8) Be mindful of your behavior online. Is that post designed to improve your image … and leave others feeling bad? Are you hammering people in order to serve your anger and humiliate others?—56 Ways to Be Merciful in the Jubilee Year of Mercy
Many people, aware that online spaces can provide occasions for sin, give up social media for Lent, pulling themselves away from temptations to vain contention, meddlesomeness, voyeurism, self-congratulation, attention-seeking, sarcasm or just plain sloth. They know that the Internet’s lack of visibility and accountability can bring out the worst in us.
Clocking out for 40 days can provide a much-needed spiritual respite, but if in the end you return to the same bad habits, what have you really done? To cultivate good habits, we can learn to use the Internet to practice virtue, using the traditional spiritual works of mercy.
To “instruct the ignorant”: Too often when giving Christian instruction while online, people fall short on humility and charity. In social media, you may not know the person you’re talking to, or anything about his or her life, and it’s easy to assume ignorance. If someone disagrees with you, it may be because you know something that person doesn’t, but it’s equally likely that he or she has information you lack. If you’re open to being taught, people are more likely to see your instruction as a friendly contribution rather than an attack. Remember that ignorance is not a culpable or contemptible vice, so never assume malice when it’s possible someone is simply unaware of the facts. Offer information in a respectful way that avoids humiliating the other person. People are more likely to receive instruction well when they are not treated like they are stupid or foolish.
To “counsel the doubtful”: Devout Catholics often mistake doubt for dissent. When someone asks an honest question, he or she should receive counsel, not reproof. Doubts are usually complex, involving a mixture of intellectual, emotional and practical turmoil. If a person expresses doubt, answer him or her gently, acknowledge the validity of the person’s feelings and address his or her reservations with kindness. If you’re not able to do this, you may not be the best person to counsel. Instead, offer prayers, comfort or perhaps a referral to someone who can help. If you do offer counsel, be prepared to allow time to really listen, and try to be available for follow-up. Ideally, use private messaging or e-mail to protect the person’s privacy.
To “admonish sinners”: Admonishment seems to be the most enthusiastic way Christianity is practiced on the Internet, but I’ve only ever seen it bear good fruit once. In that case, the person admonishing showed genuine, heartfelt understanding and solicitude for the person she corrected, and it was obvious the other person was open to guidance. Such conditions rarely occur online. This is one of the most dangerous of the spiritual works, because there’s always a risk of self-righteousness, unkindness, presumption of guilt and triumphalism. Generally, avoid correcting people in public — if you don’t have the kind of relationship where you can contact them privately, it’s probably not your business.
To “bear wrongs patiently”: The Internet is a great place to encounter people saying things that make you mad. It can be tempting to post a scathing insult, snark, derision or even passive-aggressive offers to pray for the person (with the implication that he or she is beyond human help.) Instead, set a watcher at the gate of your keyboard. Before you post, take a minute to ask yourself whether you would want to be on the receiving end of the comment you’ve just drafted. If not, erase it and move on.
To “forgive offenses willingly”: Our monitors make it easy to forget that there’s a real person reading what we’re writing, and it becomes easy to be cruel and insensitive. Christ’s prayer from the cross, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” is a perfect response to trolls, sea lions and other Internet bullies. It’s important, however, not to weaponize forgiveness by offering it ostentatiously as a bid for the moral high ground. If a person says sorry, then saying, “I forgive you,” is appropriate. Otherwise, quietly forgive him or her in the privacy of your heart.
To “comfort the afflicted”: The Internet is full of lonely and hurting people who are looking for affirmation that they’re not alone. It may seem silly, trivial even, but it’s really easy to hit the “like” button or send someone *hugs* and <3 (which turns into a heart icon online) — and it does make a difference. It’s the online equivalent of a smile, a kind word, a hand on someone’s shoulder. If one of your “friends” or “followers” is having a Twitter freak-out or is “bleeding” all over Facebook, consider sending a private message and asking if he or she is okay. Be prepared to give your time even if you don’t have solutions. Just letting someone know he or she is visible and supported can make all the difference.
To “pray for the living and the dead”: There are so many way to use the Internet to pray, from prayer communities to online rosaries to the Divine Office. You can also deliberately use your timeline as a series of prayer prompts. This is especially effective if you’re trying to correct bad habits, because it changes the way that you look at the items in your feed. Instead of seeing opportunities for contention, vainglory, boasting, outrage, gossip, condemnation or whatever you’re struggling with, you will see situations in need of God’s healing and grace.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: See previous pieces in our “Practicing Mercy” series here.]
Melinda Selmys is the author of Sexual Authenticity: An Intimate Reflection on Homosexuality and Catholicism. She blogs at Catholic Authenticity.