Tag Archives: contribution

Being Social For Social Beings

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?

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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.

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.

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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, normally social?

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.

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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 addiction.

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 efficiently?

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.

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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!

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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.

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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 questions.

Being social. My daily crime.

Good and Bad

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.

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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 or unwelcome.”

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?”

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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.

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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.

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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 alone.

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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.

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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.

Skill matters, but heart and soul matter more.

Making art. My daily crime.

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Apple Picking

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Autumn’s smoke and flame are with us again in central Maine. The land’s lush summer garments fray and fade, withering into dusty, brittle rags of leaf, flower and stem.

More than a dozen apple trees grow on our 26 acres, everything from small, hard green apples that are too sour for anything but cider to large, sweet, white-fleshed beauties, fragrant and delicious.

The first frost or two brings my favorite eating apples to the peak of perfection, and last weekend we knew it was time to harvest if we wanted any of the fruit. A friend, with three children in tow, participated in a nature walk at a nearby lake and came to sit in the sun with a picnic lunch and pick apples.

A crisp, sunny autumn day, three eager children and apple picking. I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend a gorgeous day.

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Apple picking, as anyone knows who’s done it, is about so much more than selecting the most perfectly waxed, polished, shaped and colored specimens from a grocery store pyramid and putting them in a cart.

Apple picking is about muddy shoes and knees and floppy hats. It’s the smell of tick and mosquito spray, rotting fruit and browning ferns; the texture of twig, bark, raspberry cane, moss, and the waist-high brittle, dry aster blossoms.

Apple picking is a lesson in sharing. Many creatures enjoy autumn’s bounty. Birds peck at the fruit. The deer take bites out of windfalls. Worms leave telltale dark tunnels. Wasps burrow head first into the flesh, ecstatic and writhing.

We don’t know how old any of our trees are, but their gnarled and disheveled condition suggests they’re quite old. Many have hollow trunks and a great deal of dead wood. The one we picked from is lying almost on its side, half uprooted, the base and uncovered root ball couched in moss. Crawling under the tree, carefully avoiding wasps, nettles, poison ivy and other hazards, one finds a damp, low-ceilinged shelter, roofed by the tree’s branches and floored in muddy ground. This particular tree grows over a spring; doubtless the reason why it fell in the first place. The deer have lain in this sheltered place. Their scat is everywhere, and I see their prints in the mud and the smooth hollows where they’ve lain together on the ground.

Apples thump softly around me as the children enthusiastically wield the apple picker, an old mop handle on which is attached a cloth bag suspended from toothy jaws that pull high apples off their branches. The ripe fruit falls easily with a nudge.

Apple picking is wonderful therapy for those of us recovering from perfectionism. Each piece of fruit is uniquely shaped and blotched with color, ranging from pale green to pink. Some are patched with brown, rough areas. Some are speckled with green spots. Windfalls bruise and split, an invitation to insect plunder. Heavy with juice, sitting comfortably in the palm of one’s hand, each is a lovely, individual thing rather than a clone lined up with other clones in neat rows for display.

As the children pass the apple picker around and bag the fruit, we adults talk casually of apple pie, applesauce, apple butter and drying. I remember the ache in my right hand from processing pounds of apples when I lived in Colorado and had children to feed. In the fall, my food dehydrator was on for days, four trays stacked with plums, apples and pears I picked from trees and used for homemade granola, trail mix, fruit leather and hot cereal.

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For days I have been watching golden leaves loosen and fall. Fall, for me, is always a meditation on loss and surrender. On my hands and knees under the tree, retrieving windfalls, the smell of damp earth, rotting fruit and drying leaves and bracken in my nostrils, the sound of the children murmuring and laughing and my friend and partner talking, I feel a pang of grief about what I have lost. My own small boys, firm-bodied, grubby, loving, hilarious, maddening and mischievous; the big-hearted, foolish yellow lab who helped me raise them, seem for a moment to be there, with me.

Then, just as quickly, they’re gone, vanished back into the past, and I feel slightly ashamed of my nostalgia and wipe away a tear before anyone sees. After all, I know that children grow up and faithful, foolish dogs can’t live forever. My grief is followed then by a pang of gratitude for what has been, what is this day, and possibilities and adventures in the future.

Fall is a time to think about harvest, both the harvest that keeps our hands, tools and dehydrators busy and the harvest of our hearts and minds. The leaves that made the summer green are falling now, in a final glorious display. The nights lengthen, temperatures and humidity drop, and soon we’ll bring the outdoor furniture cushions and houseplants in from the front porch for the winter.

I do not count the blessings of my personal harvest. I feel them. The wordless embrace of friends. The weight of a child in my lap. Laughter. The exchange of support, affection, information, and a really good book. Deep sleep. A healthy, active body. The muscular rhythm of walking, swimming, dancing and exercise. A small group of children learning to swim, blowing bubbles, coughing, grinning, giggling, splashing and spluttering, like so many wriggling otters, joyful and triumphant as they master floating, kicking, and rhythmic breathing. The opportunity to be of service, to make a contribution to others, to share resource.

I’m equally grateful for what has been lost, though my gratitude mingles with grief. Every autumn, the trees guide me in the work of letting go, of surrender, of faith and trust in the natural cycle of life and season. This year, I’ve released objects, clothing, financial commitments, noise, clutter, destructive patterns of behavior, and, painfully, some illusions.

Without all this stuff, the true shape of myself and my life begins to emerge, and I’m less apologetic and more confident. A deep well of creativity bubbles in the center of my experience, cool and clear and clean, moss and stone and the scent of water.

Picking apples. Thinking about harvest. My daily crime.

Well Water

While the horses strain at the harrow in a darkening field,
  I pour red wine over lentils in an iron kettle.
The full moon rising beyond the farm graveyard is as round as a well,
  and the cold autumn wind has the taste of distant water.

–Kate Barnes

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash