“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
― Emily St. John Mandel,
My friend Anna recently reviewed the novel Station Eleven and it piqued my interest. Granted, I’m a sucker for the post-apocalyptic anything, so I wasn’t surprised that I fell instantly in love and couldn’t put the book down for the next three days.
There’s something so raw and revealing about the genre. I love getting swept up in the intense mix of horror and romance, imagining of what will become of us. It’s all the more vivid when the story is set in places I have lived and loved. [Station Eleven begins in Toronto and winds down around the great lakes.] I try to imagine walking on the overgrown highways: tree branches tunneling overhead, wildflowers pressing right up through the cracks in the concrete. We haul our few possessions and our children in our bike trailer as we wander towards some vague sense of hope, looking for a place and people with whom we can begin again.
Just imagining this possible future puts an ache in my chest, thinking about the distance that separates us from our families. Would we ever see each other again? Then I feel a swell of hope when I consider what communities-becoming-family could accomplish together – all these years cultivating neighborhood gardens coming to fruition as people reclaim city parks and football fields and corporate lawns for crops that will sustain many families. I wonder, with a racing heart and lump in my throat, what kind of hate and fear might take over and turn neighbor against neighbor when we need each other most. I think grimly about this disorder and panic which is very real today all over the world, driving families to flee terrorists or prop governments my own country has set up; all these brave parents putting their lives in danger in the hope of offering their children the chance to live to adulthood. What a luxury to read a book about such horrors from the comfort of my very on-the-grid apartment, safe and sheltered and struggling to really picture the collapse of my community. [And I don’t know what it means to steward this gift, this wild privilege.]
Speaking of privilege: when I came across the paragraph above, the barest reminder that online is not everything or forever I was stopped still. Of course I know this is true. I can clearly remember the pre-computer area and the day I went with my family to buy our very first. I’ll never forget the dial up screeches and the black and green screens and the eventual advent of youtube and myspace and xanga and every social media outlet after. And yet, online social interactions have become such a integral part of my life that I feel a sense of loss when I consider a future without them. What will life be when I can’t facetime my mom 1200 miles away? How will we navigate home to Iowa for Christmas without our maps and messages conveying travel plans and apps to find cheap gas and fastest routes? (Assuming somehow travel by car is even possible in this future world.)
There’s a passage a few pages later where a scientist rigs up a bike to power a computer and they try to “find the internet”. That image makes all of this modern virtual life feel so small and useless. The whole of the internet, locked away on servers that can’t be accessed without electricity and satellites to transmit their content. There is no way I could resurrect such a thing, and yet it is so meaningful to me. It represents a home-space for my writing and for sharing life and wisdom and loss and dreams and passions with friends through emails and messages and social media, a collection ofwords and photos and videos to help us remember what it looked and felt like to be in these times and places. The more I think about this – the future scenario and also my current dependence on and participation in these technologies – it makes me wonder if I’m as present to my daily life as I am to these bits of me that are locked away in some warehouse of servers somewhere. And if they were to disappear, would I know myself and those around me without them? Would I have the skills for and commitment to reaching out and drawing in, deepening relationships without the medium of snl clips or funny memes or soliloqous blog posts?
And no, I’m not angling towards some kind of media fast, decrying the fleeting reality of online life and culture. It’s more that I’ve been swept up in a ‘what could be’ and now I’m simply struck by the vastness of what is and what I want it to be.
I want to make sure my online life and my tangible life are the same. That if I use the medium of blog or email or video to connect with a loved one – sharing highs and lows and encouragement alongside my own doubts and fears, then I am also doing that in real life. Weaving such honesty into the rhythm of my days, over meals and at the park or in my messy living room.
As an introvert, I feel like I was made for the age of the internet. Given a laptop and an empty evening I can explore ideas and cultures and questions by myself in the virtual company of others, leaning into their unique experiences and observations from the comfort of my couch. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by mothering I head to my moms of multiples facebook group (a sentence I always feel sheepish and adolescent saying aloud) where I can vent and laugh and share ideas or lessons learned and absorb all of that from everyone else.
