Economies fall. Other ones rise from the rubble. We are navigating a new era, one where we walk in financial ashes yet fly in online worlds. The rich are truly becoming richer, the poor, poorer. The middle classes exist in the in between, striving not for wealth as they do in prosperous times but instead fighting desperately the slip into poverty.
Being in the middle means we straddle lines. What do we do with money when we get it; what do we do when we don’t have enough? Do we display the times of feast? Do we hide the times of famine? Evolutionary rules (or if you are so inclined, celestial dictates of fates) are skewed in the suburbs and even in the great democratic illusion of the Internet. What do our instincts tell us about power and social standing?
We post. We post. We post. We share our good fortune. But is that all we share?
When I peered into the gift bag today my children and husband brought me for Mother’s Day, I saw another bag inside. Later, my husband told me that our 5-year-old had inquired why they were wrapping my gift like this, putting a small bag into a larger one. My husband had told the children that the surprise, mostly, is seeing this particular bag, and it almost (almost!) doesn’t matter what’s in it. Just seeing the bag, he told them, was where most of the excitement would be.
Indeed, when I saw the iconic blue and white of the Tiffany’s trademark, I was quite surprised! We aren’t the type of family that has fine jewelry. Until today, I’d owned nothing from the luxury jewelry brand. Merely entering the store just to browse was well outside the narrows of my experience. I mean not to brag of my humble origins, as seems to be required of all the bootstrapping CEO’s and wildly successful writers of this world. I do, in fact, have humble origins… mostly. Some of my heritage is not as humble. But culturally, I was raised in the lower classes and knew nothing of the upper crust. I mean to say that this was a special moment.
I pulled out the Tiffany’s bag. Waves of guilt, curiosity, wealth, power, wonder came over me as I pulled out the silver necklace with a key and a heart charm dangling off of it. I was relieved to see something “affordable,” as much as Tiffany’s can be called that, but I was also amazed at the feeling of now being an owner of something from Tiffany’s. I’m wearing my necklace now and I am obviously still struggling a bit with the idea.
Don’t fret, though; I won’t struggle long. I will wear the necklace with pride and be reminded of the love of my little family (When I balked at the expense and my husband said, “You deserve to have something nice,” I responded, “I have many things that are nice.” He replied, “You deserve to have nice jewelry.”). I am a woman and a mother whose family wants to honor her. I will wear the necklace and will love doing so.
But then came my next question. Post or not post? I was tempted to take a lovely photo of the bag, the box and the necklace and post it on one of my many social networking sites. In the end, I decided against that and instead I am sitting here writing this article.
Recently there was a bit of a scuttlebutt in the UK over the cost of Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton. “In these tough economic times,” as papers are wont to phrase, the question of the propriety of a lavish royal wedding was raised. As an aside, I must say that I’m sure the licensing and tourism generated from the wedding more than paid for any money spent on it. As a venture, I’m sure it was profitable and will continue to be so. But the idea was not around the money spent as much as the fear of the public relations repercussions of ostentatious display of wealth. It isn’t looked kindly upon, understandably, in these said “tough economic times.”
This makes sense. Of course one should not gloat wealth or power in a civilized society. Our societal rules are complex and varied, but the etiquette surrounding displays of wealth are understood in each class structure. In my current middle class existence, I could safely “get away” with posting a picture of the Tiffany’s packaging and the necklace, but it may offend some and invoke jealousy in others. I didn’t post for fear of that, but don’t assume I’m innocent. In writing this post, I’m inadvertently telling you I got a major luxury brand gift while I wax existential about getting it; I suppose there is a darker side to me that wants to invoke the jealousy, to show power, to increase my social standing. But I’d like to think that my natural drive to record our days of foot and flight, our ashen walks and our virtual soaring, wins out over my instinct to gloat (but again, I cover both bases, here, don’t I?).
I’m more concerned with the tendency we have to post only good things online. Rumblings have sounded amongst the psychologist and sociologist crowds that we are all creating super-selves online. We are trending toward a mean of portraying only the good news, the best news, the wittiest and funniest things. The good-natured cynicism, the sky-topped optimism, the cute overheard words, the passionate politic, all overpower, statistically, the hard realism, the daily struggles, the major destruction. Even Death itself is tempered; we see in sincere but only softly sentimental announcements on Facebook: “May my father rest in peace. We will miss you, Pop.”
That’s it? Where is the pain, the fear, the panic? Rarely seen are the posts of deep devastation. We build these avatars online that portray ceremonial suffering as a simple passage through a kid-gloved gauntlet of life. Funerals, divorces, cancer diagnoses, are all diminished under the white-washed weight of the back-lit, austere online network design.
Is this what we want? I realize this post has more questions than answers. I don’t know if this is what we want. I do know that I feel uncomfortable when I see an acquaintance displaying raw emotion online. Accusations pile up in my head: they are unprofessional; they are weak; they are “a mess.” When I pull myself back I can find perspective and realize that perhaps this person is doing the equivalent of screaming out for help as they would if they were injured on the street. I then try to add a comment or two of encouragement. But I must admit, if I find myself repeatedly feeling obligated to encourage the same person, I run quickly and solidly into compassion fatigue. I will stop commenting, I perhaps may even grow resentful that the person has not yet healed.
A friend of mine that I don’t see often lost a baby in childbirth last year. I have to say that was the most heartbreaking, ruinous, utterly devastating funeral I’ve ever been to in my life. I mostly concentrated on not vomiting up all my insides due to the grief that day. Even thinking about it makes my stomach lurch. For months after, I closely watched my friend’s Facebook stream. She was quite polite in her posts, although, translated through the sterilized walls of Facebook, you could see the raw pain of loss: “My baby would have been 3 weeks today;” “Not having a great day;” “Could use your prayers this morning.”
Those simple words are polite and portray little. They would especially not mean anything much at all if I hadn’t been to the funeral. It makes me wonder for my friends that are in far away lands: can I really know their grief from posts like this?
The dictate of modern etiquette is that we are expected online to share Tiffany’s but not terror, birthdays but not beasts. We are losing ourselves to perfect profiles, one genteel update at a time.
For me I think this means I have to make more of an effort to see people in person. When I feel lazy, I must get up and go out. When I feel like keeping to myself, I have to reach out in person. I’m not saying I must attend every social event. On the contrary, I’m saying that I can skip the social media meet-ups where I am just looking at a walking, talking versions of a people’s online identities. Instead, I should concentrate on taking some road trips to see real friends, to live with them even for just a moment in and amongst their real lives. I should video conference more with my foreign friends not just on big occasions, but let them into my world when I am burdened heavy with boredom, stressed to pulling out my hair with parenting, or just ambivalent to the point of indecision about my employment situations. I have to remember that the more we keep telling ourselves that we are connected to our friends because we see their updates online, the more we are fading away from them. If we don’t make the effort to see them in real time, in the end all we will have left of them are pictures of products and chronicles of consummate characterizations.
I hope you are holding your friends close, and your families closer. Reach out to me in the comments section. Let me know your thoughts.