A few days ago I called a friend when I was hurting. I read her a poem woven of immense pain and vulnerability to which she lovingly implored, “share that vulnerability, it’s so beautiful and needed”. She meant to share it on social media, and said it with the utmost care and an unshakable belief in the value of what she was prodding me towards, that nakedness in the public eye of the internet, because for her that works. She shares, people respond with passionate enthusiasm. She revels in what others share. She has a following, feels seen, held, needed, heard, and useful for it, and it seems to be true. It is beautiful in its way to behold what it does for her and to hear and see what it does for others. I see it unfold in this strange phenomenon of social media and behold with curiosity and unapologetic skepticism how this thing has become so central to our collective life.
I am a very different kind of animal. I am deeply private and now deeply wary of social media because I have in the past tried to meet my persistent hungers through this medium with witheringly disappointing results. I don’t believe that the story of itself that it presents, that it brings the world together, is a complete story. There are both glaring omissions and a savage programming in this story. Sure, I see the way it does connect people, and it has done so for me more than once, and I value that. But I know for a fact that it is not an end unto itself where connection is concerned. And yet the obvious and inherent limits of this endeavor as a means to creating and maintaining community and communion seems to be being completely ignored as the converging phenomena of social media, digitized connectivity, and compulsive exposure continue to permeate and overtake our lives. I am well aware of the costs that are fundamental to its design, especially now that we have travelled this path together for over a decade and I remember life before social media clearly.
I remember how when we didn’t have it the work of making the effort to stay connected made a relationship unutterably precious. In that situation the value of relationship was measured in depth, not scope, because it took more deliberate effort to maintain relationships. We didn’t collect “friends” with a click, we made them with care, attention, and time, responding to the people that made the soul sing by sitting down at the loom of Life to weave together. Those relationships got fed and became sacred because of it. We had phones that couldn’t be carried around and we had to take the time to call if we wanted to see our friends, who were only people we actually knew. I wrote letters to people all the time, like my friend from France that I met at summer camp, then when we saw each other again we carried the most wonderful little bits of each other’s stories like precious jewels because we had shared them through the arc and sweep of our own handwriting and the receptivity of our own eye beholding that mark on a page that had travelled the world to get to our respective hands. I sent care packages to people who were far away. I had to ask them how they were directly if I wanted to know. I had to go visit. It was deliberate. There were no status updates that told me when their children came or their grandparents died or they lost their cat or fell in love, no posts that fattened me with the illusion that I actually knew what was happening in their lives and how they felt about it. Connection was either real and deliberate or not there. And I liked it that way. That I could relate to: that way of relating has a pace that is slow and deep and intentional, it’s a way of being in which you have to value something and attend to it with time and care for it to flourish. That, to me, is worthy of being called friendship, and is the place worthy of my vulnerability.
And I also remember real privacy, and the holiness of it. Being unavailable. I remember not having a phone to take a picture of something with, and how the absence of that interloper allowed for full immersion in the experience instead of this current compulsion to chronicle and story the experience out for the viewing audience while you are in the midst of it. It was ok that no one knew what I was doing or had an opinion about it. Actually, it was fucking awesome.
So this brings me to the elephant in the room: from whence comes the urge to broadcast a wound into the chaos and cacophony of social media where everyone else is simultaneously waving their flag in an attempt to be seen? Does a stream of “comments” from people we may or may not know really serve to hold the now rashly exposed hurt in the gentle, steady, and patient care that it needs to heal? Is that really comforting? Does it really help? Why reveal the most tender secrets of your soul to whatever random eye may stumble across them in any given moment, let alone the intelligence agencies for whom we are voluntarily chronicling in detail every facet and personal details of our lives? Why reveal what you eat, where you’re going, who you’re with, and what you’re doing to everyone all the time? What unexamined need are we trying to meet in this way? And is it being met or exacerbated?
