I remember the day… the day that changed everything for communication.
It was the day that news sources began accepting “comments” under news articles.
When was that even? It has to have been at least ten years ago… but I remember thinking, well it’s nice to hear about the coming snowstorm from the actual journalist, but am I really curious about what Joe Basement thinks about it? And why is he so angry? And then why is Sue So Sue Me arguing with him, creating a string of comments that ended up in a fight about who’s fault exactly WWI was… I was just looking for weather, but I got drawn in. And I thought, is this the beginning of the end? This can’t be real…
Fast forward ten years later, to when we only pick up “the phone” if we know the person or it’s business, and have 18 spam filters and 13 different ways to text to ensure we don’t have to really talk to anyone, including best friends and family, unless the stars and planets align and we are even in the mood to let a phone call interrupt our day. As a kid, I was always annoyed that as soon as we sat down for dinner, it seemed that loud RIIIIIIIIIINNNGGGGG (a… gasp… landline ring, and my friend, that thing was loud!) took precedence over the rest of us, and this was before voicemails and call waiting (at least in my home growing up.) As an adult, I was overjoyed that I could “get back to a text” when it was convenient to do so, and I could focus on whomever I was with at the moment with no interruptions (because who even has their phone on anything but a slight “vibrate,” if that, anymore?)
And so I started texting everything. Forget letters of old, (unless you are super super super close and love getting letters), and forget bothering someone’s dinner, forget knocking on someone’s door… when all you need to do is send quick text! What I thought was originally a curse online turned into what I thought was an immense blessing: the gift of being able to be in the present with my family and friends, and at the same time fit in anyone who may want to get in touch. Yay!
Until one day earlier this year, when I realized it had all gotten out of hand in my personal life, way out of hand… and upon further thought, I looked back and realized that it had gotten out of hand long before social media was even on the scene. I had lost real relationships, had experienced real division, and the same had been done to me: words that were packed with feelings or the need for healing, written sloppily or spontaneously expressed over text, email, or social media, inadvertently caused devastation… and I hadn’t even made the connection.
All we had needed to do was: SIMPLY TALK.
I had missed this tidbit of wisdom for the same reason many people do: there’s a hidden power behind that keyboard. People say things they wouldn’t dream of saying if we were all sitting in our living rooms together. We would restrain or filter and consider whether it was truly necessary to say everything we are thinking, and we would have to look each other in the eye. Since I have (too) little filter in real life when I speak, I thought my typed words, since they mainly represent my spoken words, were more accurate and restrained (because I could edit them) than my extroverted and unfiltered impassioned soap boxes that can pop out. But even then, written communication was breaking down more and more, even with those closest to me.
It was the words of wisdom from a very close loved one that woke me up: “I will never write anything important (regarding relationship healing) in text again.” I realized, for those truly important relationship issues, texts can’t capture the depths, the facial expressions, the subtle humor and the voice inflections that we grow to know subconsciously with those we love, and even those we don’t know well, if we are relational. Texting is an art, as is writing, and I noticed that those with whom I share deep history can actually be more difficult to text, unless we have zero issues between us (oh, what a blessing those people are, right?) I can be reading a harmless letter, and inside old wounds can rise up, thoughts can bubble to the surface, habitual thinking can take over, when the loved one may simply be asking about holiday plans. When we are more a stranger to a person, we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, but Great Aunt Grudge? Not so much.
Sadly, I have been shocked that others I love deeply have done the same to me.
Not so long ago, a pretty innocent group text started between myself and three people I love with all my heart, decades of love and loyalty… (side note: group texts can be weird too…) Somewhere in the harmless exchange, I was in a silly mood and threw in a laugh emoji, as I found my own personal humor in the exchange between the others. (When I have intense feelings about something, I can naturally cope by finding the humor in it.) At the same time, my phone had misidentified who was saying what. That laugh emoji and my sarcastic joking comment ended up releasing a dormant volcano in others that exploded with thoughts and grudges and disgust that had apparently been held in for decades, without my knowledge. I was so shocked that I was shaking while I waited for my son’s orthodontist appointment to finish, as text after text (over 20 of them) buzzed my phone. When I got out to my car, I had to wait a half hour before I could see straight enough to drive. Even worse, I started fighting back, some in shock, some in anger that this was coming out after so many years. The whole thing seemed unnecessarily out of proportion, including my own reaction… but the real tragedy was that they had tried to call, and I couldn’t or didn’t pick up because I was in the doctor’s office. I should never have continued texting, but rather should have waited until the end of the appointment and called them back. In fairness to these beautiful people, they did the right thing, and I tried to solve it with texting. This caused division that was almost fabricated by a lack of authentic communication, which would have included vocal tones and real emotions and the natural course conversations take when we love each other: we work things out.
I began to think of other times there was division seemingly out of nowhere, a time when there was a group email (the group thing y’all… not a good idea unless there are no hidden agendas with anyone!)… and I was off-the-charts hormonal as I was having a 2nd trimester miscarriage, so I was unable to express myself in any other way than pain… and a dear friend sent what seemed like a callous response and an emoji and I became unnecessarily hurt, because she meant no harm, I’m sure.
And there are others… many others…. times when feelings were expressed not in person, but behind the coldness or the power of the screen, sentiments on social media that could not properly be expressed if not in person… I’ve watched people literally destroy each other and people’s reputations over social media and in the comment sections on twitter… people have despaired over what they see said to them or about them offhandedly when they are in a mood, the “likes” they don’t get when they are needing encouragement or having a tough day, the internet mob go after them to where they just fade away… marriages crumble over text that’s anything less than supportive, friendships explode into oblivion, people get blocked and deleted, and now it’s not just the younger crowd, but even older generations have let the internet estrange them from those they love.
Does this mean social media and texting and the whole internet is bad? Absolutely not! It’s all a tool, and I’ve had many more good experiences than negative ones online… but like any tool, I had to learn how to use it properly (and I’m still learning…) The internet is not a place to resolve personal conflict (especially publicly), or to rabidly tear down people (different from informing, by the way), or to express raw emotions of anger and judgment toward a person. Where do comments and posts and texts like these even lead us? I have found that this type of negativity only breeds more of it, and even more tragically, causes estrangement from those we love.
And so the lesson is and has been life-changing for me, and it took me some time to really get it. I certainly don’t believe filtering everything through a fake Pollyanna persona, as if someone wants a Golden Globe: because if someone wants to do that, they should go for it in Hollywood and use those amazing acting skills 🙂 But as for most of us? I believe we can still keep it real, and express our opinions and our beliefs and have friends and family and loved ones who believe differently from us, and STILL get along online. And if we see a news article or a post we don’t like? We don’t need to be Sir Scrooge and The Knights Who Say Ni just to stir up anger even further… we can scroll past and focus more on what we DO agree with, and encourage those giving those uplifting messages of truth, in charity. We can even override our natural urge to argue or be offended and say something kind or witty, with an innocent well-meaning heart to them. It’s amazing what happens when we start to only use social media for the greater good, and not as a personal venting machine (I’m guilty as charged with that!)
We can build each other up, even if we disagree, just as fellow human beings all walking this mysterious road called “life,” and even better, we can love each other on the way.