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Monday, October 23, 2017

Facebook Angst

Mark Fiore / KQED Source

There are ways to be happy over the internet that don't reflect face-to-face reality, and there are ways to be hurt on the internet that don't reflect face-to-face reality.

A way to be happy: the IMDB discussion boards. I used to spend hours on them around Christmas and New Year's, cold, short, dark days when the semester had just ended and luckier people were partying with family and friends. I'd go see two, three movies at once, come home, and huddle in front of the computer examining every little detail of dialogue or costume with passionate film fans who could argue for hours, or even years, over a simple question like "Was Addison DeWitt gay?" a question I asked on the All About Eve discussion board that started a thread that continued for ten years I think.

A way to be sad.

It was recently my birthday which is always a tough day for me for too many reasons to list here. One of the reasons is that I am alone. Talking about being alone is risky. If you say, "I am alone," you are exposing vulnerability. Some people will exploit your vulnerability to get one up on you. Exploiting other people's vulnerabilities is a low-cost and sneaky way to increase one's own social status. I wanted to talk about being alone, though. I like to talk about things that matter to me, and being alone matters to me.

A few Facebook friends read my post and said things that enhanced my life.

One was a compliment from a person I hold on a pedestal. He complimented my writing. His compliment thrilled and delighted me. I will save his compliment forever.

I did not know that this man reads my posts. If I had kept the post private, he never would have seen it, and I never would have had the chance to read his compliment.

A Facebook friend who is a poet said, "The world often doesn't treat honesty and unconventionality well." She acknowledged my experience and that's a blessed thing to do. She didn't say, "Well, you're alone because you smell bad / are obnoxious / are a loser. Why don't you just take a shower / be nicer / succeed at something?" No. She is confident enough that she doesn't need to exploit someone else's misfortune to make herself bigger, and so she perceptively pointed out some features of my character that I know contribute to my being alone.

A friend who is a therapist posted about her own pain. She wrote,

"If I could change the world, I would … Sometimes people really suck … One 'dear friend' told me (in public) that she would only meet me in public because (after 3 years of friendship) she had decided I was 'dangerous' and I didn't compliment her enough...oh, and I neglected to bring juice to her when she had a cold ... Another couldn't quit laughing when I asked for help … Having a New Year's Eve birthday isn't so fun when your father is an alcoholic and your siblings scatter to the wind … Maybe one day we will learn what this mess on earth is all about. Until then, we have only one another and our prayers."

I loved this post. The poster shared with me her own pain. She shared that sometimes friendships can suck. She shared that life is confusing. Her words contributed to the conversation. Lately there have been reports in the media of "deaths of despair" – the increase in deaths by drugs, alcohol, and suicide – among white Americans age fifty and up. Loneliness is contributing to these deaths. I'm not an important person but multiply my experience by a few million and suddenly you have a social phenomenon worth talking about. Talking about honestly, courageously, and with civility.

A woman I don't know at all and have only recently encountered on Facebook posted something really beautiful.

"Mother Teresa spoke of the poverty of loneliness. Some people go days without speaking to another person. That's why I've become someone who talks to everyone – in the elevator, the grocery store, walking down the street. I used to be shy, and then I realized someone had to speak first – to say something to that other person who also was made in the image and likeness of God. The Midwest makes it not so strange."

I loved this post, too. The poster didn't deny my experience. She shared that my experience is widespread, and saints work to overcome their natural shyness to try to address it, at least by chatting with strangers.

Again, I'm just one person, but I'm not the only isolated person out there. That goodhearted people like this woman are addressing a wider phenomenon is worth talking about.

There were other posts that saddened and enraged me. I was so hurt and so angry that I realized that I needed to take a break from Facebook, and strategize. How do I handle posts that hurt and anger me? The people who said these things were convinced that they were "trying to be nice."

How do you tell someone who probably, at least superficially, believes that he is being nice, that he is not being nice at all? Sure, you could slam him, but slamming other people doesn't feel good to me. It kind of cancels out the emphasis on Christian love. Handling someone who is being a jerk but who thinks that she is being nice is a surgical procedure.

Several people said, "You are not alone." These are people who have never met me. Could not pick me out of a police lineup. Know virtually nothing about me. Trying to be nice? They failed.

It's not "nice" to deny one of the basic facts of a fellow human being's existence, especially when that person has had the courage, and taken the risk, to communicate one of those basic truths that people generally don't communicate with their fellow humans because of the risk of someone else exploiting another person's vulnerability to wound that person.

