On Self-Aggrandizing

For hundreds of years, people kept journals. When they finished a journal, they put it on a shelf, where it generally gathered dust until they died, and–if their relatives were conscientious about such matters–they were read and shared and stored safely away as a message from another era.

And then social media came along, and suddenly we could peek directly into anyone’s digital journal, as they wrote it.

It’s an incredibly seductive thing. We’re fascinated by other people’s lives: how they live them, what they might be doing better or worse than we are, how we can learn from their successes and mistakes. We get caught up in their small mysteries: who will they fall in love with? How much sex do they have? Are they pregnant? It’s why we watch movies, scroll Instagram feeds and read books.

But perhaps even more seductive is the desire to be seen. It’s a basic human need–the desire to be seen and known and recognized. And social media has provided us with a simple, convenient way to blast our lives out there so that they have the potential of being seen, recognized and known by millions.

That isn’t to say that everyone wants fame, or that we’re all seeking the same levels of acknowledgment, or even that it’s a bad thing.

Jordan would rather have no one see his life (…sorry, Jordan), whereas I crave the human connection that comes from people recognizing themselves or their lives in my words. Those comments you leave after reading a post, about how you can relate, or how you think the same way that I do? I sit down to write for myself, because the words are burbling up inside me and need to come out, but I finish writing for those small human connections that can span continents.

However, this ability to share so much of our lives–and to seek fulfillment and acknowledgment from another person miles away behind a screen–is a double edged sword. Whenever we’re bottling up ourselves and our lives and our loved ones into an Instagram feed or a blog, we need to be very careful.

Inevitably, a filtered reality will come through.

There are some things that I simply am not going to write about (like how yesterday, we ran out of toothpaste AND floss, so I didn’t have a chance to brush my teeth, and then after this panel I was on that involved talking to lots of different people, I got in the car and Jordan said, “Wow, your armpits really smell,” and I had to tell him, “No, that’s my breath.” Like how when Jordan’s beard gets too long I don’t feel particularly attracted to him, or how most of the time I adore my job, but last week it was incredibly stressful and I spent every minute of my day running from task to task like a chicken with my head cut off, and then when my boss emailed me to ask me to do more, I cried a little in my office. Or how I had a dream about my mom two nights ago and woke up sobbing–and sometimes I might feel fine for days, but then it strikes me exactly what I’ve lost, and it hurts so much that I feel physical pain).

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that we need to closely examine this temptation to share. Why are we sharing? Is it to make ourselves seem different than we really are? Is it to pursue our own creative passions, or keep ourselves accountable on a journey? Is it because we feel like we have something important to share with the world?

I think one small danger of sharing simply to be seen, simply to achieve that feeling of having our lives known, is that the likes and shares and comments can stand in for deeper human connection. But nothing can replace real, face-to-face interaction.

And a larger danger lurks even in the most humble of souls: this desire to aggrandize yourself. To create a larger than life character out of your social media presence. It’s a seductive idea–almost like playacting. How fun, to take just the right photos, write just the right words, and in doing so create someone who resembles you, but without all the flaws. Someone who’s you, but only in the best light, with the best filter. Someone whose failures are even appealing and funny and attractive.

Sometimes it can feel like a backwards formula to happiness: if I can just live the life that I lead in these Instagram photos (or that that influencer lives in his photos)–with autumn leaves falling softly and mugs of tea and kittens curled in laps and art and snowy smiles–I will be happy. The character who you create (or who someone else has created) becomes a goalpost for you own life.

The reality is that regardless of how beautiful someone’s life looks on social media, there is always ugliness happening behind the scenes. Everyone poops. Sometimes their poop has corn in it. Everyone does taxes and has armpit breath when they run out of toothpaste and gets the occasional zit. Your kids sometimes wear stained onesies and have toys that are primary colors, and dogs shed and it gathers under your sofa in giant clumps that embarrass you when one wafts out while guests are over.

Life isn’t perfect, and we have to find a way to step back from the temptation to make it look like it is.

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