Too Human for Snap Judgments and Hot Takes

The Trouble with Finding Meaning in the Moment

Connor Gwin / 7.28.21

Do you remember those I Love The…. retrospective shows on VH1? It all started with I Love the 80s. The show featured B and C-List celebrities with tangential relation to the topics at hand and dissected each year of the 80s with segments like “Best Makeout Song of 1984” and “Mr. and Mrs. 1986”. (For the curious, these are “Almost Paradise” by Mike Reno [featuring Ann Wilson] and Mike Tyson/Oprah Winfrey, respectively.)

The show was a delightful and fairly harmless romp through the 80s that took the angle that most retrospectives of the 80s take which boils down to, “Look how goofy that was! I’m glad we know better now.” 

Shortly after that show ended, the creators moved onto the 90s. It was given the same treatment, only with younger commentators and an outsized emphasis on flannel and grunge. 

On their own, these shows are quaint and pleasant nostalgia, but the creators took things to the next level when they launched I Love the 00s a mere four years (!!!) after the decade was over. Suddenly, a commentary was being offered on “the past” that was barely past. A meaning was being laid on top of events that were, in many cases, not finished.  

Recently, the gap between an event and reflection on that event has gotten imperceptibly small. We are expected to have a fully formed opinion on the implications or impact of an event as soon as it happens. We are expected to find the significance in something the moment it happens. This shows up in surface-level ways through social media and everyday conversations. We are all poised with an undercooked hot take as soon as the important person puts their foot in their mouth; ready with our finger on the “post” button to establish the meaning or impact of whatever just happened.

Yesterday at lunch I found myself in a conversation about Simone Biles. I should make clear that prior to lunch yesterday I had no opinion about gymnastics and I really had no opinion about individual gymnasts, but when the television screen at the restaurant flashed the breaking news that Simon Biles had withdrawn from the finals of the Tokyo Olympics my mind raced. The conversation at the table immediately turned to the drama that was unfolding on the screen. Like amateur TV pundits, we were suddenly declaring our opinions about the news we literally just learned about.

This played out all across social media. As it became clear that Simone Biles was the subject du jour for our various opinions, hot takes, and snap judgements, the posts started flying. Even before Simone Biles made any sort of statement. Before anyone actually knew the true meaning of her actions, she was being praised or criticized depending on the point of view.

Again, it is worth stating that I have no real opinion about Simone Biles. I don’t know her personally. As far as I can tell, it is always better when someone makes the right choice for their own mental and physical wellbeing, but again — I don’t know her (and you probably don’t, either). Likewise, I would venture a guess that you have no real opinion about her or, at least, you didn’t until the past few weeks or months, but now you must.

Of course, this phenomena is not confined to big socio-political or cultural events. This snap judgment of significance also happens with individuals and it is happening within ourselves all the time. 

My brother briefly worked for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. In the early 2000s he was asked to write the obituary for Pope John Paul II. The tricky thing was that His Holiness was still alive. In the Pope’s final years, when his health deteriorated quickly, it made sense to be prepared for his sudden death. So my brother spent a few days researching and writing the obituary of the still living Pontiff. 

We are all caught in the same process. We are being forced to analyze and research obituaries for ourselves. As we consume more biographic films and books of notable figures in history, as we craft the narrative of our own life in real time via social media, we are caught trying to divine the bigger meaning of the once mundane parts of our lives. There was a time when no one bothered with the greater significance of their life because it was impossible to know. At best, you could hope to have children and continue your family story into the future. That was a very meaningful life: to continue the train of life into the future. Now, we are caught trying to find importance that was once reserved for royalty and prodigies. We all want impact. We all want to make sure the narrative arc of our lives makes sense. We end up agonizing over the shoes to buy or the toothbrush subscription to join because of their place in our larger narrative, the story we are writing of who we are. 

In the past year, people have been trying to find meaning in some major and unpredicted traumas. Sudden death, a pandemic, unemployment, divorce, political upheaval — the big events keep coming and our new instant meaning lenses can’t keep up. It has brought those perennial questions to the forefront: how do I make sense of this? Where does this fit in my narrative? 

The pesky truth is that we often can’t make sense of something — at least not in the immediate moments and minutes after it occurs. Like trying to analyze the impact of a decade in the first few years after, we rarely have enough information to find meaning. In prior generations, this might not have been taken as a shock. It was assumed. 

According to philosopher Charles Taylor, one of the biggest changes in our “secular age” is the shift from responsibility (to family, country, etc.) as the primary source of meaning in life to authenticity as the primary or even the sole source of significance. Are you living your authentic life? Will your obituary be a true reflection of your authentic self? These are the guiding questions in our time. 

Taylor argues, and lived experience bears out, that we are all swimming in these waters regardless of what we think about this shift. The world has changed. It happened subtly but it happened nonetheless, but this new need to find the deeper, authentic meaning in every moment is built on a faulty assumption: that we know what we want, who we are, or the ultimate meaning of our lives.

Rudolf Bultmann once said that,

[H]istorical phenomena are not what they are in pure individual isolation but only in their relation to the future for which they have importance. We may say: To each historical phenomenon belongs its future, a future in which alone it will appear as that which it really is — to speak precisely we must say: the future in which it evermore appears as that which it is. For ultimately it will show itself in its very essence only when history has reached its end.

The Apostle Paul similarly wrote, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

We don’t have the full picture. What we see now, we see only in part. Like those shows on VH1 that struggled to declare the impact of a recent decade or me discussing Simone Biles around that lunch table, we struggle to find meaning without all the facts and without the benefit of time. Instead we end up caught in a loop of self-justification; working to establish our significance as a way to fill that blank space next to the question that wakes us up in the middle of the night: “Am I enough?” We think if we find meaning – even just one moment of significance  — perhaps we can rest from our endless struggle for enoughness

The truth is that the source of meaning is God. More specifically, ultimate meaning comes through Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Despite the cultural pressure, we do not get to write our narrative. We are not the directors of our drama. We are not the writers of our own obituaries. Or as Paul writes, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” 

I can hear you asking, “Are we not supposed to try to make an impact or make a meaningful life?” It’s a good question. We are supposed to live with meaning, for sure, but we are not meant to spend our time obsessing over our significance or worse, crafting our own meaning. We are to do the hard work of discernment. Through reading the Bible and praying for God’s will to be made clear, we can get that dim, mirror glimpse of our meaning and then pursue it with all our might — trusting that the story of our life, the true impact of our days, will only be made clear on that day when we stand face to face with God. Between now and then we can find meaning in the simple truth that God’s will will be done even in spite of us and our snap judgments.

The Christian life is, after all, a walk of faith and not sight. The earliest followers of Jesus did not drop their nets and sit at his feet because it seemed “meaningful”. They certainly didn’t give up their lives because of the potential impact they could have. They followed Jesus because in his presence all things take on their true meaning. Indeed, Jesus is Meaning itself. When walking behind him on the dusty roads of Galilee, the disciples trusted there was meaning at the end of the journey and in the journey itself. In the same way, we take the next step in faith, surrendering our misinformed snap judgments and hot takes in favor of faith that the pain, failure, and insignificance of this moment will ultimately be redeemed by the significance and glory of God.