I’ve been exploring this quote from Priscilla Shirer:
“Unity does not mean sameness. It means oneness of purpose.
It’s interesting, how a one-line quote can trigger so much contemplation and so many questions.
Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash
I’ve had two conversations with two different friends in the last week about how hopeless we feel to bring about positive change in the current political and social climate because people in general seem unable to unify and work together. A clear leader has not stepped forward. We are increasingly split into factions and too busy with in-groups and out-groups to step back and consider the whole picture.
This is not an accident. Unity is a distinct social advantage and a powerful strategy. It’s also apolitical, which is easy to see on the nightly news. Traditionally large groups are fragmenting into smaller and smaller units. Small groups, by means of forced teaming and other manipulations, are usurping power from established organizations. Current political leaders on both sides of the aisle are losing their followers. As traditional boundaries and frameworks dissolve, chaos and confusion sweep us into a new national and political reality, and it is not unity.
And then there’s capitalism. What we all have in common is an assault on our personhood, the subsummation of a human being into a cash commodity. In other words, how much money are we worth? Can we be manipulated into spending money or persuaded to prostitute for marketers and algorithms, politicians and bloated corporations?
Here, let me bend over and pick up that “free” soap for you.
For years, various people have told me I will never be “successful” if I don’t get on Facebook.
For years, I’ve resisted that assertion. Who made that rule? What is the evidence for that? Who benefits from me being on social media when it’s something I absolutely do not want to do?
I am fortunate to have a central pillar of support for my writing in a close relationship. That person is on FB and consistently, week after week, posts links to my work on his page. A couple of weeks ago, upon posting links to my latest Substack posts, FB threatened to suspend him. Why? Because the image that happened to be grabbed with one of those linked posts was a black and white picture of a nude pregnant woman. Nudity. Horrors. (You can go look at the pic here. Scroll down. You’ll know it when you see it.)
So, here’s the thing. An algorithm did that. It was instantaneous.
I’m not writing for algorithms. I’m writing for people.
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
The hypocrisy staggers me. One can spread whatever mis- and disinformation one likes on FB’s platform. Stalkers and doxxers use it. Hate groups and insurrectionists plan to overthrow the government and kill people on it. Ideologues of all stripes churn out toxic poison on a daily basis. Bots and bad actors, both overseas and home grown, are free to roam, and every single keystroke users make is carefully recorded and mined so everyone can receive exactly the information they want to hear along with advertising they’re most likely to respond to.
The platform has grown and grown, become richer and richer, more and more influential, and less and less about connecting people on a healthy individual level. It’s now a sprawling, unmanageable mess. Users are leaving, and the company cannot adequately police and monitor itself or the activity taking place on the platform. So they look for ways to get even bigger and make more money (by making it more addictive and persuading the culture at large everyone needs an account to be “successful”) and write more algorithms to deal with “inappropriate” content (as defined by the company).
Nudity has been judged as inappropriate content, and because of an image grab over which neither the person posting nor I had any control (there were several other non-naked images in those posts), links to my content were deleted and suspension threatened.
That’ll teach us.
What it taught me is I’ve been right all along. Right to create my own blog and website. Right to find a platform like Substack that does not censor my work. Right to write for readers rather than clicks, stats, and algorithms.
My friend on FB has undoubtedly done much to get my work out there and find readers. No question about it, and I’m grateful every week for his efforts on my behalf.
On the other hand, if the price of “success” is participation on FB, it’s too high. I’m not interested. Not even a little bit. In fact, I feel vaguely I must be doing something absolutely right in order to be banned by an algorithm. I tried to squeeze out a tear of fear and self-pity, but I couldn’t manage it. There’s an ever-growing club of thoughtful, intelligent, science-based, talented people who have been suspended or banned (or both) from FB. I’d be proud to hang with them and I’m glad to read them elsewhere.
What does this have to do with unity? Well, FB was originally about connection, yes? First it was a dating hub. (All right, a getting laid hub. Whatever.) Then it was a way to maintain connections over long distance. Then it grew into a monster that presented every user with a way to maximize a “friends” list while allowing bullying, silencing, stalking, deplatforming, identity theft, hacking, and other behavior people feel they can get away with behind the privacy of their screen and keyboard.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
Where is the unity now? What is our oneness of purpose? Oh, right. We’re unified in being income streams for FB. Lucky old FB.
FB lives because we animate it. Never forget that. We’re the ones who decide no one can be “successful” without it.
