Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Between the Lines

I was eleven. My mother and I were watching My Girl; she was sitting next to me, sobbing. In case you don’t remember the movie, eleven-year olds Vada (Anna Chlumsky) and Thomas J. (Macaulay Culkin) are best friends. When Vada loses her mood ring, Thomas J. goes back into the woods on his own to find it, unbeknownst to her. In the process, he steps on a hornet’s nest and ends up dying from anaphylaxis. I felt tears sting my eyes when Vada sees Thomas J. in his coffin; she falls apart and begins screaming that he can’t see without his glasses (he lost them in the woods). However, my embarrassment and annoyance at my mom’s emotional response won out.  I sat there dry-eyed and presumably unfeeling.

“What’s wrong with you? It’s okay to cry if you’re sad,” my mom said.

I wanted to ask, “since when?” It wasn’t really a message that rang true. Or, rather, it was only applicable in limited scenarios like this one. She used to tell me what a deeply feeling baby I had been, that I would cry in response to things that moved me, like Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14. I was skeptical.

Instead, I replied, “you can be sad without crying. I don’t really feel like crying.”

“Ai-goo. Don’t be so cold-hearted!” she said, annoyed.

It’s not that I didn’t feel things. Because I did. Deeply. Fiercely. In fact, my feelings were so big that I often found myself terrified that they would consume me, so I swallowed them, instead. But in that moment, I refused to perform my grief for her, as I would eventually refuse to perform so many other things. I wasn’t sure what the response from her would be and I wasn’t sure which would be worse: a rare moment of shared tenderness/intimacy or a knowing and smug, “see, doesn’t that feel better?” So I chose option c—no reaction at all.   

Yet here I am performing my grief for so many of you. Of course, it isn’t a performance, exactly; I write with earnestness and openness. But, and I’ve said this before, these public mediations on my grief often eclipse “feeling” in favor of “intellectualizing.” In those moments when grief threatens to bowl me over, rather than wading through it I find myself detouring around it as I ask myself, “what am I feeling and how can I talk about this?”

Lately, I’ve thought quite a bit about these increasingly public experiences, these communal acts of loving, living and grieving. Social media has infiltrated our daily lives in such a way that we are incessantly managing our public selves. It can be draining and overwhelming; the barrage of information is excessive and invasive. Our world has shifted quickly but imperceptibly over the past few decades as we’ve transitioned from one social media space to another in waves—myspace, facebook, instagram, twitter, youtube, snapchat, etc. After all, it takes no more than a few clicks to land us in brave new worlds. We are awash in a sea of hashtags, selfies and buzzfeed quizzes, bombarded by various forms of activism via social media, perplexed by how we might enforce cyber-bullying laws, tempted by the deceptive impermanence of our feeds, and confounded by the sheer number of things that we can pin but will probably never actually do/make/buy. I’ve become anesthetized to almost everything as, daily, I scroll by heated arguments, make note of people’s vigorous assertions of their religious/political leanings with nothing more than an internal sigh or cringe, and observe other, well…downright craziness. In matter of “likes,” “views” or “searches,” you can skyrocket to stardom or land yourself in infamy.

I guess I’m wondering what it means to give in, to participate in these public and communal experiences via the Internet. Sometimes it feels like the more we say, the less it means. In mere minutes, our feeds will be full of new people saying new things or old people still saying old things. In the former, we move on because there are fresh things to debate/see/ogle. In the latter, we move on because we’re bored or desensitized by the rhetoric stuck on repeat. Or we just block them/hide their feeds. Problem solved. So what? I suppose part of me worries that we’ve lost the ability to be affected and to effect change in ways that rupture, radicalize or reimagine our present. What happens when we forget that these profile pics and handles are attached to real people, with real bodies? What happens when we forget that we aren’t just characters in the various feeds of our lives? I worry that we’ve become so alienated and disconnected from ourselves that we have to find new ways to shake ourselves up—take school shootings, for example. 

