Reflective and Reactive Thinking in a Social Media-Driven World

In a previous post, I shared how the reactionary-nature of social media leads to more reactionary ventings than actual “engaging the culture.” What under girds our tendency for reacting as opposed to engaging is that our way of communicating online tends toward reactive thinking over reflective thinking. Before I explain what I mean by reactive and reflective thinking, allow me to set the context.

Backlit keyboard

By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30343877

The Internet and social media (from here on out shortened to “the Internet”) gives us the ability to access news and goings on with incredible ease. Likewise, we can respond to issues with incredible rapidity. Gone are the days of waiting for news to unfold; we can literally watch (or read) the news as it unfolds. In a related vein, but one more germane to my topic for this post, is one’s ability to develop and maintain a presence online and garner a following of sorts. One does not have to rely on the traditional methods for their voice to be heard (print, TV, radio). Now, the Internet offers a far cheaper and instantaneous method for one to develop and project their voice to a much larger audience than the traditional avenues. Consistently post and reply to others’ thoughts, and you can develop quite a following and presence rather quickly.

Today there is a push in corporate America, academia, and even within the church for individuals and groups to develop an online presence. Now, developing an online presence is not a bad thing, but the reactionary-nature of the Internet and social media feeds the sense that one must respond quickly and frequently in order to stay current and relevant. Such an approach – though helpful at times – does not foster good thinking habits. Rather than fostering reflective thinking (where one takes some time to think through the implications of one’s assertions, the relevance of their examples or support, or the coherence of their thought with their worldview and with the Gospel), one is caught up in the moment of winning the verbal battle or making their voice heard above others. The end-goal is short-sighted as one seeks to deal with that issue at that moment. After the issue has concluded or attention has shifted elsewhere, the work one has done evaporates in the wake of the never-ending Internet news cycle. Thus, maintaining one’s online presence involves constant awareness of current news and the cultivation of one’s ability to think quickly and broadly. But, I’m afraid, it does little by way of fostering deliberate and sustained thinking. Instead, it becomes easy for one to create the habit of what I call reactionary thinking – a sort of thinking on the fly in order to address the immediate issue in the context of a specific argument within a particular forum (comment section of an article/blog post, Facebook post, a Tweet, etc., etc.).

By British Cartoon Prints Collection - Library of Congress Catalog

By British Cartoon Prints Collection – Library of Congress Catalog

Perhaps I’ve overstated the issue here. However, I know that in my own experience of developing some sort of online presence while maintaining a writing schedule for journal and book publication, I’ve found that I am caught between the Scylla of maintaining a research and writing schedule that demands reflective thinking, and the Charybdis of maintaining an online presence – one is sacrificed over the other.1 Broadly speaking, when a Christian seeks to address cultural issues, they tend to favor either engaging the culture (as intended by Carl F. H. Henry and others) or reactionary ventings (as fostered by the Internet and social media). In short, one is caught between the Scylla of reflective thinking and the Charybdis of reactionary thinking. When one is faced with these two options, a person generally fosters one type of thinking over the other as well.

The more one favors a particular mode of thinking over a period of time, the more it becomes habit. And when something becomes habit, it becomes the default mode for approaching various situations. If more time is spent developing and maintaining an online presence, then they will tend to favor and employ reactive thinking. However, if one develops and maintains a presence in taking time to spend time on a particular issue, then they default to reflective thinking. Unfortunately, I think many of us today (myself included) have defaulted to reactionary thinking as more time is spent surfing the Internet and social media.

Note, what I’m not saying is that we have an either-or situation. There are times when reactive thinking is needed, and there are other times when reflective thinking is required. What I am saying is that if we are to favor one mode over the other as our default approach, it ought to be reflective thinking. Too often, it seems, we think on the fly – as if the matter requires immediate resolution or addressing. Too often, it seems, we give too little time to reflection before we speak (or write). We have put the proverbial cart before the horse. An emphasis on reactive thinking only reinforces reactive thinking. However, if we place the proverbial horse before the cart (emphasize reflective thinking over reactionary thinking), then what we do is enable one to develop a solid foundation from which one can think reactively when the situation calls for it. Reflective thinking can inform and foster reactive thinking, but the converse is not true – for reactive thinking begets only more reactive thinking.

