I read a troubling article today in the New York Times. The topic was trolls. Perhaps you’ve met them—these disembodied words that scroll across the pages of blogs, facebook and twitter feeds, saying the most hurtful things imaginable, as they did to Robin Williams’ daughter recently in what we can only accurately call evil.
Trolls, the article’s writer suggests, have only become worse as the internet has become more ubiquitous in our lives. They incite flame wars, inhibit genuine dialogue, sow deeper divisions than may have already been there in a difficult political or ethical discussion. They have prompted some people to quit reading good blogs, and prompted others to harm themselves or others in response to the violence inflicted by the hateful words. And trolling occurs not just on the internet, but anywhere where words are used with the aim to wound and to obfuscate the truth. We have trolls, do we not, in our own heads some of the time?
Don’t feed the trolls! Perhaps you’ve seen this comment made on a website after a particularly nasty, and usually anonymous comment has been made. It’s usually good advice, as trolling seems to feed off of feedback, and ignoring bullies is generally good advice. But sometimes the damage is already done, and we’re left to nurse our wounds, with the hurtful words hard to erase.
I’ve thought for some time that the desert monastic tradition of Christian antiquity has a lot of wisdom for us who confront trolls today. They knew from experience that our minds are bombarded with various thoughts, which they called logismoi (Greek for words or thoughts), some of which mean us harm. For these thoughts, which the monk Evagrius categorized into eight deadly varieties, they did not hesitate to give the label demonic. No doubt they would consider the troll’s attacks a perfect example of a demonic logismoi.
In a remarkable recent book, Mountain of Silence, the sociologist Kyriacos Markides interviews the abbot Maximos of Panagia Monastery in Cyprus and asks him about these dangerous logismoi and how we can combat them. Not surprisingly, his first piece of advice is: Don’t feed them! Logismoi, like flies, need food and rest, so the monk is advised, when evil thoughts assault him, to not engage. “Am I smart enough?” queries the logismos favored at places like Cornell. And if we engage, we either exhaust ourselves in trying to satisfy the demonic fly’s inexhaustible appetite, or we allow the logismos to tell us who we are. Either way, the logismos has wormed its way in to our hearts and we are now on the fly, caught in the trap. So, Maximos advises, be like an empty room with no place for the logismos to alight or feed. Let it come, let it go, let it be.
Sometimes, however, the logismoi are more dangerous than a mere fly—they insinuate dangerous thoughts into our heads—ones that tempt us to actions we know to be wrong—sexual infidelities, lying, or self-lacerating thoughts of despair over ourselves or even over God. Here, when ignoring them does not avail, (and Maximos thinks we should practice regular silent prayer each day to give the practice of ‘indifference’ some time to do its work), talking back to the logismoi is preferred. Scriptural verses are often used, ones that remind us of our status as children of God, as forgiven and loved, that ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God’, not even these foreign thoughts.
And in an intriguing moment in what is by all accounts a very serious discussion, Maximos recommends what he calls “splitting logismoi.” Here, when all of our efforts to either ignore or to talk back to a particularly persistent thought have failed, we throw ourselves a bone, and go to the dogs! Here’s Maximos’ description:
“[Splitting logismoi] means grab onto another logismos and shift your focus on that. A hermit told me once that he chased a particularly bothersome logismos by counting the number of candles that were on the chandelier hanging from the middle of the church. “So,” Father Maximos went on, “in cases when the logismos refuses to retreat, the advice of the elders is to shift your focus to something else, even to something foolish or irrelevant. It is a ploy to trick the mind. Think of something ridiculous instead, for the sake of undermining the power and energy of the logismos that torments you. By using this method you can gradually reduce the energy and the force of the logismos. Next time it returns it will be weaker.”
And so humor becomes a crucial part of combatting the trolls, demons, and obsessions of our lives. Which is why dogs and cats, mooses, and pickles have much theology to teach us!
Resolve: Today, when my mind is bombarded with trollish thoughts, I will strive to recognize them as such and to let them be. When they are particularly persistent, I will return to the sacred word of God, Lord have mercy on me, and remind myself that even Jesus was tempted by logismoi. He is stronger than they are and is glorious in the deepest recesses of my heart. When all else fails, I will not forget to laugh at myself, to find joy in the spirit of music, play, and holy foolishness.