Identity and Instagram

Part I is here.

We live in an age of expression. Think of Instagram or Facebook: the former is supposedly worth $100 billion; the latter worth more. These are platforms existing, primarily, for individuals to express themselves. Yes, companies have found ways to monetize the platforms, thus giving them value, but the monetization is simply a sign of the platform’s power. We are desperate to express ourselves.

This is a human need, of course, to voice our thoughts. We’ve listened to songs and read poetry for thousands of years, and social media simply opens the playing field to all. You don’t need to afford parchment, not to mention the huge expense of education, to gain an audience. Even a lute, I’ve heard, can be tough to come by (you have to know people).

I realize our inner expression, the navel gazing, we may pin to Petrarch, who climbed up Mount Ventoux simply for the joy of it, but came down focused on his own soul: “Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again.” He had been reading Augustine’s Confessions, quite famously, and concluded that this inward gazing was more important than the joys of the view.

But where was I before Petrarch got in the way? The age of expression, where our thoughts and reactions are paramount. Yet, if society most longs for that which it most lacks, we don’t lack avenues for expression, or even what to say. Again, we lack knowledge of who we are. We must express our identity; otherwise it does not exist.

Expression, however, is not enough. We cannot yell into a void. We must be heard, acknowledged by those near us that we are who we say. This is no different from ancient networks of identity, which have always been reliant on others and our place in a community, although the degradation of our modern networks (see Part I) means that we need self-forming communities to tell us who we are. As we lack these, we search for anyone to listen and acknowledge what we say about ourselves. If we’re refused such acknowledgement, we claim those who don’t hear or don’t support and praise our identities do us violence. But, those faraway from our lived experience have never given us identity: humans gain their identities from close relationships.

We have replaced tight-knit human communities with online interactions, and in doing so we have moved from the relational to the transactional. Yet, a transaction — whether someone liking or post or even acknowledging our right to claim a certain identity, cannot tell us who we really are. 

Yet we each, post by post, are shouting who we are and desperate for someone to agree.

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2:150

We went skiing yesterday. Our youngest, who is seven, fell on her first run and her confidence evaporated. She has been skiing before, and she has done well before — for a seven year old who has been skiing a few times. After her fall, I held my pole out to brake her and guide her, but she broke into tears as our gentle beginning run gained a modicum of steepness. I felt sad for her, for her fear.

Fear, I have heard, is our most primal emotion. It may be our first emotion, fear and shock, as we are pulled from out mother’s wombs and feel the coldness and startling light of a hospital room.

*

If Psalm 1 seems naive and moralistic, Psalm 2 reads as false to our modern minds. A brief summary: the rulers and peoples set themselves against God, and yet these people are shackled by the God they are set against. God shrugs them off, declaring the king he has set in Zion. This king will possess the earth, break the nations like a potter’s vessel. So, kings and rulers ought to serve the Lord with fear and trembling. His wrath is quickly kindled, but blessed are all who take refuge in him.

This is far from the easy spirituality of our western world, whether Christian or “spiritual but not religious” or the reserved Judaism you see portrayed in films, or even eastern religions, a dash here or there thrown into the soup of individualistic American religion for — good measure? To cover all the bases? Just in case?

The psalm asserts God’s rule and reign, and anticipates a messiah, as no king of Israel ever ruled the entire earth. But if God watches over the righteous and will not let the wicked stand, as we saw in psalm 1, why is our experience so different? Why does it often feel like the king has abdicated, and the world is left spinning with no one at the wheel? Apart from the judgmental language of psalm 2, it at least promises someone in control.

In fact, in the circles I inhabit, these promises of God’s control land on someone’s lips at precisely the time it doesn’t seem like God is in control at all, like some vapid incantation. I think of friends who struggled for years to get pregnant and the pain they felt from the church. But, of course, God is in control. That’s the problem then, isn’t it?

*

On that first run, we didn’t let our daughter loose. She was skiing with her grandpa, and what greater gift is there for a grandpa, or a granddaughter, than sharing an interest? I don’t know what happened, but they fell. They, of course, lost control. And for a seven year old, that fall broke her confidence so fear could come rushing in and overwhelm her.

