My partner and I have been watching back episodes of Nova for several weeks now on PBS. Last evening, as we watched “What’s Living In You?” and “Can We Make Life?” I realized that part of why I like the show so much is that it’s filled with people from all over the world who know they don’t know … and they want to know.
This is a direct contrast to some interactions I had this week with people who know … everything. They know what happened; they know everyone’s motivations and secrets; they know exactly what everyone else should think, do and say. They have no interest in anyone else’s point of view or experience. They ask no questions seeking understanding or more information. They don’t have to. They already know, and any information that doesn’t fit their story is an attack, a lie, or a threat.
In these posts I’ve referenced Kathryn Schultz’s book, Being Wrong, a fascinating and funny look at the myriad ways in which we’re all wrong, every day, though some folks seem to feel their lives depend upon winning and being right. Even when forced to admit we’ve been wrong about something, we avoid thinking or talking about it, concentrating instead on all the ways we were, are, and will be right!
We live in a world in which knowing is highly valued. Uncertainty or even, God forbid, admitting or contemplating the vast cosmos of what we don’t know, is seen by some as weakness. I suspect, however, that what’s really going on is simply fear. It makes us uncomfortable to think about how much we don’t know. If we discover things, we might have to make different choices, and most of us don’t want to do that. It’s too much work.
Fear doesn’t empower me, and neither does being right or wrong, or knowing or not knowing, Power is in the inquiry, in the questions, in the curiosity about ourselves, each other and our world. Power is in our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn—also called resilience–as we navigate our lives. We’re all both right and wrong, ignorant and knowledgeable, whether we admit it or not, but not everyone can ask a good question. Not everyone is able to propose an hypothesis and see it through to becoming a theory.
One of my greatest frustrations in life is with people who don’t want to know. What is that? How can anyone choose to be willfully ignorant? I don’t mean that we all need to be interested in everything, as though life is one unending mechanistic reductionist set of classes. I mean that we all need to be interested … period. In ourselves and the quality of our lives and experience. In others and the qualities of their lives and experiences. In our home, Planet Earth, and how to take care of it. In problem-solving and innovation. In relationships and connection. In choices and consequences. In patterns, history and creativity.
The old map-makers drew maps of the discovered world, labeling the undiscovered areas “Terra incognita” or “Here be dragons.” What is the difference between someone who stays strictly within the confines of what the majority accepts as known and those of us who poke and pry; open forbidden doors, jars and boxes; look through microscopes and telescopes; and sail, ride, walk, stumble or crawl in search of dragons?
It boggles my mind to imagine that some people find safety in not knowing, in not understanding. How can we make effective choices if we’re missing information? How can we heal, or learn to do better? How can we break dysfunctional patterns in our behavior? How can we have healthy, authentic relationships with ourselves or anyone else?
The hardest part of this issue for me is how disconnected I feel from people who say they don’t want to know. I think of life as an adventure, and I want playmates. I want to share what I’ve learned and learn more. I want to live the questions. I want to explore, reframe, turn beliefs and ideas inside out and upside down. I want to master new tools and skills. I feel sad when people in my life can’t—or won’t—play with me. It’s hard to feel that my curiosity and questions are threatening to others. It silences me, and when I have to be silent, or less than I am, I’m bored.
The older I get, the less I realize I know. The older I get, the more willing I am to be wrong. The older I get, the more comfortable and confident I am with my ability to research, read, synthesize, understand, experiment, challenge and learn. I notice how angry that makes some people, and how intolerant some folks are of questions, especially uncomfortable questions.
Terra incognita. What a wonderful phrase. Anything could be there, anything at all. I’ll send you a postcard with a footprint of a dragon.
On the heels of last week’s post about unplugging, I had a conversation with friends about social media and what, exactly, it means to be social. What is a healthy balance of social and solitary? How do we determine if our social lives are appropriate?
Predictably, I want to start this exploration with
definitions, all provided by Oxford Online Dictionary:
Social: Relating to society or its organization; needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.
Society: The aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community; the situation of being in the company of other people.
The root of social and society is Latin, and it means
Companionship: A feeling of fellowship or friendship.
The other starting point for me as I consider this issue is what I learned from emotional intelligence coaching. We humans are motivated by three primary needs: Connection, authenticity and contribution.
We are not normally taught to identify our needs, beyond the
obvious survival needs of air, food, water and shelter. Most people believe
what we need is money. If we had enough money, everything would be happy ever
after. We believe that because our capitalist culture depends on our believing
it and continuing to fuel the economy with our spending.
