Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent, Authenticity & the Journey to Grace

It’s not a secret that I’ve struggled this Christmas season.  So much sorrow and so much antipathy has made me, on many levels, despondent.  I was wilting under it.  Much of the season requires performance.  Cheer and festivity, and these are usually fueled in equal parts by sugar cookies and hope.  And, let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  Nothing.  Not. A. Thing.  Because if we do not allow that cheer and the smells and sounds and familiarity of Christmas fill us, the hollow despair that threatens and circles around us will take over.  And then we lose hope.  That above all things, cannot happen.  We need to hope.  If we don’t, our children will not learn to. 
And children cannot be fed a constant diet of despair.  Within them is the key to many Christmases where peace can and should prevail.  They cannot begin to entertain that possibility without the goodness and hope that the season provides.  And we are its primary instruments. 

So I have picked myself up, and dusted the confectioner’s powder out of my hair, and smiled and hugged and chuckled and played endless rounds of Connect 4 on my kitchen floor.  And when evening comes, we light our Advent wreath and pray.  In those moments, in particular, I am reminded of so many ways in which Advent can be used to bring us closer to God, while so much of the busyness of the season brings us further from Him and each other.

A wonderful 24 chapter book about
Saint Nicholas.  We've enjoyed reading
this wonderful story as we anticipate
If I could use a metaphor, there is nothing better than a Christmas tree to highlight this.  Unadorned and fragrant it submits to our decoration and thanksgiving.  Not usually considered a reminder of Christ as much as a backdrop for Santa Claus (though in the story of Saint Nicholas we find a wonderful ambassador for Christ's message), ours is filled with ornaments that highlight and mark the life of our family.  At its base we usually place the heaviest of ornaments. Those branches are thick and can bear the weight of them.  As we move ever upward, the more fragile they may become.  Until finally we can place no more safely, and are left to put the final adornment on: a star perhaps, an angel, or, in our case, a dove.

A Christmas tree is a lovely and meaningful reminder of Advent.  It literally points us to our need to celebrate and welcome God, it reminds us at its pinnacle that all branches, from the sturdy at the base to the frail at its top, draw our eye upward to the star's light, the angel's promise, the dove's peace.  A tree is living representation of God's love, and its beauty fills us with a sense of His mercy.

I have written about a devotional reading before, and again I was inspired by another that the Daily Word offered in October:

“Actors spend hours rehearsing, learning lines, and working with technicians to get everything just right.  They also delve in to the accent, movements, and motivations of the character.  After a performance, actors shed these things and become themselves once again.

In some aspects of my life, I may perform as if I am an actor and hide behind a mask or image.  I value authenticity in relationships.  God leads me to look at areas where my lines and roles may not reflect my Highest Self.  I lovingly release any actions and words not in alignment with my true nature.  In Truth, I am a loving, kind, and generous expression of Christ.  As I practice authenticity with myself and others, I trust myself more and I am free.”

“I practice authenticity with myself and others.”  

I cannot tell you how many times a day I take on a role and perform.  Some days I do it better than others.  Some roles are better suited to me than others.  Some don’t require extensive preparation to undertake.  But any performance, and the more elaborate they may be, the more fraught this balance becomes, the tenuous hold I have on authenticity and who I am in Christ is lost.

What I am learning about Advent, about the time I can spend thinking and moving closer toward the celebration of the birth of Christ, is to welcome the authenticity of God’s love. Everything begins and ends with this for me.  And yet, in the rush of performance, in the haste of wanting, God’s tender grasp on my heart is loosened and within that space, all manner of doubt creeps in.
The boys on Gaudete Sunday

The more I allow performance to overtake me, I stumble further from authenticity and headlong into chaos.  I have had to learn to let go, of activities that drain me, of situations that are not good for me, of people who force me into performance for them.  It is the most difficult process.  And it does not feel good.  We are taught to be compliant.  To remain quiet in the face of what may make us uncomfortable, to extend our time even when we have less for those who need it the most.  We tell ourselves to be patient; we extol praise even if it isn’t really due.  We keep saying yes to what doesn’t matter and have no time to say yes to what does.  It seems to be an unwritten edict for most, and something we would never, ever enforce or suggest for our children:

My son Sam wasn’t invited to a birthday party.  A classmate let him know that he wasn’t, in very bald terms, “Hey, I was invited to B’s birthday party and you weren’t!”  Sam is ever shy and easily wounded.  But he’s learning to find his voice, and I was surprised to hear that he asked B. about this, saying only, “M said that I wasn’t invited to your party.  I just was curious about that but wanted you to know that it’s okay if I’m not.  I hope you have a good birthday.” 

