This morning I was thinking about podcasts and social media and relationships and intimacy, which is to say that I was thinking about the same stuff I think about a lot. There’s a podcast I’ve been listening to for over seven years now. Call it a bit under a fifth of my life, though, actually, it feels like longer. But seven years is a good long time, and you can’t spend that much time with the same voices in your head week after week without feeling some kind of a connection or relationship.
Obviously, I’m aware that this imagined relationship is just that: imagined. One-sided. The people to whom those voices belong don’t know me from a hole in the ground. But it’s also not wrong to say that I’ve spent time with them, perhaps more time than some people who would actually count me as a friend. It’s a strange thing, this kind of relationship—it feels both intimate and distant. You feel like you know these people, and in a way you do. At least, you know that part of them that they choose to show you. And if it is only one aspect of their lives or personalities, it’s also not nothing.
I think about this kind of thing a lot, in part because I spend so much time on social media, which means that I have to consider what intimacy and friendship mean in a context where neither of us really have access to each other’s lives, other than what we choose to write about. What can I ask of someone, and what can they ask of me? What are our responsibilities to each other? How much do I actually know any of them, and how much do they know me?
But then, I suppose the reason I’m thinking about this now, and the reason I’m choosing to write about it here, is because I find myself wondering—again—how much we can ever really know anyone.
One of my co-workers died suddenly about a month ago. I’d worked with him for over eleven years, but somehow I still thought of him as one of the “young guys” just because I interviewed him for the job when he was a new grad. Realistically, back then I was a young guy, too.
The company held a memorial lunch for him last week and we all ate and swapped stories and laughed a lot. He was that kind of guy, the kind that made you laugh. People talked about how fun and funny he was, what a good engineer he was, how he was a good guy. Eleven years, and what else can I say about him? I knew him, joked with him, stayed up working into the wee hours with him. Sometimes we argued, sometimes we pissed each other off. A lot of times we laughed.
What does it mean to know somebody? To be close? I’ve pushed not to be defined by my job, either to myself or others, and so I often think of my relationships outside of work as being more real, somehow. That the people in my home life or often even people online know me better than my coworkers. And to some extent, that’s true. But as many parts of my existence that my coworkers never see, there are also parts that only they see, whether that’s how I talk when I’m giving a technical presentation or what I look like when it’s two in the morning and I’m still in the lab. I’m different at work from how I am at home or out in the wider world, but I’m no less myself for that.
The easy question to ask here is this: are social media friendships somehow less real because of the fact that social media personas are curated? Or: what are the limitations of intimacy in these relationships, which are necessarily defined by the narrowness of their visibility? But I find I’m uninterested in those questions. Because it’s easy to talk about social media being seductive. It’s easy to talk about presuming an unearned or nonexistent intimacy in that context. What I find myself thinking about more is how “real” life is seductive and narrow. Not to say that listening to your podcast means we have a relationship or that being able to see and hear and smell you doesn’t, but rather that every relationship is both real and false, both more and less than it seems. That we are at the same time profoundly connected and utterly alone.
I think that what you do with a thought like this is a matter of temperament and choice. If you can keep both the candlestick and the faces in your mind at once—or at least remember to switch back and forth—I think there’s an opportunity, both to rejoice in closeness and to respect distance. I’m trying to see it that way, anyway.
Word for the Year
In 2017, I chose STRENGTH as my word of the year. It was two months since Trump had been elected, but still before the inauguration, before the Women's March, before I'd started a resistance group. I hadn't started working yet, but I knew there was work to do, so much work, and I felt that I needed to be strong, resolute, enduring in order to do what had to be done. I knew that over the coming year I would get tired and would at times despair—and, indeed, that did happen. The word I chose was meant to be a reminder, a mantra to repeat when exhaustion set in, a way for me to push through, to keep fighting.
Yet although I had worked hard throughout the year, often speaking to myself and others about the need to fight, to resist, the metaphor of combat never really fit for me. Anger, rage, fury—these are words that I'd see over and over from others, but they're not emotions I can sustain. And although I felt and continue to feel that it is important not to shy away from struggle, that adversity and challenge bring the opportunity for growth, and that the work still yet to do is necessary even though it is difficult, it is not enough for me to be defined simply by struggle. Maybe this works for other people. It doesn't for me.
Ultimately, what I needed was not strength or force of arms to overcome. Nor did that outlook match my principles or my approach to leadership, if “leadership” is the right word for what I did—I'm still uncomfortable with how grandiose it sounds. I set myself some ground rules from the beginning: that I would present myself as a resource, not an authority figure; that I would speak my truth and offer what information I had, but not tell anyone what to do, nor even try to persuade anyone to change their minds; that I would ask for help when I needed it, but never make demands, and I would accept it when people refused my requests; and above all that I would always aim for kindness, respect, and understanding. None of this was meant to be high-minded—or at least not mainly—nor did I always live up to what I had set out to do. I just knew that this approach would make it easier for me than feeling frustrated or despondent when people didn't do what I wanted, which of course they could and did.
In thinking about what word I would choose for 2018, I imagined a rock in the ocean, around which the tide flowed and onto which the waves crashed, but which was itself unmoved. But when I described this to others, the words they thought of—“resolute,” “stoic,” “enduring"”were closer to what I had felt I needed last year than what I wanted for this year. That isn't to say that they didn't fit the image. They did. So perhaps the image was incorrect. Or at least incomplete.
What I'm looking for in 2018 is acceptance without passivity. Calm and quietness of mind and spirit; peace, but not appeasement. To stand for what is right, but to forgive myself for my shortcomings, as I forgive others for theirs. Forgiveness without capitulation or condescension. Empathy. Kindness.
My word for 2018 is GRACE.