Musings of a Potemkin Villager

In 1787 AD, Catherine II, Empress of Russia, took a boating tour of Crimea, accompanied by foreign dignitaries. As the story goes, Grigory Potemkin, a Russian official, set up fake temporary villages along the shore of the river in order to impress the group with how industrious and prosperous the region was. When the boat tour moved beyond sight, the temporary village would be packed up, transported down river, and set up again. There are good reasons to believe that this story didn’t happen according to the traditional narrative, but the term “Potemkin village” somehow made it into common usage, especially in political writing, to describe elaborate efforts to make something look more successful, prosperous, and busy than it really is.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: every blog is something of a Potemkin village. Bloggers engage in a sort of artificial busyness, trying to convince their readers that they are worth paying attention to. The more official they look, and the more authoritative they sound, the better. But when a blogger disengages from social media and stops following their stats, it is easy for them to start asking why on earth they are putting so much effort and work into their site.

It has been several weeks since I deleted my social media accounts, and I am pleased to report that I don’t have any major regrets about doing it. The real world is a richer and more fulfilling medium in which to interact with other human beings. Life is better when your sense of personal worth is no longer tied to what happens in a virtual computer world.

With the zeal of a recent convert, I have introspectively reviewed the rest of my online activities to see if I could perhaps benefit personally from leaving behind something else. Would life be better without having a cell phone, or without using email, for instance?

OK, that might be taking Ludditism too far.

But what about this blog? Do I want to, or need to, keep writing here? What are my real motivations? Would I be walking away from something important if I stopped blogging? Or would my time be better spent in other pursuits? This post will explore these and other related questions.

Look At Me!

Some of this introspection was sparked by an insightful paragraph in a piece I recently read by Kevin D. Wiliamson. Here is an excerpt:

“… people do not go to social media hoping to learn things about the world. They go to social media hoping that attention will be paid to them. That’s what social media is: a sad, sprawling bazaar in which attention is exchanged and bartered. […] Social media is not about information. People go there hunting a feeling of significance, which they try to achieve by associating themselves in trivial ways with public events or public figures.”

The essence of his point rings true in general: participation in social media, and I think blogging too, is largely about getting attention.

That’s not to say that getting attention is necessarily a bad thing. If I were an artist or a writer that relied on “getting attention” for my livelihood then I would by all reasonable means seek that attention. We all want the causes that we care about to get attention. Our self-esteem depends, to at least some degree, on our estimation of what other people think of us, and the way we judge that is by how much and by what kind of attention we are given. And the need for attention is also a powerful motivator in real-world interactions between human beings in physical space. How much would parents interact with children if it weren’t for their incessant and completely appropriate demands for parental attention?

But what is my motivation for blogging? I don’t have a financial incentive, because this site actually costs me money to maintain, produces no revenue stream through advertising or sales, and does not funnel medical referrals to my office. This is not an assignment, and no one is following up on me to make sure I keep doing it.

Am I just trying to get attention? And if so, then from whom, and to what end?

Rewards and Praises

A useful guide in navigating questions like this is the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus lectured about having the right motivations for praying, fasting, giving alms, and other religious activities. Am I writing this blog “to be seen of [men]”? If so, then I have my reward in stats: web traffic, shares, likes, and comments.

I don’t want that kind of reward.

By contrast, if we are sincerely motivated by a love for God and for our neighbors, then our acts of devotion are rewarded in Heaven. That’s where the real treasures are, and where they endure forever. And it’s not like the reward is deferred until later — knowing that you did the right thing for the right reason is richly satisfying on earth.

Jesus clearly spoke out against those who do good deeds with the primary motivation of earning public praise. He illustrated the higher way by using one of his characteristic exaggerations: “But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly” (Matt 6:3-4).

I decided some years ago that I would make it my policy to ignore the online reviews written about my clinic. My reasoning was threefold: 1) What patient feedback, good or bad, would cause me to change my approach to practicing medicine? I already strive to take a patient-centered approach, really listening to patients and using collaborative decision-making. I engage my clinic team in trying to maximize access to my clinic. I will keep doing these things regardless of what feedback we receive. 2) I don’t want to read abusive comments, which happen from time to time no matter how conscientious you are. 3) My last reason was perhaps the most important, and is most relevant to this discussion: I don’t want public opinion to determine my actions.

Over time I am gravitating towards a similar approach with my blog, because I have noticed the corrosive effects of focusing too much on traffic and social media presence. Now I am simply writing what I think is interesting and useful without worrying too much about how people will react or how many people will read it. Note that this is the opposite of what the experts say you should do if you want to maximize the impact of your blog. But I don’t really care about that because maximizing my impact isn’t really the goal.

Digital Priestcraft

Elder Deiter F. Uchtdorf referred to Potemkin villages in the April 2015 General Conference, applying the concept to many aspects of personal devotion and church service where there is a temptation to make yourself appear better than you really are. We may be just trying to look our best, but these efforts can easily cross over the line to hypocrisy. He warned that it is “especially dangerous when we direct our outward expressions of discipleship to impress others for personal gain or influence.”

This statement gives me pause, and I think it needs to be taken seriously. As far as I can tell, and as I explained above, I don’t think there is a profit motive for me to maintain this website. But what kind of influence am I seeking?

Do I want my name to be prominent as a Latter-day Saint writer or medical doctor? Do I want my readers to turn to me for guidance on spiritual matters?

Or do I really just want to lead people to believe and do what is right? Do I want to help explain and demonstrate how to apply gospel principles to everyday life, because these principles have helped me in mine?

Am I competing with the Church for the narrow bandwidth of people who are interested in reading religious viewpoints from Latter-day Saints? Or am I trying to increase that bandwidth and direct my readers towards the Church and towards the ultimate source of truth?

What Elder Uchtdorf cautions against is not just the sin of hypocrisy, but of priestcraft: “He commandeth that there shall be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29).

Back to Basics

This website was started over 5 years ago with another, earlier message of Elder Uchtdorf ringing in my ears: “With so many social media resources and a multitude of more or less useful gadgets at our disposal, sharing the good news of the gospel is easier and the effects more far-reaching than ever before. […] My dear young friends, perhaps the Lord’s encouragement to ‘open [your] mouths’ might today include ‘use your hands’ to blog and text message the gospel to all the world!”

Like I said above, making this website was not and is not an assignment or calling. I am not a Church employee or service missionary. I am just a Latter-day Saint who loves and believes his religion, trying to follow Elder Uchtdorf’s exhortation.

A Consultation

I have a tendency to overthink things like this, so I benefit greatly from obtaining the advice of others when I get my head stuck in such a bramble. While we were out on a date last week I asked my wife what she thought about the website.

“You should keep doing it,” she said, without pausing for a moment. “You are a good writer, and the things you write are useful.”

Well, okay then.

Final Thoughts

Really the most important reason to do something is that you feel that the Lord wants you to do it. But we don’t have to sit around waiting for him to command us:

“26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
“27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
“28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-28).

I am confident that my work here is a “good cause,” and that it has the potential to “bring to pass much righteousness,” even if only in my own life. So I will keep writing, and I will keep searching my soul to judge whether my motivations are right. “And inasmuch as [I] do good [I] shall in nowise lose [my] reward.”

But my reward, dear reader, does not come from you.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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