I love those women, they are a safe and rich space for expressing our parenting triumphs and disasters. But I wonder if we would we be as candid and intentionally encouraging if we all lived around the corner from each other, barging into each other’s messy living rooms, filling sippy cups fished out of a sink of dirty dishes. I hope so. But the truth is that even though I want to embrace my neighbors and friends in my actual day to day life, I fear unannounced company and spend frantic hours before playdates restoring the house to some level of basic order. Spending time with another adult + multiple toddlers is wonderful and also spectacularly emotionally draining, the thought of trying to carry on a conversation while the dirty diapers and moldy pile of kitchen towels and a carpet of crud serves as ambiance is just too much for me. (Even though I live in that state 95% of the time.)
And so, contrary to the diatribes of every grouchy baby boomer who believes the internet to be nothing more than a new party-line: a space for gossip and humble-brags, I think I am often the truer version of myself online. Perhaps because I posture myself a bit, but largely because online life happens at a pace I can engage with intentionally and thoughtfully. I can read about a friends’ horrible day or new challenge with her preschooler or absorb an intense news story and then think about it for a while before I respond with just exactly what I want to say.
The cynic might say this is filtering, only showing the most optimal version of myself. And I agree. Except. Except it doesn’t have to be the best. Just the honest. In the honest space between messages and emails and blog posts I have the time to filter through to the heart of my feelings and fears and desires. In this pause I can find words for what would otherwise go unspoken in the rapid pace of most conversations, even those that aren’t interrupted by little people in a state of constant need.
Of course, online life can be as compulsive and overwhelming as any real-life interaction. Anywhere that tired and insecure humans reside, wisdom and thoughtfulness are lacking and the oversimplification and ridicule of complex ideas are in abundance. So what then? Does it make a difference to press into these friendships?
I believe it does. I believe in the power of vulnerability to transform these dark and fractured spaces. I read one of Brene Brown’s books last fall and it was such a relief to learn that these deep desires for connection and honesty I’ve always felt make me the odd one out are truly beautiful gifts I can offer others. Her work has also helped me understand why so many people, even those I care for deeply, are so resistant to (what I see as) thoughtful, honest interactions. But I see now that when we are plagued by our own insecurities and fears we can’t step beyond our walls and masks. We rely on sharp comments, empty platitudes, and small talk to defend, deflect, and distract others from our true selves. Brene writes:
“Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”
This life lived out of worthiness, whether online or in my kitchen, is transformational. For me and for you. What I believe about myself will shape who my children are, both in the ways that I treat them directly and in how I model self-love and grace. Who I am for them today and in 5 years and when they have their first big screw up and when they find someone to love – my place and the reach of my voice and love in all of it will depend on how I offer my truest self to them today. Even (especially?) as two year olds. In this stage they are little sponges, absorbing every turn of phrase, latching onto every habit and norm. This frightens me. But it also fills me with hope.
Hope for a generation that values and invests in the humanity of others. (Something disturbingly lacking in our culture today, if Brock Turner and Trump (and Ryan, and the rest of his republican cronies) are any indication.) Hope for a family culture that loves well, argues well, respects differences, honors vulnerability, leans into hard times, and trusts each other in our failings. Hope (and gratitude) for friends as family who desire these things too.
Of course, I’m not gunning for an apocalypse, but I’m captivated by these stories because they make the present so much more real. I read about the days leading up to the collapse of everything and wonder “Would they have lived differently if they had known?” These stories inspire me to lean in. To become more curious and to let that curiosity compel me to extend vulnerability into new spaces in my life. To live grounded in today but also leaning into the tomorrow that empowers and sustains, seeking out humanity wherever it can be found and elevating the expectations of honesty and kindness as we let down our guard and take the hands of those we find on the same journey.
Virtual or real, our longing to be known abides. May we lean into it with the quiet confidence and joy of the wholehearted.