Thursday, November 29, 2012

Turning a corner

I've always found one particular aspect of our online lives fascinating. We create a persona for ourselves at a certain time in our lives. We hop on Facebook, get involved in Twitter, start a blog. The word "branding" is overused in this context, but really, it's quite apt. By our tone, behavior, activity, personality as exhibited in these online spaces, we establish who we are. And if people connect to it, well, they connect as much to that established pattern as to "us ourselves," the complexity and variability of the offline self.

There are a lot of people I really enjoy following on Twitter and Facebook, and reading their blogs, because they are funny, helpful, positive, creative people. That's why I add them to my life feed and get pleasure out of having them be a part of my environment. And because I like sincerity more than poses, I take it for granted that people I connect to in this way are really like that.

But people change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate. People who are basically helpful and positive have down days. People who establish their brand as funny probably aren't hilarious every day. But we know why people have connected with us, we know what they've come to expect, we know what our past behavior has promised, and yes, we feel pressure to deliver.

So when we don't have anything positive, helpful, funny, creative to say, we might just go silent.

I know this is something of a false trap. I've seen it over and over. Normally online-bubbly person apologizes because she hasn't felt like being bubbly lately but was a little afraid to tell us, and the reaction is overwhelmingly supportive. Because people who once upon a time asked you into their lives because of some trait you exhibit online, have probably in the meantime come to care about you in a fuller way, as a human being. They understand. It's simple, really. It shouldn't be so hard to admit.

Or maybe we apologize because we suspect that these people didn't add us to their life feeds to hear about our troubles -- for us to be a burden Again, true in the start, but the longer you've been reading, probably less and less true, or at least less and less important. It doesn't take that much psychic energy to sympathize with someone on the rare occasion that she's more in need than able to give. People are generally happy to do it. I do it all the time, and typically, it gives much more to me to be able to express a tiny bit of care than it could possibly mean to my online acquaintance, who might not know me from Adam except as a stat blip on her blog.

Now I'm not saying I'm a relentlessly positive person. But I do avoid talking about troubles and frustrations here online. I just don't think anybody signed up to be on the other end of my complaint box. However, being a human being, there are times when the troubles and frustrations are a bit more ... pervasive. Where it's pretty much what you're thinking about a lot of the time, and if you were going to go to all the trouble of writing a blog post, it's probably not going to be about something other than those things.

I had a bit of an epiphany in the last couple of weeks. All semester, and really stretching back into summer, I've been under increasing stress. Some of it was identifiable (deadlines and crises at work, the national elections, etc.). Some was hidden to me, but made itself known in the tightening knots of my upper back and other minor health complaints. Gradually I came to admit to myself that I was at the stage of life known as mid-life crisis. I'm 47 years old, about to apply for promotion to full professor, looking down the barrel of my boss's retirement and the expectation that I would be a candidate for his job. No matter how good you've got it, when the treadmill is bearing you inexorably forward on a career path like that, you start to feel a little panicky. The anxiety starts as "can I make it?" but quickly expands into a more significant and difficult question: "do I want to?"

While in Chicago for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, I threw open my mid-life crisis to almost anybody who innocently asked how I was doing. From strangers on shuttle buses to dear and intimate friends, I told them I was not sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I listened to their advice. Just deciding to be free and unashamed about asking the question was liberating. And I got some terrific guidance and affirmation, both from the strangers and the friends.

You can't get closer to an answer until you decide to ask the question. And so I feel more positive about my choices, just because I'm actively looking for them instead of wondering in the wee hours whether they exist. And being more positive, I can now tell you about it all. Thanks for listening.

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