This much I know, and this is not cynicism, this is the wisdom of having travelled from the stone ages of directly experienced life into the digital age of compulsively “shared” life: anyone can be the soul of compassion and presence from the safe distance of an electronic connection, but the true work and magic of connecting and caring for each other? That happens in person, is rare, has a miraculous power to heal and enliven, and is utterly sacred when it arises.
We are starving for the genuine succor of soul and shared experience, and eating the junk food of social media in its stead because that’s the dish we’ve been served by societies maniacal “progress” that serves the status quo. It pacifies the hunger, but does not nourish. We are, as Sharon Blackie says, “bleeding at the roots.” And we can change that.
This desperate fetish for vulnerability shows to me clearly how the very medium of social media is exacerbating the essence of the hunger. It has grown over time, this exposure compulsion, and has grown immeasurably in the last couple of years. But I don’t believe that we need to strip ourselves even further naked before the glaring light of modern societies voyeurism for any and all to see at any moment: it’s like throwing sugar at someone dying of dehydration. Sweet, isn’t it? Until your heart explodes.
We need WATER. The water of soul. The water of communion. The water of being woven into the great story of our collective lives together. And the water of once again knowing the value of holding things quietly and close to the heart, and letting them be magical, fleeting, undocumented, and unwitnessed, which is not the same as hiding any more than compulsive exposure is the same as being seen.
So here it is, finally; I do not believe in the value of exposure for its own sake, especially not where the equation of social media + deep wounds is concerned. I do not believe that a flood (or trickle, as the case may be) of responses from disembodied profiles truly and finally meets that terribly gnawing hunger for real connection to self, other, Earth, and Life that is the modern world’s most reliable consequence. I am not the kind of animal that can be fed in any meaningful way with all that, and I doubt that anyone else really is either.
I know that to hold tender things cloistered in the soul until they are ready to emerge of their own accord into a sacred circle of caring attention and loving company is a true and crucial part of the human experience. I know that I need the touch of your skin, the vibration of your voice, and the fathomless depths of your gaze for what is wounded in me to be tended, for what is agitated in me to rest, and for what is beautiful in me to flourish. I want to know you by knowing the scent of your body when you are hurting or joyful. By hearing your secrets when I have earned your trust that I will hold them well. I ache for that holy moment when something so deeply softens within you or me that those deeper elements of the self naturally emerge and reach out to each other like a shy and curious animal finally emerging from the shadows and nuzzling the hand that has been patiently outstretched in welcome for an age. I want to feel the soul that animates your body near to mine in a way that brings us both to life. And I will be so presumptuous as to say that I believe you want that too.
I shall continue to participate in the social media experiment, of course. There are ways that I find it useful, and ways that I enjoy and value it, for all my criticism of it. But I will not accept the propaganda that within the twists and turns of this motherboard or the relay of signals to space and back is an answer or a balm for the savage hunger emergent from the loss of tribe and belonging to Earth and Life. I will not eat the placebo and acquiesce to the crushing banality of the modern world and it’s sugary substitutes for soulfulness.
My stubborn and passionate allegiance is to soul, and to that I dedicate the whole of my being and effort. I would rather starve than suck the teat of virtual milk being touted as the answer to all ills and All There Is. And starve I may: it is already well underway. But perhaps now I will hear my own song ringing clear and go out again to the phoneless wonder of my own direct experience seeking, once more, the experience whose existence I have doubted in its absence but never abandoned in my heart. Perhaps this writing is the lurching of my own soul from exhaustion and complacency back into the quest to once again feast the sweetness of life and connection in a way that my soul can relax into.
I, the most dedicated and wary hermit and recluse, now take up my staff and join in with this quiet and growing pilgrimage of souls on the path of reweaving the tattered fabric of our sacred communal life. I will reach out to touch you with my heart and my hand instead of my comment and my like. I will clear a path through the desert so that we can meet beneath the light of the stars, breathing wild air and learning the night songs from every creature out there walking close to the ground or flying deep in the sky.
I will make the effort.
Will you make the effort too?