Anne Lamott says that every writer has a radio station streaming in her head:
“Out of the right speaker in your inner ear, will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is,” she writes.
“Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the list of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on.”
And on and on, indeed.
I don’t think this self-talk radio plagues only writers; I think it plagues humans in general, but I’m perhaps most aware of it when I sit down to write and when I know people are reading what I’ve written. Part of me feels as though what I’m saying is the Most Important Thing Ever Said and that I can put it more cleverly than anyone ever. And part of me feels as though I’m a fool for writing at all, that I’m wasting my time and inarticulate and selfish and—what’s worse—that those who patronize me by reading my stuff are also thinking I’m foolish and inarticulate and selfish.
I only bother explaining this because people keep asking me what it felt like to go viral last week. I still hesitate to use the word “viral,” actually. My friends started using the term when they saw my most recent blog post (which, if you haven’t seen it, was about “How to Make Your Last Name Plural This Christmas Season”) on their Facebook news feeds. They kept telling me that it was being shared by their cousins and their mothers-in-law and their coworkers and various other people “who don’t even know you, Kate!”
At first I kept saying, “No, no, it’s getting a lot of shares, but it’s not viral. There’s got to be some sort of threshold for viral, and I’m sure I haven’t crossed it yet.” But that’s the thing about the Internet and social networks—content spreads exponentially. Within a week, it had upwards of 250 comments, 150,000 shares, and 400,000 views. To give you a frame of reference—I’ve been blogging for five years, and prior to this, I’d amassed about 60,000 page views total. So, yeah, I’m no Kim Kardashian, but I guess I went a little bit viral.
How did it feel, then? Well, you know that little thrill you get when you have a new notification on Facebook? Or when somebody laughs at your joke? Imagine that and then multiply it by 400,000. It felt like that. It felt as though the radio station in my right ear was on full blast.
For a recovering approval addict like me, going viral was free crack. People kept telling me how funny and clever and talented I was—how much I deserved the attention—and asking how I was coping with my newfound fame. They might as well have taken a tire pump to my head and just pumped it full of air. Affirmation everywhere!
Truthfully, though, I was ill at ease initially. On Monday, the day the blog post first took off, I got all shaky at work as the notifications started coming in. I learned that my blog had gone down. Server overload. I had to contact my hosting provider during lunch and request a private server and sort that out as well as I could with limited knowledge and limited time. I couldn’t focus, and I couldn’t control what was happening. People, lots of people, were having opinions about me. People were having opinions about me, and I was at work and not free to control or manipulate their opinions. I got a glass of milk and drank it slowly. Calm down, Kate. I went into the office bathroom and got down on my knees. “Lord, forgive me and change me and help me and calm me the frick down,” I said.
But the server switch worked. My blog came back. And over the next couple of days, the page views and the shares kept climbing. Every few minutes, I’d get a new notification on my phone. Texts, Facebook messages, tweets, posts. It got to the point where I couldn’t think about anything except my blog and what people were saying about it. I couldn’t even pay attention to other people when they were talking to me. “I’m sorry, what were you saying? I was distracted, thinking about myself.” If comments and clicks are the currency of the Internet, then I had won the lottery. (Bitcoins might be the actual currency of the Internet, but does anyone really understand those?)
By Wednesday I was refreshing my stats page just to watch the numbers rise. Load the page. 135,669 views. Refresh the page. 135,690 views. Refresh the page. 135,708 views. Twenty views a second that afternoon. (When does Ellen call?)
I gave up looking at my blog stats for Lent this past year. I didn’t like the effect the numbers had on my heart. It seemed as though they correlated directly with the volume of the radio station in my head. Low numbers, left ear on blast. High numbers, right ear on blast. My worth fluctuated with the page-view graph. At the beginning of Lent, it had been so hard not to look at them. I had been right in the middle of my stupid Bachelor blog series. But by the end of Lent, I felt free. Those stats had lost their grip on me.
This week they sang their siren song again. While praying in the office bathroom on Monday, I had had a flashback to another recent time I’d been on my knees in the bathroom. Last December I got what I think was food poisoning or some sort of stomach bug. It was the first time I’d ever thrown up as an adult—by which I mean, it was the first time I’d ever thrown up without my mom there to hold my hair and bring me a wet washrag and help me back to bed and clean up after me. I was all alone in the middle of the night, feeling shaky and weak, clinging to the cold toilet, throwing up and throwing up and throwing up.
