Saturday, June 7, 2008

You Exist Even if We Aren't Watching

I just read a post written by my favorite of the bloggers I don't know personally in reaction to the apparently now infamous May 25 story about blogging in The New York Times Magazine. My husband left the magazine on the coffee table for me to read a few days after May 25, but I wasn't intrigued enough to pick it up and start reading the story until today. Having now read both the story and my favorite blog-stranger's take on it, I have to say I'm utterly mystified.

These young women (interesting writers, both) seem to crave not approval, but notice. Like little children at play who scream "Watch me! Watch me!" every five seconds (sometimes exuberantly, sometimes with panic), they seem uncertain that life without an audience is worth the effort or, for that matter, even real.
Overlaying and permeating their musings, like glaze on a cake, is a yearning for the validation of their existence that only other people's awareness of it can provide.

Why do they need this, I wonder? Why do they lay themselves bare to attract it? Why are they willing to endure savage commentary to assure themselves that they have it?

Of course, I too use my private life as fodder for my writing. My innermost thoughts, feelings and experiences (including the intimate and embarrassing ones) inform, and sometimes appear in, my books and essays. But their purpose there is to make the writing true and compelling, not to assure myself that I exist or to draw attention to me personally. I love the freedom of anonymity.

I can't imagine merging my private life and my blog, not because (or only because) I have no desire to lay myself bare on the Internet or, for that matter, to be famous. I don't merge them because the privacy of my private life is what allows it to flourish. Its privacy enhances its immediacy, its authenticity and its meaning to the only person who needs to find meaning in it - me.

Perhaps this is simply the difference between a 54-year-old who has already enjoyed/endured enough notice from other people to last her comfortably for the rest of her life, however long it may last, and someone in her 20s who is, evidently, somewhat unsure about what form her career and life will/should/can take.

Maybe it's all connected somehow to social life having evolved from entirely face-to-face interaction to largely electronic interaction where no one has to know the real you and you can create any persona you like (at least until you're outed). It's hard, not to mention really rather inappropriate, to discuss the intimate details of your life face-to-face with any but your closest friends. Those of us who grew up in a face-to-face world are, I suspect, as unlikely to share intimate details over the Internet as we are to discuss them with the cashier at the grocery store or our colleagues at work.

But if your social life is conducted more from a keyboard than a larynx, maybe you don't feel the same inhibitions. When you're as satisfied with a typed "Hahaha" in response to your joke as you would be with a guffaw and the sight of someone's face creased into the wonderful-to-see lines and angles necessary to produce laughter, maybe it's not such a leap to skin yourself alive in public.

That still doesn't explain the need for external validation of one's very existence, though. I totally understand craving approval. Who doesn't crave it at least occasionally? But approval is not the same thing as notice, or even celebrity. Both linked articles evince a depressing suspicion that a life has no satisfactory meaning and possibly no actuality if no one else notices it. This goes well beyond the old "If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound?" conundrum. (BTW, d'uh. Obviously, it did. The existence of sound doesn't depend on the presence of ears to hear it - it's only the meaning of the sound that requires ears and the consciousness that goes with them.)

Two very successful 20-somethings told me over lunch recently that they know many people in their generation who can't overcome a certain aimlessness and lack of passion for their careers and their lives. My lunch companions said they thought a big part of the problem was that young people feel overwhelmed by all the options open to them and incapable of choosing among those options and getting on with their lives. This is hard for any Baby Boomer, especially a woman, to hear. We would have killed for the options available to today's version of our 22-25 year-old selves. (As one of my 50-ish male friends said when I repeated this to him, "That's total crap! What a bunch of crybabies! How can having lots of options be a bad thing?!")

Now I'm thinking that there's a similarity between responding to virtually unlimited options with paralysis and needing other people to assure you that you actually and meaningfully exist.

Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our faith in internal standards. What happened to to living your life and pursuing your dreams and making your contribution to satisfy yourself? What happened to using your own ears to validate your existence and suss out its meaning? Other people can't really do this for you, and why would you want to let them even if they could?


kim said...

i don't know where the lack of passion thing comes from, and logically, it makes no sense. but i know that a lot of people my age feel this way. maybe just the fact that there is no struggle, nothing to fight against and overcome. everything is already done... so what is the point? it's almost a tedium, like having to maintain a system where all of the passion of creation is over and now we just have a big house that needs constant repair. obviously that's an oversimplification... but it's not an easy feeling to explain rationally. i always come back to this passage whenever i start thinking of this.

Debra Snider said...

Perhaps the thing to create is one's own career and life, and the thing to struggle against and overcome is that very ennui and lack of passion.

mark said...


Great post!! It's been my experience that having too many options can be paralyzing. I've made a career from coaching lawyers and one of the things they love is I help them narrow down their choices to 1 or 2 options. That's my beef with many in the social media crowd...they put out too much unstructured information. BTW I loved your comment about using keyboard vs. larynx so much that I'm going to write a blog about it.

Mark Maraia