She could not ski without tears on the next run down, because she was afraid. I promised her she would not fall.

*

There are three characters in this psalm. God, his anointed, and the rulers or peoples: the nations rebelling against God. The problem with this is that old sleight of hand to access a story, and to identify yourself with one of the characters. The first is out, and the second — I haven’t yet been able to assert my dominion over the earth, despite my best efforts. What if I am the one kicking and trying to throw off the shackles? What if I am not the tree in psalm 1 but part of the chaff, and my anger and ego need to be shackled?

I know before we went skiing, as we tried to pack the car and leave the house, my anger and impatience ticks upward. This happens on every trip, as if my unspoken timeline and agenda for leaving the house is the only thing that matters, and my wife’s desire to return to a clean house is in the way.

I always try to kick against that shackle.

*

I think of the psalms, arranged during the exile and after, and how psalm 2 would have been discordant. Yet, much of the Bible is discordant with our modern sensibilities, and even much of ancient storytelling, with its happy endings and reunifications. Only in modern times have we grasped that stories, if they are to reflect life, need to end ambiguously and in a sort of twilight, because we get little more than this in our own lives.

What have we lost with this? Faith, for one. Even more, our stories and poems have lost a telos, a purpose for our lives because of the way things our, and we are all now to create our own purpose. The psalms do not let us off so easily. God is in control, and history is moving toward a certain end. And we know, as the arrangers of this book knew, that there are scores of psalms left to complain and wonder about God’s distance, absence, and lack of control. But here, the second psalm and often seen as one of the two opening psalms that set the tone for the entire book: we do not simply see God’s control. We see who we are to be and become, just as in psalm 1.

Serve and celebrate. Be part of this royal order. As we serve with fear, this isn’t our classic fear on a ski run, but fear in a sense of respect and awe. Profound reverence. We end the psalm with what we ought to do, as the psalm often will, not mucking about in metaphysical meanderings. Rather than wondering how God can have control when it does not seem like it, we’re called to be part of this kingdom.

Find the confidence that this telos, this way of life brings: only when you lean into the pole and trust can you begin to see what, or who, might be in control after all. This way of life will not translate to no falls on the ski hill or miraculous pregnancies, but a way forward with purpose and hope and grounding. These are rare in our world.

Also, don’t kick against the shackles.

Purpose of Stories

Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots:

Each [plot] begins by showing us a hero or heroine who is in some way incomplete, who then encounters the dark power…the essence of the action is that it shows us the light and dark forces gradually constellating to produce a final decisive confrontation. As a result, in any story which reaches complete resolution…the ending shows us how the dark power can be overthrown, with the light ending triumphant. The only question is whether the central figure is identified with the light, in which case he or she ends up liberated and whole; or whether they have fallen irrevocably into the grip of darkness, in which case they are destroyed.

Booker explains how this urge toward light and wholeness is why we tell stories in the first place: not as entertainment, or escape, or even to simply make sense of the world. They are devices to lead us toward wholeness and light.

His analysis is fascinating, despite my personal reservations with identifying one reason for an occurrence. I know of few phenomenons caused by one factor, and many caused by a multitude. Yet, a Jungian analysis of stories and how they entice and urge us toward wholeness shows their psychological power — why we feast on them, whether through movies or television or books, or the story of a sports team or player, or simply the story a friend is telling — and how conservative they ultimately are. The bad guy loses, the good guy wins, and the morals of compassion or learning disciplined strength are endemic. That is, they are not morals in a Three Little Pigs sense, but we simply don’t experience many stories at all where the bad guy wins, or where the hero or heroine doesn’t show compassion. Stories are moral devices even in the 21st century.

1:150

Each night, after we have gone through the routines of bedtime, and after Brooke and I have gone downstairs to talk, or read, or watch television, one of our girls comes down. She explains how she is ready to turn off her light, because we let them read past the initial bedtime, and wants a back scratch and a song.

I feel slightly annoyed to be interrupted like this. Yet, either I or my wife goes upstairs and offers a song and back scratch to one, and then the other girl. They are seven and ten, and whenever I go, and especially when I rub the back and sing to our ten year old, I wonder how much longer I will be gifted this.

