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How To Resist Content Anxiety

May 1st, 2024 | 5 min. read

By Ian Harber


My wife and I recently welcomed our second son into the world. Naturally, the thing that has been dominating my headspace lately has been parenthood. Between the screams, needs, and lack of sleep, everything in life feels significantly more difficult. But of course, the natural and expected needs of the children aren’t the only things making me dizzy right now.

Almost every time I open up social media, I’m bombarded by parenting influencers telling me the best ways to care for my child. Apparently swaddling is bad now. Who knew?! I can’t scroll through my feed without being confronted by ads for must-have baby products that are “backed by research” and happen to be designed to perfectly fit an Instagram aesthetic. I didn’t realize even our burp cloths needed to be performance-ready for an online audience. 

This barrage of parenting content makes parenting our children even more anxiety-producing than it already is. For every decision, every situation, every product that could possibly surround our children, there is someone on the internet—right now—making a forty-five-second video about how I’m doing it wrong and am a terrible parent. This kind of content makes it almost impossible to know what’s best for your child. You’re constantly being told contradictory information that seems impossible to implement in real life, but it’s delivered with all the moral conviction of the staunchest fundamentalist. The sheer volume of information paralyzes all paths to sound decision-making, and the moral-emotional language overwhelms you with shame for doing anything differently at all. 

Overwhelmed by Existential Static

I say all of this not to simply air my frustration about parenting content online (thank you for indulging me, though), but because this is one example of a wider issue. What’s true for parents viewing parenting content is true for nearly everyone viewing nearly any content. The swarm of content overwhelms us. It creates existential static that keeps us from being able to use sound judgment, discern truth, and decide on the right course of action. It distracts us from deep thought and contemplation. This static that we feel from the buzz of constant content produces anxiety. We’re so anxious about getting something wrong that we’re paralyzed from even trying to get it right in the first place. We’re so cynical about being deceived that we give up on the search for truth. 

There are two different ways of looking at this that, on the surface, seem contradictory but work in tandem. The first is that this proliferation of content creates a hypernarrative world. Where every possible narrative—or life script—simultaneously bombards people into adopting that narrative as the true story of the world they should live by. Because every life script is on offer, the individual becomes overwhelmed and exhausted trying to figure out what is good, right, and true. Either they resign from trying entirely or end up in an anxious tailspin trying to figure it all out.

But the hypernarrative world ultimately leads to a denarrative world. Because there are so many life scripts on offer, ultimately, there aren’t any at all. The individual is tasked with writing their own life script and working as hard as they can to both find it and fulfill it. According to philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his book The Burnout Society, this world without narratives is what leads to burnout. He writes, “The general denarrativization of the world is reinforcing the feeling of fleetingness. It makes life bare. Work itself is bare activity. Merely working and merely living define and condition each other.” Han goes on to say,

“The reaction to a life that has become bare and radically fleeting occurs as hyperactivity, hysterical work, and production. The acceleration of contemporary life also plays a role in this lack of being. The society of laboring and achievement is not a free society. It generates new constraints. Ultimately, the dialectic of master and slave does not yield a society where everyone is free and capable of leisure, too. Rather, it leads to a society of work in which the master himself has become a laboring slave. In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. This labor camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination.”

The constant barrage of narratives liquidates the value of any one life script and creates a denarrativized world. The only thing left of value in this world is to “do the work”—whatever that means—hoping that if you work hard enough, you’ll eventually reach a place of stability. What many don’t realize is that a sense of existential stability comes through embracing and embodying a particular narrative: the story God has written into creation and the human heart (Romans 1:20, Ecclesiastes 3:11). But committing to that narrative also means having an inherent skepticism toward competing narratives and testing everything against the Word of God to see where it aligns and where it deviates with creation.

All right, where does that leave us? What are ways for us to weigh the barrage of digital narratives against God’s true narrative? Here are three suggestions:

1. Define Reality as IRL

One of the most confusing things about all of the content we are bombarded by is discerning what is actually real. We need to make a predetermined commitment to defining what is real primarily by our in-real-life (IRL) lives. It doesn’t mean what we see online isn’t “real life,” but it is prone to manipulation and is always only a fragment of what is real. It also doesn’t mean that what we see online can’t challenge our real lives, but we should have high walls of skepticism that need to be cleared before we begin incorporating online insights into real life.

What this looks like is believing in our immediate relationships more than our online relationships. It looks like asking friends and family for advice (and trying it) before we Google something or believe an online influencer. It looks like establishing our own sense of identity and character before looking to the internet for life scripts and existential validation.

2. Information Serves Wisdom

We live in a constant state of information overload, but we’re deficient in wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to discern what is needed in any given situation to live life well. The digital age incentivizes us to make “informed” decisions but rarely tells us to make wise decisions. We should force the information we learn from various sources to serve our ability to make wise decisions in our lives. Yes, part of that comes from information. But it also comes from intuition and experience, common sense, the collective wisdom of the community, and the divine wisdom of God’s word. 

3. Make Space for Contemplation

In The Burnout Society, Byun-Chul Han also writes, 

“We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible. Increasingly, such an immersive reflection is being displaced by hyperattention. A rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and processes characterizes this scattered mode of awareness. Since it also has a low tolerance for boredom, it does not admit the profound idleness that benefits the creative process… If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.”

We’ll never cut through the existential static of the digital age without contemplative space. We must be able to slow down and give our undivided attention to one thing for a meaningful amount of time. Whether it’s time in the morning in prayer and reading, or taking time for silence and journaling in the evening before bed, or any other number of ways, we must find space to turn the noise off and sit alone with ourselves, our thoughts and emotions, and discern what is real. Wisdom is experience well-reflected. We can’t reflect on our experience without turning off the static of the world. Wisdom will elude us if we hand ourselves over to the hypernarrativization of the digital world.

It’s incumbent upon us to develop this distance from the digital world to live a wise life. Otherwise we’ll be overwhelmed with everything we could be and should be doing. When we outsource our discernment to whatever influencer the algorithm has served us today, we are like “a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6-8).

The internet is a dangerous place for those without wisdom. But for the Christian, we know that wisdom comes from the Lord. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” (James 1:5).

Ian Harber

Ian is a marketing manager at Endeavor and is a digital marketing practitioner with 10 years of experience. He has written about faith and technology, deconstruction and reconstruction for The Gospel Coalition and Mere Orthodoxy as well as appearing on podcasts such as Reconstructing Faith, The Alisa Childers Podcast, Love Thy Neighborhood, The Living Room Disciple, Everything Just Changed, and more. Additionally, Ian has contributed to the book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (TGC, 2021) and is the author of an upcoming a forthcoming book about deconstruction with InterVarsity Press (2024). Ian lives in Denton, Texas with his wife, Katie, and son, Ezra and is a member at The Village Church Denton.

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