Love Your Social-Media Target as Yourself

COMMENTARY: We too easily confuse worldly status with virtue and confuse the nice things status brings with the visible signs of goodness.

‘Shoes’ (photo: Monstar Studio / Shutterstock)

The meme pops up a lot in my social media and has for several years. Serious Christians post it. The top picture shows a small basement room with two huge, leather overstuffed chairs, with built-in cupholders, facing a big TV, with shelves holding a large beer-can collection on one side and sports posters on the other.

The bottom picture shows an expensive room with wood-paneled walls and floor-to-ceiling windows, two cloth overstuffed chairs with big ottomans, and an antique wood desk with turned legs and an iMac on top. Two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books can be seen, but what books they are cannot. The room is very clean and neat.

The Cave and the Study

The wording says “Ditch the man cave” at the top. At the bottom it says, “Bring back the study. ... Education, intelligence, thoughtfulness, logic, wisdom, kindness, and the ability to communicate are sexier than self-indulgent materialism any day.” It’s one of the snottiest things you’ll see, just dripping with class prejudice and presumption.

It offers a lesson in reading the world — what the spiritual writers call discernment. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains, Christian asceticism speaks of spirits in a broad sense, meaning “certain complex influences, capable of impelling the will,” some toward good and some toward evil. It gives as examples “the worldly spirit of error” and “the spirit of race.”

We too easily confuse worldly status with virtue and confuse the nice things status brings with the visible signs of goodness. We do this more naturally and easily than we realize. It’s a perennial human temptation and one made much stronger in very affluent societies. 

I’m alert to this kind of thing and still find myself instinctively feeling someone must be good because he has good taste, which usually means because he likes the things I like. I approve of the person who accumulates books, because that would be me, even though buying lots of books may qualify as gluttony, and I disapprove of the person who accumulates jewelry or cars or other things I don’t want.

I intensely dislike snobbery I recognize, directed against people I know, like things the upper-middle class can say about the working classes. But I have my own snobberies, one being the feeling that I’m better than the privileged people who look down on working people.

Just as Materialistic

From all we can tell from the pictures, the second room may be just as self-indulgently materialistic as the first, if not more so. It’s a lot more expensive. 

Nothing in that room actually suggests a man who has education, intelligence, etc. It only suggests a man who has been raised with or has made a lot of money and decorates accordingly. It could easily be a lifestyle statement. It could easily be a room designed by the man’s wife or an expensive decorator.

It might be a room the man avoids because it’s a little too perfect to live in or because he spends his time in the room in the basement with the big TV. It certainly does not look like a working study. 

In fact, of the two rooms, the man cave looks most like a place designed by someone who created what he wanted, not someone making a statement. It suggests the pleasure of friends and sports and beer, enjoyed for themselves. The room has two chairs, after all. It could be a space shared with a close friend or a child.

Judging from what they say when challenged, the Christians who share the meme like it because they read into it a story they like, and one that flatters them, but the pictures do not tell that story. They feel sure, just from the two pictures, that the man who made the first made it for the wrong reasons and the man who made the second made it for the right reasons.

The pictures don’t tell us anything useful about the men who made them (except, as I say, that the sterility of the study suggests it really isn’t a study, but just a nice room). A good man might create either. A bad man might create either.

And what’s wrong with a cave anyway? For some, the cave functions the way a study functions for others (who have more money and a different conception of status): as the place of their own that Virginia Woolf famously wanted, and as a place to hang out with friends. What can be said against the man cave can be said against the study. It depends on what the creator wants and does with it.

A Lesson in Reading the World

As I say, the meme offers a lesson in reading the world, in discerning what forces — sociological, economic, psychological, spiritual — affect what we think we see and therefore what we do. We live embedded in a world that makes us face in a certain direction and puts on us blinders and filtered glasses and headphones telling us certain stories. Learning to remove these and get up and look in other directions and listen to other stories takes a lifetime.

We bring to our judgment of such things a lot of assumptions — and assumptions we don’t recognize because we think them obvious statements about the world. “Everyone knows that” kind of statements, with the implicit conviction that those who don’t know that suffer some defect and don’t count.

We assume what we assume because we are who we are: children of a particular family and community, raised with certain beliefs and values, with brains wired a certain way, trained to see some realities and look away from others, who made moral and spiritual choices that trained us to look in some directions and not others — and who identify our own lives with virtue.

I speak of a lesson I’ve had to learn and only learned slowly and late. In my youth, I understood the world and saw what was what. Or so I thought. My certainty helped my writing career because people liked reading someone who confirmed, with some verbal felicity, their own beliefs. I would have liked that meme.

But age teaches you how little you know about the world and how wrong your judgments of others can be. You make enough wrong judgments about people who matter to you, often to your harm, and often to their harm, to learn how badly you read others and to some extent why you misread them as you do.

You also learn how much like them you are and thereby the good reasons they have to do what they do. I have a study, which I’ve had since enough children moved out of the house. It is a working study, where I write, but it is also a kind of cave, in the sense of a space set apart that is mine (and the dog’s). It’s a comfortable space, a restful space, a space to decompress, even a retreat. Having such a space helps me do what I have to do.

But no one would judge me for it, because of all the bookcases and the piles of books and papers on the floor. It fits the romantic idea of the writer, with creativity associated with untidiness. It could be as self-indulgent as the two rooms in the meme, for all someone seeing the picture knows.

Practicing Discernment

We should be much better at this kind of discernment than we are. I think we may see something of our racial prejudices (in the sense both of prejudgments and of bigotries) because our society pays such attention to them. But we are not nearly so good at seeing our class prejudices, nor others of the “everyone knows that” sort. 

One way to learn discernment is to interrogate ideas we respond to with that “Yes!” feeling, whether in a meme or an article. Why do we like it? In what ways does it flatter us and people like us? What would the people being criticized say in their own defense? In what ways are they, in relation to us, the least of these? And in what ways are they our superiors, like the widow with her mite?

Ask yourself how you’d feel if you were the target of such an idea. Try to practice the rule: Love the target as yourself.

And stop yourself from sharing the meme.