Almost none of our true needs can be bought, however. Here’s a link to the best resource I’ve found online for thinking about needs.
Being social creatures, we also depend on those around us to demonstrate or tell us what we should need, what’s normal to need, or what’s appropriate to need. We’re neurobiologically wired to blend in with the herd, which probably helped us survive another day in the beginning. Individuals who could not or would not adhere to the collective lost the power and protection of the community. That’s why tribal shaming continues to be such a powerful and annihilating weapon.
I observe around me a vast continuum of social abilities and needs. Some people are quite extroverted and social. Others are positively hermits, and most of us fall somewhere in between. We also know that some people have differently wired brains than the majority, and struggle with social cues and skills. Still others of us are more sensitive than the norm (whatever that is) and are easily overstimulated and overwhelmed in social situations.
So what does it mean to be appropriately, healthily,
The answer depends on the individual asking the question. The happiest and healthiest balance between connection, authenticity and contribution for each individual is as unique as our fingerprint, and it changes. What we need at 20 may not be what we need at 40, or 60. Life changes, we change, and our needs change.
it’s fascinating to remember that Facebook was created by a brilliant young college man who struggled with social skills; specifically, finding sexual partners. In the beginning, Facebook was, in essence, a prehistoric dating app, and just about as sensitive and romantic! Of course, most college men aren’t looking for sensitivity or romance. They’re looking for sex.
In 15 years (isn’t that amazing?) our social intercourse has
been entirely transformed. Some say our amazing connectivity is an enormous
step forward. Others are beginning to ask important questions about the
effectiveness and/or appropriateness of social media. Is it a useful tool that
we can master and control, or is at weapon that steals our power? Is it a
positive advance that enlightens, informs and connects, demonstrably creating a
happier, healthier, more compassionate society, or is it manipulative, divisive,
addictive, and destructive?
It seems to me social media is exactly like a gun. It’s a neutral entity that can be used for either good or ill, depending on who is wielding it and why.
Social media is huge. I doubt anyone would disagree with that. However, people still form societies or communities around shared values, activities and belief systems in the real world. Social media, however, has changed face-to-face interaction as well; we’ve all observed people inhabiting the same room or even the same couch, each engrossed in the small screen and keypad in their hand or on their lap. Families do it. Married people do it. People do it on dates. Friends do it. Parents do it while ostensibly watching and supporting their children during swim lessons (a particular pet peeve of mine), or other activities. Is social media making these relationships healthier?
One of my problems with social media is the emphasis on external validation. This circles the conversation back around to authenticity and pseudo self. If we rely on external validation to tell us we’re okay (whatever that means to us), we’re not in our power. We’re focused on what others think of us rather than what we think of us. We’re wound up in external expectations of what our needs should be rather than what they actually are and figuring out how to meet them.
I wrote recently about normalizing obesity. Giving our power to social media is normal. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy or effective. Popularity does not mean valuable, desirable or useful.
Technology in general and social media in particular are deliberately
designed to be addictive, because our participation fuels marketing and
consumerism via the data we provide with everything we do on social media
platforms and the Internet. As so many people are now realizing, including me,
the constant compulsion to check our social media accounts, dating apps, e-mail
accounts, etc. means we are no longer making conscious choices. We’re driven by
Let’s go back to companionship, defined above as a feeling of fellowship or friendship. Consider Facebook. Remember, the creator of the platform struggled socially. He developed, as part of the platform, the ability to form a group of “friends.”
What did he mean? Was he describing a group of people who
shared and reciprocated feelings of companionship and fellowship? Or was he
describing a group of college men, not necessarily having ever met one another,
joining together to figure out how to get laid more effectively and
Facebook “friends” redefined friendship, and I’m not sure
anyone really noticed or questioned it.
A friend is a person whom one knows. What does it mean to know another person?
When we look someone up on Facebook and scroll through their posts, pictures and conversations, can we conclude that we “know” them? The obvious answer is no, of course not. The beauty of social media of all types is that we get to present to the world the person we wish to be, or at least the person we wish others to believe we are. Our pseudo self, in other words.
Authenticity and intimacy require honesty. Honesty requires risk and trust. Honesty and trust build healthy friendships. Healthy friendships demand we have the ability to befriend ourselves first. Our real selves, not our pseudo selves.
When was the last time you saw a photo of a party on Facebook in which everyone is posed and smiling and it looks like a great time, but the post says the party was a waste of time, somebody got drunk and threw up behind the couch, Bob and Sue had a screaming match, Debbie brought her loathsome homemade snack mix, and the dog peed on someone’s coat? Even the people who were there, know what happened and didn’t enjoy themselves are gratified to see the picture posted so everyone else can see what a great party they went to on Friday night.
