It’s been seven years now, but the anniversary of my husband Paul’s death still has the potential to make me emotionally fragile for a while. Sometimes I get through it okay. But it only takes the heightened emotion of a happy event or someone else’s sadness to bring me undone. And last week I experienced both, so it was always going to be hard. I’ve learned to accept that.
If you’d met me seven years ago, you would have encountered a fairly reserved person who hesitated to share anything personal with others, even friends. If you’d met me then, I might have seemed aloof to you or even a little prickly. In my heart I longed to be able to connect with others on a deeper level and still feel safe, but the only one I was ever truly open with was Paul. When I lost him, I lost my best friend and confidant—the only one with whom I could be real and not be afraid.
But if you were to meet me today I think you would encounter someone different, a more open person who is blessed with rich friendships and who’s not afraid to talk about deeply personal matters. In fact if you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you might have noticed that I often write about that kind of thing. And my book, Letters to Emma, shares quite intimate details about my experience of loss and grief after the death of my husband, Paul.
So what changed? How can I do what seems so contrary to my natural disposition? Why do I do it?
Losing Paul changed me. It tore down my carefully maintained defences and taught me through sheer necessity how to be open with others, especially about the things that really matter. I needed to allow others in, to help me carry my great burden of sorrow. I could not do it without them. And as I learned to do the thing I feared, I discovered that being defenceless, being open, allowed God to bless me with deep and abiding friendships. Those who helped me carry that unbearable burden helped me also to accept that they loved me.
Losing Paul taught me that life is short—too short to remain silent about experiences I’ve had, when sharing them could give solace, help or encouragement to others. I’ve learned to share from an inner well of hard-won experience which God, in his great kindness, uses to help others. And in the years since Paul’s death, I’ve discovered that any loss of privacy I might feel when I open up to others has been far outweighed by the comfort they gain from hearing my story. It’s a humbling privilege.
But it can be tricky to work out which experiences to share and how to go about it, especially when I do it online. So if I share personal experiences in a blog post, for example, I work very hard beforehand to find the sweet spot between two unhelpful extremes: under-sharing and over-sharing.
Did you know there’s a kind of under-sharing that has been dubbed ‘vague-booking’? I didn’t know until I heard it the other day, but I recognised it instantly. It really is a thing.
Maybe you’ve come across it. Somebody posts a Facebook status update that provides only vague details about a difficult experience they are going through, or are about to endure. Anyone who reads it is left wondering. Are they in trouble? Do they need help? Did I miss something important?
The situation is only relieved when someone else is so provoked by the ambiguous update that they just have to ask for more information. Once the vague-booker provides the missing details, the comment thread expands as people rush to sympathise, offer help or promise to pray. It’s difficult to know what motivates vague-booking, but it isn’t very helpful.
The person who over-shares doesn’t seem to know how much and which kind of personal information is appropriate to broadcast to others. They tend to overwhelm their audience with intimate details that others would rather not know and can cause considerable embarrassment. It might help the over-sharer to unburden themselves and share so openly, but sadly, it’s of little help to others.
Under-sharing creates confusion and over-sharing leads to awkwardness. Neither approach is helpful, because neither has the interests of others at heart; they’re exactly the kind of thing I want to avoid. Sometimes it is more helpful to let silence reign unexplained and not post anything at all online.
I think about helpfulness a lot when I’m writing because I’m accountable for whatever I publish. It’s a sober responsibility that means I have very strict rules about what I share online and how I share it. So, I won’t publish anything that doesn’t measure up.
These rules govern everything. I aim to share only what is helpful, edifying and encouraging for others. Whatever I publish must be truthful and well-written, and I won’t publish other people’s personal details or stories without their permission. And above all, whatever I publish must be honouring to God. If any aspect of my writing fails to follow any of these rules, I won’t share it. It wouldn’t be right.
But how did I decide on these rules?
Self-knowledge can sometimes be a good place to start. As a writer I’m keenly aware that in my desire to write well, I daily open myself to the allure and tug of ambition. And as a person I’m especially aware that as I practise being more open with others, I’m still learning, still searching for the right balance—the sweet spot between under- and over-sharing.
But self-knowledge isn’t enough. Even when I try to be ruthlessly honest, my capacity to recognise and acknowledge the truth about myself is limited by my humanity and skewed by my sinfulness. That’s why it’s so important for me to seek to honour God above all else.
I need to examine my motivations, thoughts and emotions through the lens of his love and the truth of his Word. I can’t give glory to him and help to others if I keep getting in the way. That’s where Jesus’ life and teaching help me so much—he shows and tells me how to focus on loving God and loving others (Mark 12:30). It’s that simple.
So my rules for sharing are founded firmly in God’s love in Jesus which shapes and moulds me, and on his words in the Bible. He invites me to search his unchanging Word for wisdom and to ponder it, remember it and apply it to my heart as I seek to live for him. And while his Word never changes, I discover that it too is slowly changing me.
It’s unlikely that I’ll ever master the art of being open and do it for the purest and best of motives. Not in this life anyway. But I follow a Saviour who was such a master, who shared his Father with us by revealing him to us, perfectly, and for our good. And he allows us to choose whether we will respond to what he shares and draw near, or reject it and turn away from him.
There’s a wonderful passage in Philippians that undergirds and infuses my thoughts whenever I prepare to share something online, and they’re words worth remembering. They describe the Lord Jesus precisely:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Phil 4:8).
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