He was told his invitation had been forgotten, but when he told me the story with some tears in the eyes that met mine in the rearview mirror at pick-up, we both knew the truth.  He wasn’t invited.  And he struggles still with why.  My instinct was anger and I wanted to call the mother who I know and ask her.  I also wanted to ask why this other child was so cruel in taunting Sam about it in the first place.  (I know that mother too.)  Sam went and unpacked and got a snack, and I thought about this, about what to say--how to preserve his dignity and moreover, to let him know that such preservation is absolutely essential:  

“Sam, here’s the thing.  I don’t think you are going to be invited to B’s birthday party.”  Nods.  “And it’s not okay that M told you that on the playground.  And it’s not okay that you were told your invitation was ‘forgotten,’ but I don’t think B knew what to say and probably didn’t want to hurt you.” Nods more slowly.  “But this doesn’t make you any less a great person and the loss is B’s and M’s for that matter.  You need to forget these people.  Be nice to them, but don’t play with them anymore.  You have so many new friends who want your time.  Be with them instead.”  “What if they ask me to play?”  “Just say thank you, but that you planned to play with someone else already.  No one who says that he’s a friend has the right to make you feel bad about yourself.  Not even for a minute.” 

Sam nods; he feels sad, and he needs to mourn this loss of possibility.  He is starting to see the performance and sifting through what is real and what is not.  It’s a hard lesson.  And it’s one that I need to tell myself too.  

I have to stop playing with people at recess who don’t make me feel very good, who lead me further away from who I want to be because of the energy it takes in watching who I am with them, I need to release the people who require performance from me.  And in the letting go, I can be closer to who I am in the sight of God.

With that, with the release of performance, with authenticity and saying no to what does not inform or nurture or feed us truthfully and honestly, time can be found.  God wants us so desperately.  And we have no time for Him, even in this season that marks the first of the Church year.  I have come to believe that the search for authenticity is directly tied to the search for God’s grace. 

I think about Mary, young, heavily pregnant, worried perhaps, uncomfortable, traveling so far to give birth in an unknown place, with nothing but faith to guide her.  Was her journey a performance?  Somehow, I don't think it was, at least in the sense of what we know now to be performance.  She knew with certainty that the end would bring a miracle.  And it’s appropriate then, that the manger is what would be used.  That the light of the world would be ushered into the most inhospitable of environments.  Dirty, fetid, rank with animal sweat and neglect.  Why wouldn’t the savior of all the world come to the lowliest place in it?  It would be the first mark of a remarkable ministry.  The first truth of an authentic life.  

As I have begun to say no, to close the door firmly on situations where I would have to vigorously perform, to stay with people who I can talk to without the unease in my spine, has freed up a seemingly impossible amount of time.  The energy I spent trying to understand the whys and wherefores of not being picked or being picked on.  Of being ignored or being disliked, the focus and attention, the sheer exhaustion of the constant expectation of others whether it was real or just my fretful perception, the collective energy spent in these matters that surrounded my performance preparation, was thoroughly and horribly excessive.  And debilitating.  The time spent fretting about those who don’t matter to us, far exceeds the time that needs to be spent being with those who do.

It is a yin/yang, a tightrope of our own making.  And the more frayed the end of those who drive us to distracted performance, the irritation directed toward those who do matter, whose end the rope is taut and strong, grows:

Don’t you understand I have to do this?

Why doesn’t she like me?

What did I say or do that was so offensive?

Why am I being treated this way?

It’s not real.  And if it is real, it shouldn’t be.  Anyone or anything that is causing this kind of frenzied performance is taking you directly away from who you are, your authentic self.  Anyone or anything that is causing you this kind of pain is taking you away from God’s grace.

Did I give enough/ do enough/ be enough?

  Yes. Yes. Yes.

God’s gift to the world of Jesus’ birth frees us from the locked prisons of performance and into a new life of truth and freedom.  But it requires we accept it.  And it requires that we give God’s grace the room in our lives it deserves to inform our steps. 

It’s simple really. 

