Trolls Can Be Teachers, Too
July 25, 2022 § 25 Comments
By Candace Cahill
Past the title, the social media share icons, and the “listen to this article now” button. I slipped by the newsletter sign-up prompt, a “Read More Like This” section, advertisements for Covid Vaccinations, and a notice for a Van Gogh exhibit in Anchorage.
And there, just beyond the sponsored content and the “Popular in the Community” segment, I came to my destination: the conversation.
More commonly known as the comments.
I’d been warned. Chat rooms, writer’s circles, Facebook groups, and Twitter feeds offered clear instructions: if you have an essay published, do not read the comments. But this wasn’t just any essay; this was my first essay in a top-tier publication.
In the days following publication, I received numerous emails and direct messages. I responded personally to each one: I owed it to those who reached out from a place of vulnerability to honor their bravery and willingness to engage.
But the comments section of the online magazine was different.
The morning the essay came out, my partner suggested I not read the comments. He wanted to protect me, which I understand and appreciate. However, I’d already read a few: I couldn’t stop myself. But when I came across the first statement to call me out – to label me an abandoner – I broke out in a cold sweat and stopped. I’d written about a topic that elicits a range of emotions depending upon the reader’s frame of reference: adoption relinquishment.
I never intended to reply to the remarks or add “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” but I knew that reading the comments, no matter how “hard,” would be a unique opportunity to sit with my reaction without having to respond. Although I’ve spent most of my life avoiding confrontation and pushing away uncomfortable feelings, I’ve finally learned that what I resist persists, and what I feel I can heal. Emotions are temporary if I can create space for them. The capability – and capacity – to process what my reactions would be to any inappropriate or unpleasant comments is a valuable tool I was unwilling to forgo using.
My spouse continued to dissuade me as the days passed, so I agreed to wait until the sting of exposure eased.
And after a week, I scrolled down to the comments.
There were posts with the clear intent of inflicting pain, like being charged with using my dead son as a money-making tool. Initially, that felt like a punch in the gut, but after sitting with the discomfort, I could reflect on my true purpose in sharing this story. My goal is to encourage dialogue—I believe that is my role in this convoluted, painful life experience called relinquishment, and to do so without feeling the need to explain my circumstances. I want to acknowledge the myriad ways each person in the adoption constellation is hurt while recognizing that there also can be joy and beauty. One does not negate the other – both can, and are, true.
The built-in anonymity of the comments section frees commentators up to speak their minds without engaging further but this also provides space for reflection on my part, and the opportunity to respond, if desired, with intention.
I think some people labeled trolls are merely responding from their own place of pain and vulnerability. I remember a time I, too, reacted in knee-jerk ways to comments and suggestions, especially regarding my status as a birth mother.
By reading the comments, I allow myself the time I need to find the equilibrium to respond with kindness and compassion. That’s who I want to be – the person who listens and acknowledges other perspectives and feelings.
No matter what, I want to see that they are not trolls but complex human beings.
Candace Cahill’s memoir Goodbye Again, about losing her son twice, is scheduled for release in November ’22 from Legacy Book Press. You can find out more about her work at candacecahill.com or follow her on Twitter @candace_cahill_. The Newsweek article referenced in this essay can be found here.