The power of narrative in the imperfect life

by Laura A

There’s an article from Relevant Magazine that’s making its way around Facebook right now, called “Stop Instagramming Your Perfect Life.”  In it, the author makes an impassioned plea for real community rather than carefully-crafted images of the perfect life. She keeps hearing people say things like the following:

“I stopped following a friend on Instagram, and now that I don’t see nonstop snapshots of her perfect life, I like her better.”

And then she adds:

Yikes. This is a thing. This is coming up in conversation after conversation. The danger of the internet is that it’s very very easy to tell partial truths—to show the fabulous meal but not the mess to clean up afterward. To display the smiling couple-shot, but not the fight you had three days ago. To offer up the sparkly milestones but not the spiraling meltdowns.

I liked some things about this article. I agree with the parts about admitting that you have weaknesses (in a general way), the part about realizing the limitations of Facebook or Pinterest, and the part about building real community offline (please do!). But documenting in detail the messes, the fights, and the spiraling meltdowns? I’m just not going to do that. And I’d like to talk about why.

Before I do that, one thing I have to get out of the way is the limitations of Facebook. It doesn’t even allow detailed documentation. It gives me a very superficial connection with various friends and relatives that I might not hear from otherwise, and sometimes it gives me a good laugh or a pause for thought, as with this article. But on Facebook, if you type more than a line or two, you are in danger being socially inappropriate. It favors the witty quip to the nuanced thought, and no one looks at an album with more than five photos in it. How much community can you build with that? How can you even connect your own thoughts on Facebook?

Blogs offer at least a little more. When I started my first blog, it was because I wanted to practice writing and to exchange ideas, and didn’t want my audience to feel obligated to respond, as they might do if I were a personal friend or family member. Looking back, I think that blog succeeded in what it was supposed to do. A lot of it was just vignettes about homeschooling, life in New York City, and some reactions to articles. But it wasn’t supposed to be a substitute for real life community any more than Facebook was.  And here are some other things my blogs are not:

My blogs have never, ever been a source of advice. If you get something useful out of one of my blog posts, fine.  But I don’t assume anyone who reads has enough of the context of my life to imitate what I’m doing, if they ever wanted to–which I doubt!  Our circumstances are rather unusual in several ways.

When reading my blog, I also assume that everyone realizes our life has its ups and downs. I would definitely consider my posts to be a highlight reel. I keep this blog sort of like a narrative scrapbook. When I’m taking the photos that go in a scrapbook (paper or virtual), sometimes life is not so pleasant. But when I look back at what I’ve put down, I’m often encouraged.  I realize that good things did happen during that period.  And hopefully I, or someone in our family, made the effort to create memories.  Memory-making is something you have to make an effort to do.

There’s another reason I try to keep this blog positive: Negativity spirals. Thinking about life’s difficulties and what might happen because of them really can deepen them. I have learned this through experience. During the past couple of years, a lot of things have been changing rapidly in our family. Some of these things have been quite challenging, and I don’t have the foggiest idea how they’re going to turn out. Just to give myself a reality check, I’ve occasionally written about them in my journals.  But even there, once I acknowledge that I’m not imagining things, I often end up tearing out what I write, because I realize the power that my own narrative holds. Instead I cry out to the Lord in the manner of the Psalms, and then I try for all I’m worth to make the wisest decisions I can and to forgive and accept forgiveness. Faith requires a certain effort on my part to keep focused on the Lord. And I do have plenty of blessings in my life, for which I am thankful. Just forget the glamorous expat stereotype.

And finally, I have to protect the privacy of the other people I blog about. That’s simple enough.

In short, the blog format simply won’t permit the sort of intimacy that allows for real community, and I assume people know that. It still doesn’t stop me from appreciating your blogs if you have them, enjoying your comments on mine, and looking forward to making more posts. If you’re a great photographer or have a gift for writing, I appreciate your art. If you have come through specific difficulties and have great advice for others, I appreciate that too. And I must say that most of the people I know both online and in real life are pretty much the same both places. But with my own blog, I mostly just do quick sketches of what’s going on, because frankly, nothing else feels right to me.

One last thought: There may even be a few people out there whose lives seem to be resumé perfect, online and off.  In that case, I can only say two things:

No one’s life is always like that.

And if it were, are these the people you’d turn to in a pinch?

Now, feel free to go enjoy someone’s highlight reel if you like.  But don’t think for a minute that it’s their whole story.