Allow room and space for God 
in the lowliest places of your being

The dirty place, the one that is rank and damp.  Where you hold all the secrets that you do not want known.  How much you hate, how much you tire, how much you despise, and how much you wish away.  All of that locked up deep in the stable of your soulAllow Christ to be born there.  Allow the days building up to his birth to cleanse you of these things. 

The authentic comes when you do and what a glorious grace that is.  I wish this for you.  It will be the best way to welcome Christmas and begin anew.  Muck out the stable.  Allow for grace and discover the peace that comes with it.  

May your Advent season be filled with joy and expectation, your home with laughter and memories to be brought into fir scented focus, may it conclude with the coming of grace and your renewed sense of self that brings with it mercy and strength to be true to it in the New Year.  Peace be with you and thank you so much for allowing my thoughts to be a part of your life this year.  Merry Christmas!  

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Cast me gently, into morning, for the night has been unkind

When I first heard Sarah McLachlan’s Answer, I was headlong into the space of mourning my mother.  A year in which I had to learn again how to smile.  It was dark, and it was difficult.  With the birth of my eldest child, that above all, was necessary.  Life, then, brought an end to death.   But her matchless voice came thrumming into my head again on the evening of November 13th, as I watched Paris devoured.  And as the night wore on, and more was revealed, and the concern of the world grew, I saw profile pictures change.  Urgent prayers for peace.  

The day after. Davide Martello plays "Imagine"
outside the Bataclan concert hall

When the world hurts, as a compassionate people, we hurt along with it.  And it is reasonable, even just perhaps, that it is pointed out where else the world is hurting: Palestine, Israel, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq, Kenya because so much attention was given to France

The hypocrisy these people pointed out in the outpouring of love and goodwill for France following November 13th turned in me a point of anger. 

First, because all compassion is warranted, all compassion and call to prayer is necessary because it breeds in it a need to know what has happened and what can be done for healing.  Whether it is France that turns an eye toward the outer world or a neighbor who is ill.  Compassion breeds courage, courage breeds 
conviction, conviction breeds change

And secondly, the Western world may not know about these other countries because we have turned a blind eye toward it.  And because, for many of these places in the world, bombings, attacks, civil unrest, rebellion, revolution are all just as common as you or I going to the grocery or turning on the computer.  It is a part and parcel of their lives.  The suffering is outrageous.  The losses are extravagant.  The pain is palpable and the witness is…absent.

A few years back we had to control spending anywhere we could.  We got rid of our cable.  This, for me, was not a hardship because I loved to read much more than watch television, except for one area: the news.  When I was a young girl, we watched the news, my parents and I, while having dinner.  All I wanted to do was see Entertainment Tonight.  But my father was enraged at the mention of it, “How do you expect to know what is going on if you do not see the news or read the paper?”  

Because of where we lived, just outside of D.C., world news was local news.  I was required, weekly, to report to him about the top headlines, read the front page of the Washington Post and tell him what I saw happening.  It does not sound unreasonable, reading it back now; I’m sure.  But I hated every minute.  No one else I knew had such strict parameters for knowing any kind of event.  But like anything else, it became a part of my life.  A backdrop that made me pay attention.  

As I got older, this practice waxed and waned depending on where I was or what I was doing.  The papers changed as did the programs I saw, but it was always there.  When we let go of cable though, my news had to be sought after via Internet.  And it was much more difficult, I was used to reading the paper online but not culling together headlines from different avenues.  Because every single outlet had an agenda, it was my practice to see three different programs.  And I had to sift through a lot of headlines that had nothing to do with anything happening in these countries for which conflict was common.  Kardashians, what a celebrity thought of an issue—these were the most important points of information to go along with my coffee.  News was buried; it had to be found.  What local legislators were doing, what policy initiatives were at stake, what our own administration was considering, these were the grains of what I needed to know. 

Three Days in September
What I have found in my adult life, particularly as a parent, and someone for whom loved ones are literally scattered across the globe, these measures were necessary.  The people with whom I could discuss these issues with were growing smaller though—usually just my husband and family.  “Yes,” my husband said, “what’s happening in the camps in Afghanistan is disgusting, but what happened in Beslan was—”  “But, the abuse of the children by the Afghan leaders—” “No, you have no idea.  The Chechen Mujahideen strapped bombs on these people.  School children.  Mothers.  Teachers.  They gave them no water.  They did not allow them to use the bathroom.  It was…” he stopped.  “It was horror.  Of the worst kind.  330 dead, mostly children.”  I said nothing.  “You don’t want to know.  It was…you don’t want to know,” he repeated softly. Vague memories of the atrocity, I only remember little of Beslan…did you know?