There’s always that moment when you’re throwing up when you feel so awful that you think to yourself, Surely, this is the end. Right? Tell me I’m not the only one who feels this way. I remember lying on the bathroom floor that night and thinking, What if I just die, right here, all alone, from whatever this bug is inside me?
Though reminded of this vomit-tastic moment (sorry) on Monday, I did not stop to reflect on it until later in the week when my stats and my ego were at an all-time high. Never in my life had so many people told me that I was awesome, and in the midst of all of it, I started to feel icky. Icky is the only word for it. Something inside wasn’t sitting right. My heart felt off-center. If that stomach bug had felt deadly, then I knew that whatever was inside me this time was both deadly and damning.
“Lord Jesus, forgive me. Change my little heart,” again became my prayer. It is still my prayer—because the numbers keep rising and the notifications, though they have slowed, keep coming in.
It seemed natural to pray on Monday when I was scared, when the radio station in my left ear was loudest, when the verdict was still out on people’s overall opinions. But it seems absolutely necessary to pray now, when the radio station in my right ear is playing praises on repeat, when it’s tempting to believe that those praises are enough.
I have spent most of my life seeking the approval of others. I was the good girl, the pastor’s kid, the teacher’s pet. Praise and A’s were what I got—and what I always had to get. For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to drown out the songs in my left ear by working hard to earn enough approval from others to raise the volume in my right ear. Want to know what I have learned? This is exhausting, and it doesn’t work, and both ears are liars.
In the past couple of years, I have experienced a life-altering shift. I’ve realized that the Jesus of my mind—the Jesus of Sunday school morals, of felt-boards and picture books—is not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus of Sunday school has the power to quiet the wind and the waves and to tell me to be good. But the Jesus of the Bible has the power to quiet the radio station in my head and to tell me to quit trying so freaking hard.
I think a lot of people don’t think about Jesus but do think about God and picture him as an indistinct frowny-face emoji in the heavens. Their image of him is based at least partially on the fact that they have voices in their left ears telling them they’re screwed up and hopeless, and voices in their right ears telling them they’re doing just fine and are actually pretty awesome and need no help, thank you very much. If these voices have anything to do with an innate sense of God, he must be either cruel and unappeasable or distant, unknowable, and unneeded.
But the more I read about Jesus and the more I grow to know him, the more I see that God is a lot more like the emoji with hearts for eyes. (I’m 25, so deal. This is how I communicate.) Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus didn’t come and die and rise again so that I could still try to be good enough to earn the praise of others. And he definitely didn’t come and die and rise again so that my self-worth could still soar and plummet according to others’ opinions—and my opinions of their opinions. This is, in fact, exactly what he came to save me from—this rickety roller coaster of attempted self-salvation that will ultimately hurtle me off the tracks to my doom.
I grew up hearing about grace and not really knowing what it meant. In fact, I think the skill set that makes me good at understanding grammar is the same skill set that has made me terrible at understanding grace. To be good at grammar, you must remember rules and spot errors. Those are basically the only skills that you need. If I take those skills and turn them inward and look at my own heart instead of at paragraphs and punctuation, my immediate instinct is to try to clean up the mess. A little red ink here, a little red ink there, a second draft, a third draft, a fourth draft. We’ll go over and over this little heart of mine, and eventually we’ll get it free from error and ready to turn in on judgment day.
But this is a self-defeating pursuit. The most grievous, glaring error of all is the prideful assumption that I don't need grace—that I have what it takes to clean myself up and that I don’t need Jesus to do the cleanup for me.
So what did it feel like to go viral, you ask? It felt like a reminder of what life would be like without Jesus. It felt like a glimpse of a life in which I still had something left to prove. And after that? After that, it felt like grace. Grace because I remembered what I’ve been saved from. Grace because I remembered that I still need Jesus now, today, to keep me from seeking approval from those who can never provide me enough of it.
And it also felt a little bit like regret. Because if I’d known that 400,000 people were going to listen to me last week, I never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever would’ve talked about grammar. I would’ve talked about grace.
I know the Internet doesn’t work like that and that there’s no sense in wishing I’d chosen a different topic. If the topic of my post had been different, the content would not have spread. But I guess I wish I’d managed to work this in somewhere—that in the grand scheme of things, apostrophes
don’t dont matter, but Jesus does.
This life is more fleeting than a viral fad, and the only thing worth knowing is the God of grace.
“I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith.” – Philippians 3:7-9