned two things doing that, neither of them good.
The first was that my being angry in public made us money. I remember a fellow nonprofit ED telling me she didn’t have enough money for payroll that month, and she wasn’t sure what she should do. I told her that when that happened, I would find something on social media that pissed me off and write about it.
I was only sorta kidding.
Somewhat related to that was the second thing I learned: The danger of having your public identity tied to your vocation. I was a subject matter expert on homelessness. For perhaps 5 years there, I was in the air most months going to speak somewhere on a stage in front of people. I lectured at seminaries and colleges and spoke at festivals. I was published in national papers and all over the Christian press and was interviewed on NPR, Fox, and Al Jazeera. Going viral happened pretty regularly in those days – which was good, as my internet presence was the small nonprofit I ran’s primary fundraising mechanism.
Their survival depended on my being angry and inciting anger in others.
How messed up is that?
Then I was exhausted and burned to a crisp and decided I couldn’t do that work anymore, so I spent a year wrapping it up, and I moved. Somewhere between North Carolina and Mississippi on I-20 I lost all desire to talk about my vocational work on social media. I didn’t want to be the angry guy anymore. I didn’t want to anger other people to raise money for good work. And most importantly, I did not want to tie my public identity to the work I’m doing in the world.
That’s not all I’m doing. It’s just all I really want to share on social media these days. I don’t want to tell voyeuristic stories about vulnerable people to raise money. I don’t want to “build my brand.” I don’t want you to be impressed by my good works and treat me like some poor man’s Mother Theresa because I had a conversation with a man who lives in a tent. I definitely don’t want to write angry memes so you can share them so I can build a “following.”
A following of people who like to share angry memes is probably one of the surest definitions of hell I know.
And I can tell you from my hard-earned experience that when that stops – when you quit writing the voyeuristic stories, quit the angry blog posts, stop the divisive memes – it’s easy to forget who you are. It’s easy to forget that you are not the avatar that your “following” has crafted from the curated view of your life. It’s easy to then spiral into a deep depression and want to disappear forever.
Ok, maybe that last part was just me. But maybe not.
I still have the urge to talk about my work. To “show” my work, so to speak. To tell you about the good stuff I’m involved in. The people I meet who change my life forever. The actions I’m a part of, the policies I’ve helped change, the work I do in my small way to make the world as it is into the world as it could be. Or, at least my corner of it.
But I won’t be doing that on social media. Never again. I don’t think I could survive it if I did that again.
So, I’m starting a minimally viable email list about the justice-centered, faith-based work I do here in Mississippi. I’ll send something out about once a month. I might do it less than that if there is nothing to report. I might ask you to help me do something by donating to something. I might tell you about other people you should be donating to instead. I’ll probably share stories because that is what I do. And when we know better stories, we can imagine a different reality than the one we are stuck in now.
And maybe along the way, we can find folks who are the same sort of weird we are.
You can, if you are interested, sign up here.