And that is my point, to combat our fear, which is at the heart of every conflict; knowledge is the only answer.  Hope outweighs fear and knowledge gives it its voice.  I have stopped watching morning network news because it has, by and large, become entertainment news.  They give the audience what we want. 

During WWII, families together poured over maps and eagerly awaited the next word via newsreels and the paper. It was not entertainment; it was necessary knowledge.  I have heard too many times that news is not watched because “it is too depressing.”  And often, it is, but it is necessary.  We must bear witness to the world’s pain.  We must
understand the origin of the fear that made this conflict rise.  A hashtag will not solve this crisis.  Understanding will.

I have come to a conclusion about the news I was seeing as two types of garbage: compound and compost.  The first was fodder, celebrity unhappiness and ridiculous lifestyle reporting that emitted nothing but methane gas that was toxic to both the environment and my mind.  The latter was difficult to hear, absolutely, but when contained, broke down into fertile black loam onto which ideas and surety could be cultivated. 
© photo: David Beaulieu

It is up to us which kind we will continue to consume: 
the toxicity that will kill us 
the building blocks to an informed populace.

The only way out of the fear which cripples us into complacency is knowledge.  And it is more accessible than ever before.  Watch the news.  Demand the facts.  Know your representatives.  Consider the issues that face your community, the nation and the world before the election.  Don’t allow a header on a post on social media sway you.  Dig deeper.  Commit to participation.  Just like any other change, begin slowly.  Watch one world news program a day for 30 minutes.  Pick a country in conflict; see what you can learn.  

Many colleges have courses in the histories of these countries.  Many syllabi are available online and professors are available via email.  Look at a University site, see what course may be offered, email the professor with questions of what reading you can do to understand the history of the conflict.  Arm yourself with knowledge to put an end to fear.  And finally, talk about it.  Discuss it.  Consider another opinion; allow it to sharpen your own determination.  In the rhythm of my days, a group of friends come together and we do just that.  We discuss and we highlight what is happening both locally and globally.  Every two weeks since the beginning of September, my friends and I come together and try to wrestle with whatever we know to be true. 

As we come together with an understanding of what is at stake, we can come up with solutions that make sense.  We can combat fear with informed hope.  The names that have become synonymous with rage and annihilation cannot perform their acts on an informed populace.  They are counting on our fear and hopelessness.  This small number, this brotherhood of madness, can enact their plans of intimidation and destruction because of our collective antipathy and stasis.  They are willing to go to any lengths to see their message of intimidation come to life, pay any price, succeed no matter what the cost. 

We can bear witness, and we can be armed with love and compassion and information and respectful dialogue.  We can stop the rise of violence with these powerful tools that we have.  And we have to.  If there is any doubt, stop what you are doing and look at your children.  They cannot inherit this.

Keisha Thomas protects Klansman

Syrian Refugee Crisis

Sister Angelique Namaika 

It seems like an insurmountable task, doesn’t it?  When you look at the state of the world, the pain, the horror, the complicated histories, the voices that say no understanding has reached them so they needed to find better and larger ways of being heard.  Yet, this is a template that has been used over and over and over again.  It is not new, opening the Bible will offer example upon example of it.  Being given no place or voice, unrest arises, bands of connection over it form, negotiations are not offered, so control is taken by force.  Any protest is violently silenced.  Until there is one clear winner.  And that is where it all falls away.  Because there is a loud swelling of rebellion, that disturbs the surface and will not let a city built on fear, intimidation, violence and terror stand.  We are its turbulence.  Our courage, our compassion, our hope and our love.  All in direct and exceeding proportion to the forces that seek to subdue them.  We can change this pattern, through knowledge, through informed action.

I once heard a reporter say, “If you want to know what someone believes in, ask him what he’s willing to die for.”  We already know God’s answer.  What’s ours?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It's Me & It's You: Facebook, Frailty, and Friendship

I don’t want to be on Facebook.  It makes me feel badly.  I like seeing my friends’ pictures of their families.  I want to know what to celebrate in their lives. 
But it’s confusing, because it is making me sad.  And I am struggling with that sadness.  On the one hand I think it is the typical adolescent feelings of “not being liked” that rides strongly across my view, then again it is the disconnection (strangely enough) that I feel towards people I valued and believed to value me.  For me an accidental introvert and inveterate worrier friendships have not come easily.  After my mother passed away, so much of how I related to the world necessarily changed.

