It’s been longer than usual since I’ve posted an essay here. I had house guests for a week, with the attendant increase in work, fun, and slight mayhem, so perhaps I can be forgiven for not posting sooner. It’s not as though I’m writing on a deadline, but I do feel a sense of internally-generated urgency. In fact, I wrote on Facebook recently, Do I perhaps believe that if I’m not writing, I cease to exist?
There have been many questions running through my head about writing, reality, and connection recently, and apparently I’m not the only one pondering such matters. How do I reconcile the potent alchemy of recent group conversations on Facebook with the deep yearning for in-person interaction with those same people? Is there something more “real” or “genuine” about face-to-face interaction? Is there a different sort of reality that can only be captured through a sort of distillation, a filtering of words and images? Is there any way to avoid such filtering, and would that be desirable? Why does Facebook often make me feel like I’m missing out on so many conversations, events, details of others’ lives, even as it brings me so many more of those words and details? Why does it seem to highlight the emotional spaces that feel incomplete?
I know I’ve reflected on my ambivalence about social media before, and it seems to come up again and again. Why is it insisting to be brought to the fore? I’m sensing that it’s a lens, a way of seeing, that is a profound reflection of where we stand, culturally, in relation to one another, a map of thoughts and hearts. It’s no ordinary map, though. It might claim to be the most well-indexed map, the most digitized, the most at the mercy of marketers and other forces that would seek to control human behavior, and yet everywhere I look, I see elaborate, hand-drawn, antique maps that cannot be molded to the expectations of modern culture, maps of unknown lands within the Self marked Terra Incognita, maps of wild oceans with sea dragons rearing their heads, maps of fantastical belief and rigorously-measured knowledge, maps of frustration, artistry, dialogue, and love.
It’s not difficult for me to conclude, at this point, that online conversations, ideas, and emotional expressions are no less real or genuine than those that occur face-to-face. True, there are philosophies that say that thoughts and feelings aren’t “real”, online or not, and that there is no such thing as a separate Self, that our belief in those things leads to suffering. At least in my frame of reference, given the degree of engagement I’ve experienced online, or through letter-writing back in the day, I know that those methods of communication are valid and genuine.
I have leaned heavily on writing, throughout my life, to express what I couldn’t speak aloud, to find a way to make myself heard, to provide a release valve for searing pain and bubbling joy alike. My route to writing was actively encouraged by my 7th-grade English teacher and subsequent mentor and friend for many years, Lisa Colt, who had her students keep a journal that was handed in periodically, in which she would add comments/drawings and return to us. My 12-year-old self was overjoyed at the back-and-forth between me and Lisa, not solely in person, but through the pages of the journal; she recognized me, she celebrated me, and she engaged me in creative dialogue. I began to write poetry, which I continued to do throughout high school. I was encouraged to submit poems to contests and publications. I felt sure that writing was part of what I was Meant to Do. When I found myself plunged into bleak, vicious depression and started seeing a therapist at age 17, I would often write long letters to him which I would bring in and he would read at the beginning of our sessions, as a way of articulating unspeakable words, maintaining my sense of connection to him between sessions, and also a way to filter and edit the stories and sentiments that felt especially unbearable. I wonder if he still has my letters; there must have been hundreds of them.
Being in dialogue with another carries the rewards and risks of being Seen. It is a magnificent experience to engage, open one’s heart, take in fully the warmth and brilliance of others, allow one’s own wit and light and eccentricity to be embraced. To watch that glow ricocheting against the mirrors we hold up for each other, to bask in the dynamic playfulness of language– it’s meaning-making; it allows us to express our human need for relationship, the way a chicken needs to scratch, or a pig needs to wallow. The risks of being Seen, however, can feel insurmountable, I well know. Is this part of what makes online communication so addictive? The capacity to hide behind the words and images, the ability to filter, the cushioning against too much vulnerability?
A video posted to Facebook by my friend Sam springs to mind. He sat outside in the snow, naked (but not revealing any most sensitive bits), playing his guitar and singing a song he wrote. I wonder if others found the video compelling for the same reasons I did. It was funny, for starters–nekkid dude plays guitar outside in snow–and surely that would be enough reason to click “like” and “share” and leave teasing, appreciative comments, which plenty of people did. But I’m thinking beyond funny, too. I’m thinking, this is someone who wants to be Seen. This is someone who wants to be literally and metaphorically naked, singing his song, telling his story, experiencing the reality of cold skin and snow falling and strummed notes and vibrating vocal cords, and also the reality of recording it, the reality of posting it, the reality of many and varied responses from human beings. Is he brave, crazy, or whatnot? By whose standards? What I see, and appreciate, is his willingness to be his own, creative, human-animal self, and his ability to inspire reciprocations of vulnerability and creativity.
Of course, not all of us are going to want to be literally naked in front of a camera. That’s okay, in my book. Literal or metaphorical nakedness is not always a route to fulfilling engagement. The thought of filming myself naked, even without fully revealing sensitive bits, fills me with dread. Is this another way that writing can feel like a refuge? Not only can I downplay, through writing, those inescapable physical qualities of gender, age, race, and ability, but especially shape. My colonized self-image, taught from day one to be ever-vigilant about perceptions of beauty and acceptability, is probably permanently warped. It bleeds into all other self-assessments about whether I’m “good enough,” and it makes me angry.
It makes me angry because I, too, want to be Seen for my unvarnished self. I think we all want to be Seen and to See others, to be known, to be heard, to be filled with curiosity and delight in knowing and hearing others. We live in a culture that appears determined to turn us into grotesque mockeries of humanity, passive, obedient consumers, soulless cogs in the economic machine, foot soldiers in a war against Life itself. How radical it is, then, how Life-affirming, to engage in conversation, to express our creativity and humor and questions and conflicts, no matter the medium, no matter the physical spaces or distances, no matter the layers of colonization we still carry. We are human animals, born to relate, born to weave meaning together.