What many think of when they hear "reflection." Credit: By Karora - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2810153

What many think of when they hear “reflection.”

So, what does reflective thinking look like? For many, I’m sure, “reflection” conjurs up images like The Thinker where one is caught up in deep, sustained, uninterrupted thought. For others, it may include original and profound thinking. While these characteristics are included in reflective thinking, they are not the essence of reflective thinking. Rather, here are some characteristics of reflective thinking that I believe are less intimidating but capture what I believe we all can practice:

  1. Allow time to pass between one’s reception of and response to an issue. I think the Bereans in Acts 17:10-15 provide an excellent illustration here. Upon hearing Paul preach the Gospel, they would “receive the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so” (ESV). The Berean’s did not just receive and react to Paul’s message. More importantly, they went home and studied Scripture to ensure that what Paul said was actually the case and then acted upon what they heard and studied. When there’s an issue you need to address, don’t feel that you have to respond immediately with your complete answer. Giving yourself time allows your emotions to settle; often times emotions can cloud thinking and dictate how you respond. Further, distance between the issue and your response gives you the opportunity to consider other angles that you may not have considered otherwise.
  2. Ask questions. As a parent, I know how wearying questions can be. However, the longer I have taught and parented, I’ve come to see the value and necessity of questions. Asking questions helps to drive reflection, it guides one’s thinking, and it helps you to go beyond the surface issues. Further, asking questions can sometimes help you to “see” where the other side is coming from; the more you understand the assumptions and underlying motivations of the other person, the better you can respond. Questions aid you to this end.
  3. Read (or Re-read) on the Issue. Sometimes you may be very familiar with the issue, while at other times you may have some level of unfamiliarity on a particular topic. Regardless, read what others have said (both those with whom you agree and those with whom you disagree). There’s little by way of original thought – somewhere someone has written what you are thinking or has alluded to what you want to say.2 Be informed (as much as possible) before you respond.
  4. Talk to Others. Sometimes just talking to someone about an issue helps you to think through its various nuances. The other person may provide some helpful insight or ask some pointed questions. Or, just vocalizing your thoughts may help you to “see” something you had not thought of before (this happens to me often). Further, by talking to others, your thoughts will be accountable to others – a reminder that you are not a lone ranger, but a member of the body of Christ.
  5. Remember the Big Picture. Issues do not occur in isolation, nor do your thoughts. That is, what you say now can have implications down the road. Further, what you share is a reflection on you, your family, your church, and on Christ. As a believer, you are a Christ-bearer; as such, do your best to speak and write in such a manner that you reflect Christ. Pray, asking the Lord for his wisdom and discernment. Remember, interacting with others is not about you (or me); rather, it’s ultimately to proclaim the truth of God in Christ.

Reflective thinking is not for the deep thinkers or the ivory tower academics – this is a myth that needs to be dispelled. Rather, reflective thinking is something we are all capable of doing. More importantly, it’s something we are all called to do – note the Bereans’ example. Further, 1 Peter 3:15 implies that we reflect upon what we believe before we give a defense for our faith. Finally, when Jesus states that we are to worship God in spirit and in truth, this implies that we are to understand what this truth is and how it directs our life before God and others.

Lastly, reflective thinking need not be something you do when in isolation (free from distractions) or when you are able to devote an hour or more to it. Rather, it’s something that you can do as you go or when you have a lull in action. The great thing about thinking is that you can “take” your thinking with you anywhere you go.

In short, as we develop the habit of reflective thinking, our responses will become better informed, structured, and poignant. Further, we will have a better foundation upon which to think reactively when called upon.

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