Then came social media, a chance to stay connected when my family moved 1300 miles away.  I came to it with reluctance and with some unease, most of it, as it turns out, completely unfounded.  I was able to see friends I'd left behind and then...the gift of having friends from college (and before and after) who I did not know how very much I missed came back into my grateful heart.  But there’s an underbeat to Facebook’s increasingly real presence.  It is disconcerting and almost prophetic in tone. 

Who we are online isn’t what we are in life.  And that slippage isn’t one that is easily or readily understood.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
Social media and mobile devices have given us immediacy of contact.  Constant connection.  Instant answers.  No time differential.  No waiting.  There is also some subterfuge, because what is on screen isn’t always what it appears.  Just as we know magazine photographs are carefully scrutinized and polished to high shine and illusory ideals, the screenshots that are presented, even of family and friends, may have been composed just as carefully.  The editing software that was only available to the media few is now (largely) available to the masses.  Because of that, perhaps, what I saw on screen was discomfiting at times.  The screen is something that offers the gaze relief—but it’s reflective.  What was once a way to stay connected to people that you value, it has become distressingly competitive and eerily isolating.  When you look at your screen through the lens of social mediawho do you see reflected back at you?

I’ve been trying to be judicious on my use of this media.  It’s so difficult because of the blog.  I have a mighty small platform.  My likes are low in comparison to similar blog pages—and I know because Facebook marketing makes it a point to let me know on a weekly basis just how poorly I’m doing in popularity and what I should do to boost my circulation.  Were it not for a certain amount of responsibility I feel towards this corner of the Internet, I think I would leave Facebook.  And that’s alarming to me.  Why would something so seemingly innocuous as this site offer me any stress at the thought of leaving it

The strange truth for me is that although Facebook is supposed to keep me in touch with friends who are so far away I cannot “see” their snapshots in any other way, it’s the people that share my sandbox here that seem to engage with me (or without me) on social media.  I may be heightened to awareness about this because my Facebook friends are small in number.  Less than 200 and growing smaller too (I’ll get to that bit in a minute) and there’s a reason for it.  On social media, with two exceptions, I will not accept a friend request from someone I do not know or have spoken with. 

Via Instagram: Me, Joe, his horrible cough, and Ulysses Moore
And this is, in part, the reason:  one day last week my son was sick, and it allowed me the opportunity to be with him and take care of him in a way that is slipping from me as the years pass by.  We found a book that I started to read aloud to him until he could fall asleep.   We took pictures and even a specific page that Joe wanted noted.  It was a way to mark a moment of our day that could be shared with family and friends who'd want to know and might be far away.  But as I loaded it up on Instagram (a preferred site for me because of its structure and visual appeal), I deleted it from Facebook.  It's a moment I'm not sure I wanted all the people who were "friends" to see.  Nor did I want to be reminded how many or few would care enough to like it or comment on it.  That made me pause.

It is disconcerting because of the way the platform works to see my own children’s pictures go unliked by friends while mutual friends pictures or updates are liked in minutes.  “Here is my son who just competed in his first tournament!” gets little attention while “Oh my word, I have a hangnail and it bothers me,” gets 50 likes in the same amount of time.  Huh.  Puzzlement.  Cue Idina Menzel’s directive to Let it go.” 

Here’s the buggery: I have tried.  Those people for whom I felt a sadness of disengagement I’ve reached out to.  It has not worked.  In fact, it seems to have
photo credit:
done the opposite.  It appears, despite my effort at social media goodwill, that I have been determinedly forgotten. 
I do not think or wish to think that it's with malice or forethought that this occurs, I think it's just life.  The passage of time, very much like my son Sam and the bookmarks that missed him, fashions the people you support to be the people you see and help carry your burdens in real time.  The ones you play with at recess, I think, are the ones you actively follow and try to hold close.  There are exceptions to this of course, and right now I can list at least two names for which this does not hold true in my life, but otherwise it seems to be proving the rule.  Many shared “friends” do not extend invitations to you in real life and real time.  And this is hurtful because of the “mean girl” behavior it mimics