Oneness of purpose is a great phrase, but what does it really mean, and how do we get there? Is there any such thing as oneness of purpose anymore? Is our world too complicated for that? Can we come up with a simple overarching statement of purpose, or are we too tangled up in our ridiculous labels and ideologies, too distracted by our outrage and all the people wrong on FB and other social media, to raise our heads and look at the bigger picture?
Do we want our culture to be run by entities like FB that pay lip service to “friends” and “connection” but in actuality work to make money off discord, fear, and disconnection? Do we want our country to be run by authoritarians and corporations? What’s stronger, a handful of small sticks bound together or a handful of splinters? We the people are not powerful enough to make sweeping change individually. Our power, the power of democracy, is in unity of purpose. If we lose our ability and willingness to unify, we’re at the mercy of whatever bloated, narcissistic, moronic, power-mad, lying clown and his train of minions and hangers-on comes along.
And that’s worked out so well.
What I know is I’m writing for you, whoever you are, reading this page. I’m sitting in my green suede chaise with a cat above my right shoulder on the back, the blinds drawn against the heat, the laptop in my lap, writing for you. I’m not writing for FB or an algorithm. I’m not battering you with advertising. I’m not collecting your data. I’m not writing clickbait. I’m not thinking about success, beyond writing a good post, editing it, and publishing it today. Because that’s what I do on Saturdays. I’m not thinking about the money I’ll make, because all my content both here and on Substack is free at this point.
I have no interest in what you’re wearing, what color you are, to whom you pray, how you vote, if you’re vaccinated, what your biological sex or gender expression is. I don’t care where you live. I don’t care how much money you make or have. I don’t care who you love, but I hope one person you love is yourself. I don’t care how old you are, or what you eat, or what your health status is, or what language and culture you were born into.
If you’re reading this, I’m writing for you. If you find anything of value in my work, I’ve succeeded and we’ve made a connection.
There’s no need to hit a like button for an algorithm.
On the other hand, if you find an artistic black-and-white photograph of a nude pregnant woman offensive, you might appreciate FB’s censorship of “inappropriate” material, and you probably won’t enjoy my work.
And that’s okay, too. You won’t find me polluting the pages of Facebook with my obscene pornography.
Those of you who come to me through C. Leo’s Facebook page may want to consider subscribing directly through Harvesting Stones and/or Substack. I don’t know if he’ll continue to try to post links to me and risk suspension or not.
I’m going to continue to write what I write and use the images I like. I’ll let other people worry about whether I’m a “success” or not.
My oneness of purpose: To connect, to think critically, to explore, to question, to discuss, to create, to make a positive contribution.
After years of hesitation, I have given up my landline and transitioned to my cell phone.
Many who read this will shake their heads in amazement at my tardiness, but I know others will understand.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
When I think back about why I hesitated for so long, the simple root is I’ve always had a landline.
I’ve always had a landline, and it’s served me just fine. Why fix something that’s not broken? Why do I need some kind of new high-tech toy? (Okay, I know they’re not new new. But I grew up with rotary phones with curly cords, so in my personal context they’re pretty new.)
Another big reason was my internal protest against habits and technology which break connection. The TV is my most hated object under this heading, but when I watch people in the world bent over their screens, I feel angry, sad, and scared. Why can’t we make human, face-to-face, real connections anymore? Why can’t we actually watch our child while they’re in a swim lesson, or at a gymnastics meet, or at their horseback riding lesson? Why can’t we talk to each other without constantly being interrupted and distracted by our stupid phones? Will the world stop turning if we let the call go to voicemail, or let the text wait until we’re not engaged with the human being in front of us? Is it necessary to take the cell phone everywhere we go and never turn it off? I don’t want to be that available. Living a life, here!
Refusing to participate in cell phone usage was my resistance. They can, but I’ll never be like that! Right. And my children would never say or do that. (They did.) And I would never kill an animal for food. And I would never use a gun. Etc., etc. We all want to stand on high moral ground. Good luck with that.
It’s not as though refusing to buy and learn to use a cell phone made any difference at all to the perils of social media and screen addiction or fixed our social and cultural dynamics around connection and communication.
We just moved house, and I realized I was paying quite a bit for a landline I rarely used. My friends all use cell phones. My kids use cell phones. My workplace uses cell phones, including an app for a daily COVID check. I wondered why I was paying for a landline and a cell phone which I rarely used.
I did some research. I found landlines are on the way out, probably in the next 10 years. We were moving to a small city with good cell phone infrastructure and excellent access to WIFI and Internet.
