The power of narrative in the imperfect life

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.

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9 thoughts on “The power of narrative in the imperfect life

  1. I often end up tearing out what I write, because I realize the power that my own narrative holds.

    Wise words. Thanks.

  2. Laura,
    These are such wise words. I don’t want anyone to think I live a sugar-coated life when they read my blog, but neither do I want to complain or moan into a mostly faceless cyberspace. I am so thankful for the online friends that have become a community beyond blog comments and facebook likes – more like penpals, women who share with me via letters and lengthy emails at times, much more than is revealed in blog posts. And I am thankful for the flesh and blood, walk in my door and sit on the porch for tea friends that know how truly the blog is simply a snapshot of moments in time and not the whole story.

    It is interesting to read 1 Corinthians 10:9-12 to see the difficulty that even Paul had in people’s assessment of him in letters and in person; and to be reminded that when we measure ourselves against others (via fb, twitter, instagram or anything else!), we are without understanding.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

    Is the spring as lovely there as it is down south right now?

    1. I have some of these online friends that have grown in to real friends, too, and yes, I am very thankful for them. I prefer to think of them as the old-fashioned kind of pen pals. Really, though, I am thankful for any kind of friend at all, and living in a country where I don’t speak the language so well has made me even more so.

      And yes, I’ve noted many times how people found Paul more intimidating in his letters than in person. I often prefer written communication myself.

      Things became lovely here just today. I hope it stays that way for a while. It has been rainy, cloudy and cold for a long, long time.

  3. Laura,

    You might be interested in this piece from 2007 (!) which argues that social networking is fundamentally flawed in ways that are anti-community:

    Consider how much of your social life is built on, and derives its robustness from, very common patterns like someone you’re attracted to but dislike temperamentally, someone you care for but have little in common with, someone your connection to is primarily based on nostalgia and loyalty, a reliable show- or workout buddy you wouldn’t otherwise keep in touch with or someone you simply wished you knew better – and then try to contain these sentiments meaningfully in the penurious few options you’re offered by the social-networking application of your choice.

    Consider your own past use of social-networking systems: how many times have they inadvertently caused some tension, misunderstanding, or regret between you and someone you care about, either one-way or running in both directions? How many times have you added someone as a “friend” and been hurt when they did not reciprocate, or had to deny someone’s apparently appropriate request for friending…and then been forced to spend time writing them an email explaining why? How many times have you felt obligated to add someone you simply didn’t know very well? [,,,]

    Finally, all of these reservations, as strong and as heartfelt as they are, do not in the end even begin to address my single most important problem with social-networking systems, which is that social comfort and coherence require that by far the majority of actual feelings regarding the people in our lives NOT be made explicit. In my experience, any degree of smooth and compassionate human concourse absolutely requires plausible deniability, and a certain degree of dissembling regarding your actual, operative feelings for the people you’re engaged with, however much you love them. (Depending on context, that degree may even be greater the more you care about them.) By contrast, having to declare the degree of intimacy you’re willing to grant each friend, whether in public and for all to see or simply so that they see it, is a state of affairs I’ve described, in comments elsewhere, as “frankly autistic.” It’s no way to arrange things as absolutely central to life as friendship, of that I am sure.

    For all of these reasons, I believe that technically-mediated social networking at any level beyond very simple, local applications is fundamentally, and probably persistently, a bad idea. From where I stand, the only sane response is to keep our conceptions of friendship and affinity from being polluted by technical metaphors and constraints to begin with.

    1. Rick, I read this, but I have to confess that Greenfield’s computer jargon lost me a bit. I’ll have to think about it some more. For instance, why, exactly, is deniability important?

      I do get the downside of having to say the same thing to everybody. You could say that FB has changed this now with their friend groups, but not really. It still feels like you’re at a really weird, obnoxiously quippy cocktail party, and that is my least favorite social milieu. But I still use FB even though I don’t like the channels into which it herds conversations, simply because it allows me to have contact with some people whom I wouldn’t hear from much at all otherwise. I get to see their kids’ photos and such. I’ve moved enough that it’s important to keep at least a tenuous continuity with more people than I can write to. A lot of them are relatives. And for a few people whom I know here in Torino, it actually helps me keep up with what they’re doing during the week. But I can’t help but notice that many of the people I’ve most admired over the years are not on Facebook at all, or rarely use it.

      In short, I don’t find these platforms ideal, but then again, I don’t find my social life Ideal, especially the part in which I rarely get to remain in the same geographical area with people I enjoy talking to. I started to write a blog post, and may do so yet, about (at age 8) wanting to invite everyone I knew to a big dinner and realizing that it could never happen. I realized even then the necessary separation between people and the impossibility of maintaining intimacy with absolutely everyone. The Wedding Supper of the Lamb perhaps resonates with me all the more for this reason.

  4. I just read a book called “The Journal Keeper” by Phyliis Theroux. She’s a good writer who has learned not to use her journals as a wailing wall since she found re-reading them could be counter-productive. She did not elaborate, but I suppose she did not want to wallow in past misery.

    She tries to use her journals now to record the light. This doesn’t mean she won’t admit hardships, but they don’t take up more than a sentence or two, and then she’s off noticing the light and heading towards it.

    I find this to be healthy.

    Another very prolific writer, L.M. Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, did use her voluminous journals as a wailing wall and the end of her life was extraordinarily sad (especially in comparison to the joy she gave.) I think that she failed to recognize, as you have, the power of her own narrative to shape her life.

    Yours is a blog I like very much since it is somewhat restrained, yet still uplifting. (You don’t know me; I pop in from time to time, having been led to you long ago via C.S. Lewis, I think. I am 47, live in Minnesota, have two sons, and am struggling just to get back to my own journal writing, much less a blog.)

    1. Hi, Leah! (I did a double take at the name because my sister Leah sometimes comments as well.) Your comments got me interested in L.M. Montgomery, so I looked up more about her life. Yes, it is indeed sad. Sometimes these situations are a chicken and egg question. It’s hard to tell whether she did some of the things she did because she was depressed, or vice versa. Or maybe it was a vicious cycle. Clearly her husband’s mental illness contributed to her problems. But they seem to have started even before that, in her cycle of flirtation with and rejection of suitors, and her reasons for marrying in the first place. Who knows where it started?

      But, I do have sympathy for her. One hates to think of another human in that much pain. In the end, we have to simply acknowledge that life can deal some hard knocks, and we do the best we can to acknowledge them and recover, hopefully becoming a stronger, more empathetic and more loving person in the process.

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