I have written before how to avoid those very same reminders through social media.  Manipulating Facebook's settings so you can "unfollow" or "restrict" what you have to see of someone or, conversely, what they see of you.  And this does serve a purpose when someone you do like uses their page to endlessly promote links or political views that you do not share, rather than snapshots of their life you'd like to partake in.  The uncomfortable bit comes in when I wonder, then, how much of this person I do want to see or far more hair raising still—see me?  Then I had an especially revelatory incident when Joe competed in his first golf tournament.  I made a picture for it, and posted the following on the blog FB page:

This is my son Joe.  He is in his first golf tournament—ever.  Told it would be a learning tournament, we thought it would be good practice for him.  It wasn’t a learning tournament.  It was an actual tournament.  Joe’s not used to keeping score or choosing which clubs for a hole.  He was placed in a group with kids who had private coaches and monogrammed bags.  To say he was intimidated is putting it mildly.  As I saw him, getting yelled at by volunteer “coaches” and monitors, my blood pressure rose.  I could hear it thick and heavy in my ears.  Every hackle was raised and all I wanted to do was scream at every person there while I saw this child wipe away a frustrated tear quickly and quietly. 

“Let’s pull him out!” I said to my husband.
 John’s face was set, his teeth clenched, “He’s being humiliated out there, and I can’t say anything or they’ll throw me off the course.” 
“Please.  Let’s just leave.”  I already had Sam’s clubs packed and was ready to head to the car.  He nodded.

John texted me minutes later:  “Joe’s staying in it.  He wants to play.”

I couldn’t believe it.  I was shocked and bitter and angry.  Every humiliation I had at his age came back to haunt me, every protective instinct I had was there.  I didn’t want this for him.  Parents were quietly mocking him.  All I wanted was to get him somewhere safe and far from the maddening crowd.

“He’s staying in it.  He’s tough.”

No,” I thought, “what he is, is called brave.”  I don’t think I had the wherewithal to keep going despite being told and shown that others were better than me; I may have been forced to finish, but I would never have tried again. 

Joe has found a reserve of courage at 10.  And since he’s found it now, I’m willing to bet that it runs deep.  It’s inspiring.  And it’s made me take a step or two that I’ve found hard to move beyond and around because I’ve allowed my fear to shake away any resolve I had.  But Joe’s taught me today at a nine-hole tournament that it’s never too late or too soon to display your strength.  I hope you find courage in reading this today, and do something you need to do.  It’s never too late (or too soon) to start living the life you were meant to have.  Happy Halloween!

I posted it and someone even commented on it, and then I deleted it.  Because my youngest son, who has taken it upon himself to edit me on this platform as well as Instagram, said to me, “Did you get Joe’s permission Mommy?”  “No.”  “Well, I don’t think you should put anything about us to people out there unless you know we’re okay with it.”  Big swallow pause.  “You’re right.  I’ll take it down.”

The kids and my Dad including a wary Jake.
My kids are my champions; they encourage me to write.  They think I tell good stories.  They feel I matter and what I say matters.  But they are individuals and, so far, they can distinguish between the screen and life.  They want to be active participants in their lives and they are not characters in a book.  They are not filler spaces.  It made me look hard and fast at my intentions for social media.  And then the signs kept coming:  An innocuous status update about watching Spy, and John asking to please take it down.  “Why?”  “Well, no one needs to know what we’re doing every weekend.  I don’t want to know what they’re doing, why do you need to tell them what we are.  Just take it down.  Stick to your intentions.”

My intentions.  They were good.  No political posts.  I had enough the last election of sifting through my friends’ stances to make me actually feel despondent.  And because my views differed, I felt alienated from them not because of anything I
posted, but because of what I liked.  I couldn’t sit across from them and argue it all out.  Everything they thought I felt was transposed onto me by a “like” reported by Facebook’s algorithm.  It was sobering.  And the alienation continued until the election was immediate history and their guy won.  I said nothing either way.  I liked those pages to support those candidates true, just like I like pages or authors because I’d like to see what they may be up to, but I did not wish to discuss it unless I could actually discuss it.  So you could see my point of view and learn from it, just as I could learn from yours.  Soundbites get no one anywhere. 