A couple of people used my confession of vulnerability to advertise their religious beliefs to me. I think anyone who has known me for more than forty-five seconds knows that I am Roman Catholic. One woman posted a link to the site of a religion we Catholics regard as a blasphemous, anti-Christian heresy. This woman often posts about being in pain. I've tried to respond to her kindly. I've never said to her, "Well, if you just returned to the Holy Roman Catholic Church, that would solve at least some of your problems." Because I don't want to exploit someone else's frank confession of pain to proselytize. I think such unsolicited advice is always a bad idea.

Another woman posted more unsolicited advice. "Make your birthday public on Facebook and then relative strangers will dutifully type the words 'Happy Birthday' on your Facebook page because Facebook told them to."

Unsolicited advice is a notoriously bad idea. It's more about the speaker than the recipient.

The last thing I want is for relative strangers dutifully to type the words "Happy Birthday" on my Facebook page because Facebook told them to. That's actually my idea of a Philip K. Dick dystopia.

A couple of my Facebook friends have died. On their birthdays, people robotically type the words "Happy Birthday." Sometimes they will add, "How are you? Haven't heard from you in a while." Even though the person is dead, and has been dead for some time. These people typing the words "Happy Birthday" because Facebook told them to don't even take the time to check the person's page to see if the person is still alive.

As a teacher, I've had not a few people approach me to tell me things that were really hard for me to hear. Students have shared with me painful truths about their lives, from incest to poverty to criminal activity.

I never "tried to be nice" to those students. I never denied their truth.

I never tried to paste over their truth – their *personhood* – with unsolicited advice.

I *heard* them. I registered, I internalized, what they were saying. I asked them how they had approached their issues so far. I asked them how I could participate in their desired journey from this moment in time to the hoped for future moment in time.

I did not erect walls of denial or contempt or "fixing" between me and the other.

I encountered human beings.

It's not nice.

It's worth the risk.

And when people can't do that for you? When people tell you you are lying about your own life, that the truths of your own life aren't true, when they "fix" you with unsolicited advice? You are alone. As you can only be on the internet, when surrounded by people trying to be nice.

So, strategy.

Joe Carey, a former Facebook friend, left Facebook altogether. He posted an anti-Facebook manifesto. It's here:

I don't think I'll leave forever, but I did take a week off. I thought about strategy. I'll stick to my previous policies. Don't insult me on my Facebook page. If you insult a friend and the friend objects, I'll delete your post. If you insult me, I'll delete your post. No unsolicited advice, and no calling someone a liar without cause. These are also cause for post deletion.

There's another possible tactic. Shutting down. Permitting callous bullies to dictate human interaction. Being as insensitive and dishonest as they.

Being less human. Being, as Joe Carey put it, a plastic person. Joe wrote,

"We’ve lost the ability to be open about how we’re feeling, what we’re going through. We’ve lost the ability to sympathize with others who are hurting, to hurt like they hurt, to feel lonely when they’re feeling lonely. I’ve been unfriended on Facebook by several former friends, simply for sharing my hurt, my loneliness, my frustration, my trials. I was even unfriended by a long-time friend who is a staff pastor of my former church … When I post something positive on Facebook, I have dozens of responses, likes, and notes of praise and thanks. But when I post a difficulty I’m going through, the responses are far less."

Joe included the lyrics of a song called "Stained Glass Masquerade."

Is there anyone that fails
Is there anyone that falls
Am I the only one in church today feelin’ so small
Cause when I take a look around
Everybody seems so strong
I know they’ll soon discover
That I don’t belong
So I tuck it all away, like everything’s okay
If I make them all believe it, maybe I’ll believe it too
So with a painted grin, I play the part again
So everyone will see me the way that I see them
Are we happy plastic people
Under shiny plastic steeples
With walls around our weakness
And smiles to hide our pain
But if the invitation’s open
To every heart that has been broken
Maybe then we close the curtain
On our stained glass masquerade
Is there anyone who’s been there
Are there any hands to raise
Am I the only one who’s traded
In the altar for a stage
The performance is convincing
And we know every line by heart
Only when no one is watching
Can we really fall apart
But would it set me free
If I dared to let you see
The truth behind the person
That you imagine me to be
Would your arms be open
Or would you walk away
Would the love of Jesus

Be enough to make you stay


  1. Such a meaningful post. I've always had disdain for those who trivialize or try to invalidate others' feelings. I think it is egocentrism and arrogance. I hope I've never said anything to anyone that makes them feel as if I'm ignoring their authentic feelings, issues, and concerns - as if I believe myself to be an authority on how they should react to their own lives.

    1. Teri I'm just seeing this now. You are an angel and never do anything wrong. And you have cool decorations! I think the folks who hurt my feelings really mean well, which makes it hard to speak up. So I didn't. I slunk off to my blog.