Soon, she will not want these.

*

Psalm 1 lays out a simplistic moral ethic: blessed is the man who is not wicked, but meditates on the law of the Lord. It seems little more than an arithmetic problem, or debits and credits, and has the crude simplicity we would teach a kindergartner. The righteous man is a tree; the wicked are like chaff, blown by the wind.

The righteous: “On [God’s] law he meditates day and night.”

First, the law. I think of it as rules and requirements, the ancient Jewish code of living. Yet Samuel Terrien writes:

“The Torah is really gospel, for it proceeds from pure grace when it invites man and woman to fulfill the divine design on earth…its diurnal and nocturnal meditation did not represent submission to a rigid discipline or an obligation of abstract obedience, but it blossomed forth as a willing manifestation of gratitude to the extended hand of God” (Terrien, 73).

God’s hand extended, and the law is both invitation and gratitude. Perhaps an invitation to experience the wonder of divine life, and the gratitude therein.

Meditating on this did not simply mean memorizing, or reading, or listening to the text. Rather, it came from the gut. I meditate sometimes in the early morning, before my wife is awake, when I am stunned at how I got her, and how she carries the beauty and compassion and peace that I want to carry. The feeling starts in my chest and catches in my throat. This is meditation. A hushed sigh. Or, on the other side, a groan. This may come at a realization of my own brokenness and selfishness, or at the absurd selfishness of our world.

Sometimes, my wife says, she simply has to cry. This is the meditation the psalmist refers to, the feeling that rumbles through our bodies and erupts inarticulately.

I long for the divine life, whatever it is. I am alternatively blind or frustrated at the unblemished promises of such a life and my own scratching existence.

The closest I can come is this. I must watch. Watch for this divine invitation in the tedium of some days, in the messiness of this life, which seems to slip out of my control every moment. I must watch in the early morning when I wake before my wife, when I have a cup of coffee and the sun colors the sky pink in the east, when I cannot escape work on a Tuesday and miss my book group, when I feel irrationally angry or happy or melancholy. I must watch with ancient texts drumming in my head, or modern novels, or whatever can root me in this moment and this longing, whatever can make me awake to the extended hand of god.

Rooted in the moment: the psalm tells of how the righteous is like a tree. Trees in the Bible, of course, take us back to Eden. We see this most clearly how the curse came through a tree, as Adam and Eve ate the fruit they were not meant to, and its reversal through a tree, though one fashioned by the Romans for Christ to climb. The tree acts as a symbol of the world made right. Whether the Bible has colored the Western mind, which it has to be sure, or whether this is an evolutionary, archetypal symbol, I don’t know. I know gardens and trees are in almost every great story, and often represent a place of wholeness and connectedness, from the olive tree that makes Odysseus’s bed to Jane Eyre encountering Rochester in a garden.

Gardening takes attention and time. My youngest daughter planted a few seeds in cups, and they sit on her bathroom window. She forgets to water them, but I remember. Three of the four have sprouted, and even then my watering seems to have gone on for the last six months, though it can’t be more than a few weeks. The lifespan of a single summer is tortuously slow for a vegetable or flower garden, let alone the lifespan of a tree. Yet, cultivating such a tree or such a life requires nothing more than attention and time.

Watch, and do it again.

Every night when one of the girls come down, I don’t want to go upstairs. I can’t recall a night I wanted to stop what I was doing. Yet, I go. I sing and scratch their backs, and I hope that I am creating in them a posture of receptivity and loved-ness; I hope I am creating connection between me and them. I know, however, that I need to go because it is an invitation to something that I cannot explain, a divine invitation, to watch and wonder at fatherhood or parenthood or love. I don’t have the word for it.

Each night is a divine invitation to cultivate a life I both experience and hope to have.

Language

“Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it. A shared language says ‘We’re the same.’ A language barrier says ‘We’re different.’ The architects of apartheid understood this. Part of the effort to divide black people was to make sure we were separated not just physically but by language as well…The great thing about language is that you can just as easily do the opposite: convince people that they are the same.”

Trevor Noah, Born a Crime

The beauty of art, and the way that it connects with people, is that it often transcends language. Or, even better, it seems like it was written in my language: the song that describes just how I feel; the painting that helps me see something familiar in a new way.

