A Lot of Words Without Pretty Pictures
2 April, 2013 § 2 Comments
I’ve been thinking recently about the sticky points in the ongoing creation of self-awareness. About how quickly the line is blurred between the narcissism of absorption and the liberating grace of acceptance.
On one hand, my Western culture tells me, “You’re unique. You’re strong. You can be whatever you want to be! The success of your future lies within you and all you have to do to be happy is to pursue your dream, no matter the cost.” And then on the other hand, I’m barraged with a cacophonous collage of of Instagrammed, Facebooked, Tweeted and blogged social media messages that all seem to point out how maybe, just maybe, someone else’s dream is, well, a little bit better, more exotic or more worthwhile than my own… and I scratch my head, asking, “Wait — what exactly am I about again?”
I read an article recently that posited a fascinating explanation for some of the wild success received by the UK-based TV show, Downton Abbey. Instead of the constantly changing camera angles, innovative time warpings and heavily action-oriented screen movements found in fast-paced shows such as Lost or CSI, suggested the article, Downton’s more traditionally linear, dialogue-centric focus on character development and emotional ambience provides a refreshing alternative to our social obsession with a relentless barrage of brief sensory soundbytes.
That may be true or maybe we’re just enamored with the perceived simplicity and romanticism of a past era comfortably removed enough from our present reality to prevent comparison – regardless. I live during a time where, unlike my grandfather or even my dad, my peers and I frequently take advantage of the luxury of filtering our work-related pursuits through an emphasis on vocational fulfillment and personal enjoyment rather than sheer survival or provision. Thanks to the Internet, third-party travel brokers such as Priceline.com and social media, the global community has never been so interconnected, information has never been so widely accessible and a pervasive sense of discontentment has never been so strongly voiced in answer to the question, “What am I doing with my life?”, a query closely intertwined with that of, “wait — who am I, exactly?”
Sometimes it seems like, despite all of the information available at our fingertips (or perhaps because of…), we’ve never had a less clear sense of what we want to do or who we want to be because – let’s face it – we can apparently create myself into just about anyone or anything… and that much sheer possibility is paralyzing.
Maybe it’s just me but sometimes the perceived demand to share who I am in a public space, whether that’s through face to face conversation, via email or in a blog post, in order to know and be known is so daunting that I find myself second-guessing my productivity, my worth and even my identity on a regular basis. If I don’t have a clever 2-sentence status, a quirky photo or an impressively colorful narrative attached to an event as small as cooking a delicious meal, as significant as moving across the country or as challenging as a faith crisis, what value do these things hold? Even the construction, credibility and success of authenticity in how we portray ourselves — to ourselves as much as to others — can quickly be called into question.
All it takes is several hours of blog browsing, YouTube viewing, Kinfolk magazine flipping, Instagram following or Facebook stalking and I can inevitably find people who are living, well, more than me: more sustainably with their wooly-coated llamas, recycled glass containers, free range chickens, birch bark-lined outdoor showers, solar-paneled yurts, diaper-less children and vegetable oil-fueled RVs. More creatively than me with their hand-stitched photo album pages, upcycled thrift store clothing finds transformed into curtains, quilts and wall hangings, antler shoe racks, floral pennants, Mason jar chandeliers, henna-colored tattoos and beautifully unkempt prayer gardens. More adventurously than me with their faces surrounded by hundreds of smiling Rwandan street kids, feet crossing wood & rope bridges over Peru’s jungle-lined rivers, reflections found mirrored in artistic Parisian street fronts and stories of life-changing friendships forged while backpacking across central Europe, hitchhiking through southeast Asia or walking on foot down the coast of west Africa. More radically than me with their refugee roommates, hand stitched linen trousers, communal bank savings, hours of contemplative prayer, courthouse protests, microenterprise initiatives, cross-cultural marriages and one room apartments in the city’s most racially segregated inner city neighborhoods.
You name it, I can tell you who is doing it more than me: more simply, lovingly, romantically, extravagantly, organically, maternally, nutritiously, athletically, independently, domestically, artistically, honestly – and on, and on, and on that list grows.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m definitely not disparaging any of you who fall into one or more (or all) of the above categories; just take a look at the list of names to the right of this screen and you’ll understand how honored I am to learn from, and be enlivened by, and pass on wisdom from your example. I love being made privy to how others are choosing to arrange their lives and I find life-giving inspiration in the endless realm of possibilities that each of my friends, acquaintances and one-time discoveries represent. I love the freedom of finding and reveling in beauty, whether or not I have any involvement in the creation thereof, and of celebrating the fact that there are a lot of people in this world who are Infinitely Cooler than I currently am or will ever be. I even love the connections that are made in this space that I simultaneously disparage and rely upon – and yes, big brother, if you’re reading this, of course the irony of me even posting some of these thoughts here, in this fashion, impressed itself upon me with the first few words I started typing. But.
I used to think “it” was pretty simple: figure out what you believe, and then, well, do it. Huh. That seems easy enough. I began to make bold claims (gosh, how I cringe and wish I could hit erase when I replay in my head some of the things that came out of my freshman self’s mouth…), and found comfort in formulas (“All you need to do to be a good Christian is to love the poor – you know, literally sell everything you have unless it fits into one backpack because even Shane Claiborne owns an extra set of hand-stitched trousers – and steer clear of white churches, the suburbs, SUVs and Republicans – and surround myself with people that make me really uncomfortable – and think about beauty, brokenness and intentionality – and I’m totally good to go), and thought I understood what I was all about in the world around me. But then somehow, as I moved forward with “pursuing my dream,” I started to become overwhelmed with all of the gray’s, the nuances, the spaces outside of the box and the more’s existing in beautiful profusion all around me. I realized that some apparent “truths” in society’s messages playing out around me were not only not lining up but were actually contradicting each other. I became aware that I myself actively contribute to some of the very injustices I so loudly deplored – that I wasn’t finding perfect happiness in pursuing my dream, a means to an end which I was told to believe acted as the greatest good – and that I can’t, in fact, be whomever or whatever I want to be.
Now? I wonder if maybe the truth lies somewhere in the middle of belief and action and unknowing and gray space and risk and failure and experimentation and silence and laughter and companionship and Spirit and possibility and limitation. I don’t perceive this as another touting of postmodern dualism or the multiplicity of all truths being Truth. Instead, I feel like I’m re-finding myself in a very familiar place, one eerily similar to where I was when I first began and yet – and yet. There is comfort in seeing, and acknowledging, and accepting (or beginning to) that there will always be More out there.
That happiness hinged on the fulfillment of a dream isn’t true happiness at all.
That I don’t always need to lapse into comparison to prove I’ve created or contributed to or participated in something of worth.
That I, on my own, am not enough – which is, in and of itself, strangely, inexplicably, more than enough.