After all, if they had spent a quiet evening at home in saggy sweat pants with a glass of wine and a book, everyone would think they were pathetic. Or lonely. Or boring. Or not social enough. What’s the point of a selfie depicting that? And if our activity (or lack thereof) is not worth a selfie, then it must not be worth anything at all, because no one can give us a heart or a thumbs up or a like. No one can see how okay, happy, healthy and popular we are.
If no one can see and validate us, we must not be real. If
we want or need something we can’t post about, take a picture of or share with
the world (something like privacy, for example!), we must be bad and wrong.
Shamefully broken. Facing a lonely, embittered, loveless and friendless future.
I’m not necessarily saying that either pseudo self or social media are inherently bad. I don’t think they are, unless we believe they represent authenticity.
Can we form healthy societies and relationships, including with ourselves, if we are unwilling or unable to be authentic? Can intimacy (I’m not talking about sex. Forget about sex.) exist without honesty?
I can’t see how. If you think the answer is yes, convince me!
Is interacting with others via social media actually social at all, or is it a toxic mimic for friendship and companionship? Again, I think this depends on the user and his or her intentions and needs. I know people who are active, to one degree or another, on social media and also have authentic, satisfying and supportive relationships and connections in the real world. I reiterate that I don’t think social media is some kind of a demon. We don’t have to give it our power. We don’t have to buy the infrastructure that supports it, and we don’t have to use the platforms on which it takes place. We don’t have to allow it to control us.
What we do need to do is to wrest ourselves from the hypnotic, mindless influence and compulsion it holds over us and be present with the way we use it. Are we numbing out, scrolling through Facebook, because we’re bored, hungry, tired, worried, having a pity party, depressed, lonely, or anxious? Are we taking selfies and posting them feverishly in order to hide behind our pseudo self? Are we needing the validation of others, and if so, why?
Here are some good questions we can ask ourselves as we
consider our social/emotional needs:
What energizes me?
What am I grateful for?
What’s not working for me, and why?
If we can’t answer these questions, we’ve lost track of our authentic selves. We can find ourselves again, but we need to be quiet and undistracted in order to do it. Calling ourselves home is not a selfie activity. That’s only the beginning, though. We need to answer these questions honestly, even if we never admit the answers to another living soul. Well, maybe a cat or a dog. Or a goldfish. We need to consent to know our own truth. Then, we have to build strength and trust in ourselves, in our needs and desires, in our scars and mistakes, in our resilience and wisdom. Only then can we dwell in our own power, which allows us the presence to notice when we’re stepping out of it.
This is a good time to review and explore our social needs and lives. Winter is coming. Whose fire do we want to sit around, and who do we want to invite to our hearths? Which of our social interactions leave us renewed, enlarged, comforted, and feeling loved and supported? Which leave us drained, diminished and doubting ourselves? Is our time with social media truly social time, or is it something else in disguise?
You’re the only one who knows the answers to these
I’m in the middle of a conversation with a friend, who is a writer, about “good” and “bad.” Good and bad what, you ask? Good and bad writing. Good and bad singing. Good and bad cooking.
The subject caught my attention because it evokes strong feelings, but I’ve been struggling for several days now to begin exploring it in writing with any kind of coherence. It seems ridiculously complicated, which is interesting and makes me even more determined to tackle it.
Sometimes the only thing I can do is start peeling the onion
and see what happens, so here goes.
“Good” and “bad” are subjective descriptors. According to
Oxford Online Dictionary, good is variously defined as “to be desired or
approved of,” and “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad is “of poor
quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant
It seems to me “good” and “bad” are like “success.” Either we retain our power and define them for ourselves, in spite of external pressure, expectations, criticism or judgment, or we allow others to tell us what “good” and “bad” are. In the case of creative expression, like writing, singing and cooking, it’s impossible to please all the people all the time. Sometimes it’s impossible to please anyone.
Is that a goal of an artist, to please others? Certainly, up
to a point. If I can’t interest an agent in my writing, it’s unlikely I’ll be
published. If my writing is not deemed marketable, no agent will take me on.
Is marketable the same as “good?” Is popular the same as “good?”
Emphatically, no. I’ve read bestsellers that I thought were trash. I’m absolutely certain great writing exists that will never be discovered by the world. Some of my favorite authors are heavily criticized as being poor writers.
It seems to me “good” and “bad” boil down to opinion or
preference. It might be an educated opinion, a well-respected opinion, or just
a I-know-nothing-about-art-but-I-know-what-I-like opinion, but an opinion, even
a majority opinion, is not a universal law.