Even with a novel: in a good one, I find myself thinking like the narrator. I use the same language. The novelist has so successfully cleared the language barrier that I have identified with the story by using the same words as the narrator.

Art, then, attempts to transcend language. The artist is attempting to reverse that mythological Tower of Babel, when differing languages spread people all over the earth, and we have sought for an answer since.

Presence and Waiting

This morning I played cards with my nine-year old daughter. After, we played Concentration, or Memory, or whatever it is called today. She won, so I had to do push ups. Before that, we had reviewed her math and practiced fractions.

I have thought, often, that the two traits I want to bring as a parent are patience and presence. The former is for when my two daughters bicker, or don’t listen, or generally do anything that inconveniences me. The latter is for mornings like today. I need such time with my daughter, while the younger is at gymnastics with her mother. In many ways it was a routine Saturday. But it was also an hour to play. To be present.

The other resonant idea is one of waiting. I read Psalm 130 this morning, that ancient poem where the writer declares that he will wait (assuming the writer was a man in that patriarchal society) more than watchmen wait for the morning.

This waiting: there seems to be few stronger metaphors for life. We live in a waiting place. I think of how I’ve waited this week at my work: on interviews, on timelines outside of my control, on others’ priorities. I flew to Indiana and waited at airports. And I’m the sort of man who is oriented to the future: I am excited by what is next, by what will happen. What is happening is less exciting than the opening of possibility.

For the religious, as I am, this waiting is for the divine to act. But even without religion, we find much of our lives waiting. And in the meantime, we fill our lives with purchases or rich food and drink to forget that there is something to wait for at all.

Good waiting has, according to the ancient poet, an aspect of watching. An aspect of seeing the gradients of light each night, from astronomical dawn to sunrise itself. We watch for the subtle gradations of light and movement. There is, in other words, a presence to it.

Of course, patience is also necessary.

I wait today for a thousand pricks of light to burn into red and reveal the sun itself. I wait for the girls to go to bed so I can watch a movie with my wife. I wait for a new hire on my team to come through, for a trip to Florida we have scheduled, and this morning I waited for my workout to be over. (I lifted weights this morning, or as I prefer to call it: uncomfortable counting.)

The waiting is formed of patience and presence. I think of how these two traits I want to show as a parent may be traits of living a good life. Patience in the divine and slow movement, the unhurried change in the night sky. Presence to remain there, to find places not where I can escape to the internet, a magazine. But to practice math with my daughter and play cards, before she gleefully climbs onto my back and commands me to do push ups as my punishment for losing.

Notes: The Sun Also Rises

Longing. Throughout the pages, even the epigraph, we’re reminded of what’s been lost. We see in in the expatriate Jake Barnes, who’s told by his friend Bill:

You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You have around cafes.

Jake is cut off from his home. He’s cut off, too, from being a man in the traditional sense. We don’t know his exact injury, but we are told a war wound has caused his impotence. So, he becomes a man in the expatriate sense, spending his time talking and not working, obsessed by sex though without any means of release. He passes from cafe to cafe, lost.

It’s pain that drives him back to a memory, a fragment of longing. After he’s punched in the head he walks back to the hotel:

“Walking across the square to the hotel everything looked new and changed. I had never seen trees before. I had never seen the flagpoles before, nor the front of the theatre. It was all different. I felt as I felt once coming home from an out-of-town football game. I was carrying a suitcase with my football things in it, and I walked up the street from the station in the town I had lived in all my life and it was all new. They were raking the lawns and burning leaves in the road, and I stopped for a long time and watched. It was all strange. Then I went on, and my feet seemed to be a long way off, and everything seemed to come from a long way off, and I could hear my feet walking a great distance away. I had been kicked in the head early in the game. It was like that crossing the square.”

Pain does not simply remind him of his past; it pulls him into the presence to see things anew.

Hemingway’s great restraint is never to name the longing, the lostness, never to go into soliloquies about the pain of Jake, but to narrate. He gives us dialogue and action, and the prose itself is lean and athletic. There is no navel gazing, only the rush of events, and the longing for that which has been lost.