I recently had an illuminating conversation with the person in charge of the social media posts for the National Museum of American History.  I was upset at a post that apparently supported anti-vaccination.  A hot button topic always, but particularly because of the measles outbreak in California last year, it highlighted the Museum’s collection on early anti-vaccination propaganda.  The
National Museum of American History
synopsis at the top of the photo was inconclusive but seemed to weigh heavily pro-anti vaccination and the folks in that camp were running with it, the shares and comments were extensive in that vein.  I posted, “poorly done NMAH.”  I was referred to by name in order to comment further.  (Erin, the moderator for these posts, offered to take down that comment later, because I told her I felt I was called out publicly for disagreeing.)  Anyway, I clicked through to the article in question, which I felt was also inconclusive and vague.   When we spoke through messages about it, Erin offered that it was one in a series, and because of the way Facebook worked only this one showed prominently in the newsfeed.  I said I understood, but because of that, then a reference had to be made to the fact it was one in a series.  She countered saying, rightly, that it would take “linguistic gymnastics” to make the article in question pro anti-vaccination, although the NMAH’s role is to remain impartial.  I agreed, but I reiterated again that no one would read the article. 
We have become an audience for whom the first two or three lines of any post is the actual story.  It isn’t enough.  You are not a soundbite, and neither am I. 
Your likes on your social media page may give me a glimpse of you, but it isn’t all you.  It isn’t all me either, but you’d know that, wouldn’t you?  If you were my friend, I mean.

 I want to offer snapshots, real snapshots of my life, which for me are my kids growing and achieving and my Dad’s status as he declines for friends and family here and around the world.  There is no other way to

do it so immediately.  Within minutes family can see my Dad and find out what my kids are up to without having to email and ask or wait for an update on a Christmas card.  Causes I want to promote—to end child trafficking, to highlight social justice I give voice to if the “click through” and subsequent research moves me to do so. 

But Jake’s words ran in my head.  Who was reading my updates and looking at my pictures?  Were they people with whom I would share these ideas and offer a glimpse of my still life if we met for coffee?  It made me realize that the answer was increasingly no.  And I had to figure out what to do about it. 

And moreover, there was a security issue as well.  I
had avoided social media for years because I did not want to be found.  Privacy meant just that.  But the blog makes that almost impossible.  I do not like to write personal updates about my family.  For me it has always been about writing ideas out.  But I did take coding measures to make sure pictures couldn’t be lifted and used.  That is impossible on Facebook.  Anyone can right-click and save a photo.   So who was out there as a “friend” who could save a photo of my children or work or father and use it?  Could I be certain that everyone on my list would not do such a thing?  The personal politics of Facebook were becoming increasingly complicated.

The platform works against me—you find out what your friend has “liked” on Facebook.  For me the liking of conservative politicians backlashed into an actual retaliation on Facebook.  I never promoted a
image © Babble  Quitting Facebook?
link, mind you, just liked pages.  But my comments have been deleted on friends’ posts and my blog page has been unliked (something I know because first, I have few in number in either camp, and second because of Facebook's marketing group).  “Unfriend them,” John says, “who needs it?”  But it seems so…so rude to do.  Yet the time spent thinking about the whys and wherefores of a particular friend’s movements on social media towards approving of my online life was unproductive and depressing.  No one, not a single person, wants to feel that they aren’t liked.

When I’ve asked friends why they don’t post more, the answer is universal, “No one likes it, and it
makes me feel bad.”  Social media, the very vehicles clouded in misty cobwebs of code ridden strands that are supposed to be cords of connection, end up slipping through our grasp because of human reactions that can be cold and unkind: irritation, jealousy, pride....  It isn't much, after all, to "like" a friend's moments of triumph and intimacy.  To acknowledge their need to be seen which folds them back into a warm feeling of being understood and necessaryI have tried to choose then not to read presumed subtext into those moments of celebration where my name is not included or my wishes unacknowledged.  I just continue to offer praise with a touch of something inanimate that transforms magically to something powerful that may mean something to its recipient.

After all, if feelings are hurt when moments represented in "posts" are ignored, then the opposite must be true too.  It doesn't seem to cost much to offer someone else, a priceless friend no less, some joy. 
To fight feelings of isolation and despair that can lead to all manners of ill and sad happenings, human connection remains the only real response.  Who would have ever believed that a keystroke could cause such security through time and distance?  It's utterly fantastic, the possibility in it.  And yet, there is a growing unease about it all.  I don’t think the subtext is imagined after all.  I think it is not subliminal, in fact, I think that the stories woven on Facebook, collectively, is a substantial metanarrative on us as the body human.  And because of its relative anonymity—the ways in which a screen allows the space to say things we may never say in real time to a real person—it has become unwieldy, seductive and far too powerful.  

