I have a friend who believes in a theory of alternative universes. At any given time, he says that he is existing in an untold number of parallel realities, where he lives different kinds of lives. Two years ago he experienced a horrific loss that he is bravely trying to move on from, so one can hardly fault him for hoping that in some other reality, his life goes on as before, unmarred by the unthinkable. I don’t know how he explains to himself the fact that he wakes up in this same universe, full of brokenness and tragedy, and never seems to escape to a more desirable reality. But apparently, he is not alone in his belief and the idea is given serious thought in a number of books and journals.
I have been thinking a great deal this week about the alternative universe that most Americans do live in these days-the land of the internet, and specifically, Facebook. I once again, stupid, stupid, stupid me, made an inflammatory comment in response to a meme one of my friends had posted that really made me mad. Oh when will I ever learn? Must I always rise to the bait? He is someone that I have had many respectful discussions with about things that we disagree on, often coming to the conclusion that we agree more than we thought. We are able to do this because we both have a high comfort level with conflict and arguing about ideas. We have a lot of affection for each other. As has often happened before, when we talked more I discovered that we really are in agreement to a large extent.
But in the meantime, a person who I barely know, one of HIS Facebook friends, weighed in, coming out both barrels blasting in defense of him and his position, really seriously insulting me in the process. Among other things I was referred to as patronizing and disingenuous, and intolerant of any position but my own. It was startling to say the least. I have seen this happen before and to my shame, people who were my FB friends have lit into one of my friends that they didn’t even know, when it was really none of their business. I know, I know, if we hadn’t been talking on Facebook, it would never have happened. So it is mostly my fault. Because I as much as the next person get drawn into the false and illusive world of Facebook, forget that it isn’t real, and find myself behaving in ways I NEVER would to someone’s face. And while I have only once gone as far as to butt into someone else’s argument (sorry Jan Taylor) I forget. I just forget that the rules are different here, in Facebook land.
In Facebook land, anything goes. The more offensive the meme, the more extreme and polarizing, the better. We are all so frustrated by the lack of ability to affect our world. We see events unrolling in front of us, engineered by the media and yes-disingeneous people, and we feel angry, manipulated, used, patronized, and helpless. So we find some clever caption on Facebook that epitomizes our darkest feelings and let it fly like a grenade, not thinking about how much collateral damage there will be, just feeling better because we finally gave vent to the terrible feelings we are having. Through our posts, we “say” things that we would never say in polite conversation. We would never say them in ANY kind of conversation.
These words, these pictures, these captions and clever sly sayings, they MOVE us. But we are moving in what is essentially a vacuum. And yet. These things sting others, in ways we never intend. And it creates hurt, and anger, and anxiety, and hopelessness. Hopelessness because this harm has been done and there is no universe in which to address it and lay it to rest. There have already been one hundred posts since it happened. The person who insulted me knows who I am, but we have scarcely exchanged ten words in our acquaintance. I can’t call him on the phone and he would never call me on the phone because he would never say the things he said about me to my person. So I am left with this bad feeling that lasts for a lot longer than it should, from someone who has no real relation to me and has no idea if what he said was true. I wonder how he feels. Does he feel better? Does he feel clever? Superior? Has he put me in my place? Will he be a more confident person because of what he did?
Believe me, I know I am not saying anything that isn’t perfectly obvious. But I need to say it. This election season has brought out the worst most hateful kinds of behavior I have ever experienced on Facebook. I have taken to defriending all but my nearest and dearest, and have no trouble whatsoever flushing the toilet on anyone who gets nasty. I am sure there are those who have done the same to me in my moments of snarkiness. I don’t blame them a bit. And it is just really kind of sad, that this vehicle which was meant to foster connectedness and good feeling has done the opposite, has become a way to diss people without any pain or discomfort.
I know so many young parents who continually feel inadequate because other young parents tend to only post the most adorable, the most winning, the most special moments of their life at home (and who can blame them) and it leaves them feeling like losers, even though they know they do the same thing!!! Life lived in community, in helping one another, in relating all the bad stuff too, doesn’t lead to this kind of dystopia. But doing that takes time and no one has any time do they? So much easier to pour a glass of wine and sit down with your computer to “catch up” on Facebook that to pick up the phone and call an honest to goodness human being who might really need to hear your voice. I am so guilty, people. Facebook was MADE for introverts. After all, Mark Zuckerberg…
I also cannot help but believe that this way of relating to others is bleeding over into our everyday lives, that people are becoming less kind, less civil, less considerate than they used to be. They have learned well how to let it fly, whatever angry thing they are feeling, and it just feels so good for a second there, doesn’t it? You might not even notice until you are lying in bed trying to fall asleep with a thousand pound weight of bad feeling sitting on your chest, that it really didn’t deliver what you hoped for.
So I guess what I would like to take away from these musings is that I need to stay in the universe I belong in even when I am on Facebook. And I need to spend less time basically spying on the lives of others and more time living life with them! I don’t really have any desire to imagine a world with infinite parallel universes-I like the one I am in, I love it, in fact. But I need to live every moment like that is the one I am in. There are ways to be honest and candid, to hold strong opinions and feel passionately about controversial issues, to have civil discourse and even to learn to listen well. (there is another grace you never have to extend on Facebook) There are ways to celebrate what is good and beautiful in your life with others who care and will rejoice with you. Facebook is really great for sharing cute pet videos, great musical performances, logistical information, okay, and pictures of your grandkids, but maybe not so much for talking about things that upset us so deeply. Maybe a real human face in front of us is the best format for that. Someone who will reflect back to you the best of yourself while challenging your blind spots. I think that used to be called conversation. Not a bad concept, all in all.