Creative artists work from a mix of skills and inspiration. Some artists have the resources and access to become formally trained in the use of writing skills, musical skills or culinary skills, especially if they recognize their interest and/or aptitude for a particular artistic expression early in their lives.
Many others, including myself, may lack the resources, access or interest in such formal education and training, or may come to their art later in life. These artists are frequently autodidacts (self-taught people) who simply practice their art, whatever it is, because they must. They may or may not be as refined and elegant as those who obtain years of education and training, but they feel a passion or obsession for artistic expression that won’t be denied.
This mix of skill and inspiration is part of what makes the
whole issue of “good” and “bad” so complicated. Skill is the ability to do
something well. The definition implies that someone gets to decide what doing
well means. Who decides that? Am I in charge of that, as the reader,
concert-goer or diner, or are the writer, singer and chef the ones who define
their artistic expression as well done?
As we create art, what are we focused on? Do we want to earn a living? Are we focused on competition—do we want to be number one? Are we determined to be famous? Rich? Successful? Influential? Professional? Validated? Perhaps, on the other hand, we have no expectation of living by our art, but artistic expression is a private joy, a sacred healing, an exercise in authenticity that keeps us rooted and grounded. Art is our prayer, our act of gratitude and hope, an expression of love for those around us, our love letter to life.
As we consume art (read, listen, eat), what are we focused on? Perhaps we are collectors who are intent on investment and monetary value. Perhaps we love art because it inspires us; opens our hearts, minds and imaginations; or helps us manage our feelings. Maybe we’re avid readers, lovers of music, or lovers of fine cuisine. We may think of ourselves as “professional” or “successful” artists and thus feel qualified to judge and compare the work of others.
Calling a piece of writing, a song or a meal “good” or “bad”
strictly in terms of a demonstration of skill, however, leaves out the heart
and soul of creativity. Passion, inspiration and obsession cannot be taught. We
might enjoy and admire the skill underpinning a technically perfect book or
song or meal, but we’re not robots. Compelling art is not made from skill
Art, at its best, breaks us open. It haunts us. It companions us. It provokes, challenges, explores, dares, admits, stuns, shocks, amuses, comforts, excites and enlarges us. “Good” and “bad” are far too unsophisticated and limited to describe the central power of creative expression. The skill of the artist might add to that power, but skill without the animating spirit of passion is merely a well-learned series of maneuvers.
What is art worth? What is the value of joy, of authenticity, of artistic expression that reflects a piece of our soul? Art, for me, is about an expression of human experience, inherently valuable, even sacred, in its truth and vulnerability. I’m not qualified to judge another’s expression of experience. I wouldn’t presume to do so. I wouldn’t dare.
In the end, I can only circle back around to my own power, my own intentions and integrity, and my own limitations. I’m not a formally trained writer. As a creator, I’m compelled to create. I know it’s part of what I’m here to do. It’s humbling and gratifying when others find value in my work, but even when I have no indication of that, I value it.
Writing provides me with a vehicle for managing feelings, deep healing, a bridge for connection, and an irresistible and fascinating personal challenge. How can I increase my skill? What can I learn? How can I become a better writer with every blog post and every page of my manuscript? How can I increase my confidence, courage and authenticity through writing? What’s the best I can contribute?
I don’t frame my creative work as “good” or “bad.” I do think about how to make it better. To that end, I gladly solicit and receive feedback from others, and several people in my life have made huge contributions to my skill, but at the end of the day I consider my own opinion of its value first, and I take neither praise nor criticism personally.
To create art is to be fully present. A piece of art is an invitation to be intimate with the artist and ourselves, an invitation to increase our empathy, respect and compassion, to reach out and clasp the experience of another human being.
I’ve written before about the cultural pressure to make ourselves small in a myriad of ways. How many natural artists (every child) have been criticized, shamed, derided or otherwise amputated from their artistic expression, particularly if it’s in any way sensual? How many people walk around with soul hunger to create poetry; to dance, to make music and sing songs; to be artists, but deny themselves because they don’t think they’re good enough? How many people have made a creative offering or expression and been rejected, mocked or dismissed?
I believe if we want a better, healthier culture, those who want to play with words must play with words, those who want to play with paint must play with paint, every shower must have a singer, every piece of music a dancer, and every instrument an explorer.
Skill matters, depending on the artist’s intention and the audience’s perception. I suppose we can describe our perceptions of skills as “good” or “bad,” although I think we could come up with less subjective standards of measurement and recognize skill level as only a part of artistic expression.