Thumbs vs. Voices

In a box somewhere in the basement, I have a button with a bold proclamation on it.

“I’m Thumb-body Specia!”

Everyone in my class got one, though maybe I’m the only one to have kept his all these years.

I don’t know if my self esteem got the intended boost or not. But I did get a shiny button.

And then I think of a friend from my college years. Ken still had a smelly gym locker full of contempt for the state of public education. “Teach students to have self esteem? Come on! Teach them how to read. And then they’ll know how to do something. Isn’t that where self esteem comes from?”

Ken loathed every cute button or bumper sticker which promised an easy solution. His liberal arts training told him we bear a responsibility to make lasting impressions. We must work to change the world, not just our feelings about it. While our friendship transpired during that fuzzy era of pre-Facebook history, I imagine he would have rather hunted after a threatening dinosaur than have posted an innocuous status update.

Unlike Ken, many of us feel safer chasing and browsing what others have to say about us or the world than we do hunting something wild, untamed, or original.

Tonight I came across an article written by Mark D. Pagel, an accomplished evolutionary biologist, on an online salon site at While people generally like to think of themselves as innovators, Pagel believes something else is at work.

“What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.”

Perhaps Pagel has a point here, and we’re more comfortable at sharing our photo albums, playlists and resumés than we are at creating them. And others, like Ken, just long to leave their fingerprint on a solution that works.

We’re desperate to know our place in the herd. And most of us like to think we’re leading one.

Pagel’s final paragraph takes a reflective look at all these copied and downloaded contributions and then offers us an awkward smile.

“Now, the evolutionary argument is that our populations have always supported a small number of truly innovative people, and they’re somehow different from the rest of us. But it might even be the case that that small number of innovators just got lucky. And this is something that I think very few people will accept. They’ll receive it with incredulity. But I like to think of it as what I call social learning and, maybe, the possibility that we are infinitely stupid.”

I don’t know if I’m ready to smile at that yet. But I kind of already know it, too: I don’t really have anything original to offer this world.

T.S. Eliot has a poem, though, which says, “All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie”.

As a writer, I believe in the power of a voice. As a Christ follower, I believe in the urgency of a voice. But I also know if I don’t have a heart of love, then I’m just another gong in the show.

We have enough re-runs right now. What the world needs is more anointed voices.

But we won’t receive the anointing from gazing at our own thumbprints, as valuable as they may be. We’ll receive the gift only as we submit to being touched by nail-scarred hands. Once we’ve learned to read the Grace in them, we discover the inadequacy of our own solutions and the truth that we can’t really do anything after all — besides know that we are loved.

But it’s a love that gives us the courage, and then the voice, to fight with more than just our thumbs.

9 thoughts on “Thumbs vs. Voices

  1. I missed this one, Matthew, and I am glad to have found it. Anointed words, indeed. I’m grateful for the community of online believers I have found–these unique voices challenge me to live out my faith in ways my traditions never could have imagined. Love is a big, big part of that.
    And thank you for your kind words over at my place recently. I often feel God struggling inside me these ways. Sometimes, it’s all that keeps me moving and growing.

  2. It’s interesting, in many ways even those anointed voices are going to be saying the same thing, or the same sort of thing (at least a common thread running through), but saying them in the unique manner he’s put in them. And I wonder how that runs between “copying” and innovation. I struggle with that tension sometimes…

    And a “smelly gym locker full of contempt”? My favorite words all day…

    • There is a murkiness in the tension. But my hunch is that trying to find the distinction serves as a distraction. I know it can for me. Maybe we just need to trust our water is flowing, living, and clear.

      Unlike that gym locker.

  3. “Know that we are loved.” That really is the breakthrough isn’t it? Only then can we share the love. “Thou are help, O mighty Love. They who know Thee best rejoice in Thee most.”

    “What is saving but taking us out of the dark into the light? There is no salvation but to know God and grow like Him.” -from What’s Mine’s Mine by George MacDonald

    Knowing God loves us is the breakthrough. Thanks be to God and His servants for proclaiming and showing us this!

    • It’s always good to see some of MacDonald’s wisdom show up here. I love that reminder: Salvation involves knowing and growing. They go hand in hand. God refuses to rest in our heads as mere knowledge, doesn’t He? He wants to grow through us, too.

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