 This all harkens back then to my allowing people to float in Facebook ether—why was I friends with them?  If I didn’t want to hear their stories—because they showcased a life of revelry that I could not be a part of or, worse still, if I simply wasn’t interested in them, why was I friends with them?  Did I really want them to see my Dad (and my own pain) at his disintegration?   I should only have people on that list that I could post anything without worry.  If that is the case, then, it's a smaller list.   

A "how-to" save on FB without it
it being shared on the feed
(click on the snap to enlarge and read)

I have been unfriended twice now, the first time I didn't even really notice it.  (That's saying something.)  The second time I realized it one day, that I had been unfriended by a woman who was the mother of a friend of my son.  It felt uncomfortable for the briefest of moments, then I felt relieved.  Because she was unwilling to be 'inauthentic' perhaps, to use a buzzword, to the reality of her life.  We were not friends.  And there was no use pretending otherwise. Perhaps she did not want reminders of my life or impressions in her newsfeed.  I respect that. 

So in too many fretful moments of self-reflection, I have found that I am a very difficult person to argue with, I decided that the time I spent thinking about a few people on my friends' list was inordinate.  I needed to unfriend them.  For one of these, it was not a hardship, I barely knew her.  But the other, that was tough.  Because she was someone who is living
where I am now, travels in the same real-time circles; it was even more difficult to do it.  But the truth is, we are not friends.  I no longer wished to share any part of my life with her, and that meant that I needed to let her go.  None of these decisions are done for me without prayer, and in this case, God was clearly telling me to move forward.  Instances arose where I could have spent some kind of time with her that were naturally blocked.  Even though it was my choice, I still felt sad—it was a loss.  An ending, I guess.  I felt, feel now, sad.  My friends matter so much to me, they make up the pieces of the jigsaw picture of my life.  It hurts to lose them, even if it is the best thing.  Yet, conversely, it was a small stand too, a declaration of independence.  A spin back to the real world and what I want this facet of my life to mean.

I got a piece back though—one that may be critical to how the finished product ends.  At my dentist’s chair I made a new friend, someone so lovely and kind that I felt a more profound relief in welcoming her to my circle then I did in letting go moments before.  Angela fit.  And made my picture more clear.  This is how it works.  How I knew I did the right thing.  

I don’t want to quit Facebook.  Because of it, I reconnected with some of the oldest friends I’ve ever had.  I’ve been able to communicate with my dear friend George, who lives so far away and get the
immediacy of her life.  My family can check and see what my children are doing and what stage my father is in.  A friend I barely knew in my old town has given me the gift of getting to know her better, and because of who Jessica is, I can tell you that is something amazing.  I get to see what my college roommate is up to and comment about how beautiful her daughters are.  I’ve found support and encouragement, humor and constancy.  None of this would be possible without Facebook.  Our circles seem to wane and widen dependent upon circumstance and time but the ability we have to tighten them has never been so immediate and powerful.  It can be a tool to help live my life intentionally.

In order for it to work well though, so that the people I call friend can call me one as well, I will be looking at this list with a careful eye.  And I will be unfriending more rather than less.  Maybe it’ll be an exclusive club, but I can think of no other way to make sure those circles of family, of friends, of fellowship keep moving and evolving, not just revolving around with me listless on one tilting side.  To make sure people I have loved are valued is, after all, an extremely worthwhile goal.

It may not work all the time, but I am going to try to make sure that I see what is going on both virtually and in real-time for those who I am privileged to call friend.  That has to matter, I am more convinced with what I see and read and am so despondent about, that connection is what is necessary.  To truly connect and feel less alone, means a collective ability to see and begin to make change for the better for so many in our communities.  The circles can widen so much that everyone will have a place on the inside.  

The expansion can occur because you have less to keep up with, and possibly more willingness to check in and do so now that the list is whittled down to what (and who) you find important.  And the love you give on the expansion will come back to strengthen your steps as you move through your life.

photo ©

It's the best kind of use of social media I can think of, to not reduce it and abandon it because of polemics, but to embrace it through a counterintuitive medium in the need for connection.  Real connection, real investment in each other's lives.  As we turn to the holidays that bring us back to the values and people we hold dear, I hope you'll join me.  It's going to be wonderful to see what the love in your circle brings back home to you, its center.