The other evening, however, I went with group of thirty-something-year-old moms to the opening of The Fault in Our Stars alongside hordes of fifteen-year old girls. They (yes, the antecedent here is purposely ambiguous) giggled and gasped and heaved huge sighs at all the right moments. And I’ll admit, I got on the bandwagon. One girl behind me resisted for awhile: “why are they laughing? That’s not even funny! Ugh. This is stupid.” But by the time Hazel Grace was reading her eulogy for Augustus Waters at his impromptu funeral rehearsal, the acerbic commentary had given way to sniffles. The movie theater erupted into a massive carnival of grief. Sniffles gave way to outright sobbing. The young girl in front of me was so upset that I worried she might begin to hyperventilate. They were affected.  But were they affecting more feeling than was real? How much of that, I wondered, was performance and how much was genuine? Would they respond in the same way if they were watching the movie on their own. I considered my own dry eyes—I was transported back to that moment on the couch with my mother—would I respond differently if I were alone? The experience was considerably and uncomfortably different from my previous experiences in “sad” or “moving” movies where people sniffled quietly into their tissues.

So why the shift? I have to think that a large part of this can be attributed to a generational and affective shift. Most of those 14-16 year olds have grown up in a world where their public and private lives are increasingly synonymous. It’s a world where elaborate engagements, sorrowful tales of loss, and rage-y rants are the norm. It’s a world of instant access and excess. Big feelings have always been a thing—especially aomong adolescents; I admitted to having them at the start of this piece. Mental illnesses have been around (though the parameters and our understanding continues to evolve). And guns—well they’ve been around, too (I won’t get into this issue now). But the way that we express and experience that coalescing of private and public selves has changed dramatically. The terrain of our affective responses has been altered. I think those shifts have occasionally taken on some really terrifying forms and have manifested in some very troubling ways. But as I think about that moment in the theater, it was more than a performance of mob-mentality or mass hysteria. That eruption of feeling was unnerving because it felt, instead, like a group of public individuals having a hundred uninhibited private moments. That’s decidedly different than a group of private individuals sniffling through their unexpected or unwanted public displays. We get that "have-your-feelings-but-for-god’s-sake-have-them-quietly” thing. We’re okay with that. 

We often talk about social media and the Internet in a negative way: it has changed the way our brains work; it has alienated us from ourselves; it has produced shallow intimacies. But what if we allow ourselves to imagine the way that it has the potential to create deeper (or at least wider-reaching) intimacies? What if we consider the way that it tethers us to one another through and despite ourselves and our differences? Anyone who has ever played an MMRPG (massively multiplayer role-playing game) understands the way the Internet can serve as a space where we can imagine and create worlds together regardless of things that might otherwise divide us. I’m not saying anything new, here. People have talked about and written about these issues of world building better than I can. In my case, in this blog on death and grief, I’ve created a world where my mom is, ironically, most alive. I’ve tried, as much as is possible, not to romanticize but to depict us the way we were—to preserve the heartache and tension and love between us in a way that feels real. And each time you gather with me here, she is reassembled and reanimated. You’ve allowed me these excesses of feeling in ways that you might not have or that I might not have offered, in the flesh.

But the really interesting and beautiful thing is that these things carry over into our real-world interactions. When we meet, those connections that we’ve made via NSPs, ISPs, LANs and individual devices are still open between us. We haven’t quite logged out. It’s a novel kind of intimacy that doesn’t spring from face-to-face interactions but from largely “artificial” and “performative” ones.  Nonetheless, it’s still a version of intimacy. It has preceded many of my real-life interactions with some you and has deepened preexisting relationships with others. What began as an act of “anonymous” or disconnected grieving has served countless times as points of reference, connection and compassion: as I’ve shared with you, so many of you have shared yourselves in return. Somehow, we’ve cut through the code and found a kind of community in these shared stories. We’ve discovered a network that extends beyond the screens of our computers and phones. However soul-deadening the world of social media can sometimes be and however isolating the Internet can sometimes seem, there’s something compelling about the affective transmutation that has sprung up in this reworking of private and public that affirms rather than shuts down communal feeling. I can’t help but imagine the transformative potential--if we’re brave enough to embrace it--that awaits us in this new openness of being. That, my friends, is something radical.