My Amazing Penchant for Letting People Down
I let people down. That should come as no surprise to people who know me. Perhaps more importantly, however, it should come as no surprise to people who know much about people.
We let each other down … a lot:
I said I’d get it done, but I didn’t.
You sent me an email 10 minutes ago, and I haven’t responded.
I told you I’d have the project done by Friday, but I’m not going to get it finished until Monday.
I do love you. But I also like catfish noodling with the boys on Saturdays.
We human beings, it seems, have a driving need to trust others, and to have them trust us. Social organization depends on it. People can’t live together for very long in community if they can’t trust each other.
All of which has me thinking about our commitments to one another—in particular, my commitments to those who count on me, and my amazing penchant for letting them down.
The predicament of human productivity: It seems that the more I do, the more people count on me to do even more.
Beyond the tautology, and the temptation to hear that as merely whining, I think there’s something important in this recognition of our plight not only about our need to be trustworthy, but also about the kind of expectations people have of us—and just as importantly, about the kinds of expectations we will allow ourselves to be held responsible for.
And any time religious people start talking about social expectations, it is certain that their faith commitments cannot be far behind. So, I want to think for a moment about the religious implications of email.
The Scourge of Electronic Mail
Email, with all the convenience it affords us, also continually drops new layers of complexity and responsibility into our laps. Sure it’s convenient. But that convenience masks a new set of social relationships whereby I have seemingly endless additional opportunities to let other people down.
It’s a scourge. At least it feels that way sometimes.
I joke sometimes that I answer email for a living. I’m only half-joking, though. Because of the difficulty associated with communicating clearly in writing, I often find myself laboring over a single email for more than an hour, trying to get the wording just right. Conveying something in writing, though it seems simple, isn’t nearly as straightforward as we sometimes assume.
I know a guy who, all else being equal, is a good guy—smart, compassionate, thoughtful. But when he gets on the electronic mail machine he wreaks havoc. He’s tone-deaf to the way his words can be read. And since you can’t look him in the eye to see whether or not he’s kidding, it often feels as though you’re being attacked—but in a way that’s indirect enough that you can never be entirely certain. Passive-aggression thrives in email.
As a consequence, and because I don’t want to be that guy, I often wind up spending extraordinary amounts of time trying to word things in ways least likely to be misunderstood.
Ok, here’s where I stop whinging and get to the point: Because of my compulsions about email, any note that finds its way into my inbox from another human being and not a robot, has the potential to take up a significant part of my day.
Something as innocuous as a question about whether or not to bring a dessert to the Super Bowl party, can cause me to expend enormous amounts of time and energy—time and energy I hadn’t planned on spending, and for which the payoff is fairly low, but the threat of possible disruption to the social fabric can still be fairly high.
WWJE: What would Jesus email?
Here’s the thing: without proper boundaries, without explicitly thinking through who has the right to expect access to my time and attention, my feelings of responsibility remain vague, ubiquitous, and insatiable. In other words, I feel a responsibility to whoever is clever enough to have obtained my email address, a responsibility not to let anyone down, whether or not they ought rightly to be able to expect that of me.
Because of the way the world is connected now, the level of access other people have to our lives has reached a precarious level. The problem is, though, most people have never stopped to consider what the boundaries of those expectations ought to be. Because we feel such a responsibility not to let people down, we often don’t place limits on just who gets to yank our chains.
Those people who follow Jesus, who are called to “be for others,” often have a difficult time knowing how to draw good boundaries.
Jesus was extremely clear about who he was and what he needed to do. Consequently, he had an amazing capacity not to hold himself responsible for fulfilling all the expectations of others.
Sometimes it’s essential to let other people down. Jesus sure did.
When it comes to letting other people down, here are some questions you ought to ask yourself:
Who gets unfettered access to my attention?
How many times a day should I check my email?
Must I respond to every non-spam email?
How much time do I have to respond before people get to think of me as a jerk (I mean, more than normal)?
Which people or situations have the right to expect an immediate response?
Will a few lines do or do I have to write email responses that look like a prospectus for a dissertation?
Oh, and here’s the part where we take responsibility for contributing to the problem.
Should I waste someone else’s time having to respond to my email with an email containing information I could get myself?
Should I demand everyone’s attention by sending a mass-email hinting at my aggravation that someone’s obviously not paying attention to the signs I’ve been leaving on the refrigerator telling people not to eat my yogurt? (See? Passive-aggression and email are often found holding hands.)
To what extent do I have a responsibility to give the sender the benefit of the doubt when it comes to reading the clumsy, tone-deaf wording of others?
Is my sarcasm in danger of being misunderstood? (Answer: Probably. If you find yourself having to say, “It was a joke; I was only kidding” too often, you need to dial it back a bit.)
Could what I want to communicate be reduced to fit on the subject line?
Before I hit “reply all,” should I fill up everyone else’s inbox with information meant only for one person?
Pro tip: Turn off email notifications on your computer and your phone. You don’t need to know every time Southwest has a “Getaway” fare to Providence.
To maintain sanity in this wired world, we need to think some of these things through. The way we communicate with one another demands our attention. Moreover, the expectations we have of each other—as well as of ourselves—if they’re not to become completely ridiculous, require some thoughtful reflection, some boundary-setting.
We ought to take a cue from Jesus, who was all about the need to let some people down—a need that comes from knowing who you are and what you really ought to be concerned with.