I talked to my friends, who were supportive and kindly did not laugh at my hesitation, at least not in front of me. None of them have landlines.
As I cancelled and transitioned our utilities during the move, I let go of the landline.
Everyone knows the chaos of moving. I was uncomfortable with the cell phone at first. It was a learning curve. But boy, was it a great tool! My partner and I could stay in touch about timing, U-Haul rentals, where that important box was, scheduling the electrician, dumpster, and plumber, and who was going to have the key to the old house and the new house at any particular time. Quickly texting back and forth was a huge help. It didn’t take long to get comfortable with the device. I had to. It was all I had.
Somewhere along the learning curve I remembered the cell phone is my tool, not the other way around. If I don’t want to take it everywhere I go, I don’t have to. If I want to turn it off, I can. If I want to ignore a call or text, that’s my choice. It can’t disempower me unless I allow it to do so. I’m perfectly free to continue to prioritize my relationships and myself over answering or playing with my phone.
The whole thing has made me think about change in general. I’ll never be a person who immediately welcomes the latest gadget and technology. I’m a traditionalist, and I’m nearing 60. I want to live a simple life. I don’t want to buy or own a lot of objects. I’ll always enjoy a good book more than any kind of technology. I’ll always prefer a face-to-face interaction with my loved ones to a text or phone call.
On the other hand, new technology can be amazingly useful. I’ve discarded most of my music CDs at this point, because almost everything I want to listen to is on Spotify. Less stuff. Less storage. Less to move. All I need is – you guessed it! – my cell phone!
Not all change is bad. Not all change is good. I deliberated for years about getting an iPod. I never did, and then Apple discontinued them and I was glad I didn’t have one. I clung to a large computer with a tower, keyboard, and mouse (with a cord) for a long time. Then my brother talked me into getting a laptop, and it’s all I want to use now. It’s so much easier and more streamlined in every way.
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
Change is always with us. The pandemic has been a notable catalyst for change in the last two or three years. Some of the changes it imposed and continues to impose were unwelcome, but we notice at work it forced us to create some more effective procedures we’ll probably retain even after the current restrictions are over.
Sometimes big problems require change, and often we’re resistant. However, on the other side of our discomfort and resistance we might find a better, safer, more equitable world. Those who don’t want a better, safer, more equitable world exploit our discomfort around change by making dramatic predictions and distorting and polarizing our choices, playing on our fear, playing on our entitlement. We’ve seen a lot of that with the pandemic, and now we’re seeing it again after the latest tragic school shooting in Texas. Red flag laws and sensible gun control do not mean everyone (including teachers) has a gun, and they don’t mean some malign alien superlizard overlord running the government will take away everyone’s guns, either. Get a grip, people!
Most change takes time. For a couple of years I had both a cell phone and a landline. Things happened, I reevaluated my phones, and I was ready to make a complete transition, so I did. Change is neither the enemy nor our One True Love. Maybe it’s just a new friend who could make our world a bit better if we allow it to. And who doesn’t want to see a better world?
I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.
All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.
I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.
I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.
I would have been wrong.
I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.
Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.
The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.
This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.
If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.
When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?
I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.
For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.
It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.
I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.
It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.
The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.
We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.
No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.
True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.
Fear. It’s so mundane. It’s so extremely powerful. It’s such an extraordinary tool for manipulation.
Rhone asserts faith is frequently more powerful than facts. I might have doubted this once, but after the last four and a half years I agree. We continue to play out the conflict between those who are fact- and science-based and those who are not, especially in social media, steadily becoming more divided and disconnected as each side polarizes further.
We are evolved to experience feelings, and fear in particular is an important evolutionary advantage.
I think of faith as a spiritual connection, and we’re evolved, as social, conscious beings, to connect. Connection is a primary human need.
It seems to me a balance of faith, fear, and facts is optimal for navigating through life.
Where does the balance go wrong?
It goes wrong when we deify a misinformed or dishonest person. When we misplace our faith, in other words. We accept someone’s version of reality, their ideology, their beliefs, without question. Sometimes we do it because we believe they have power we need. Sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes we do it because we have no self-confidence; we feel powerless to think and learn for ourselves. Sometimes we do it out of misguided compassion.
The balance goes wrong if we fear our fear and are unable to manage it. Fear becomes so consuming we’ll do anything for relief, including refuse to deal with facts that scare us.
So we develop faith in something – anything – that makes us feel better and relieves our fear.
Perhaps our problem is not literacy, or education, or access to resource, or discerning fact from fantasy, but simply our inability to cope with fear.
During my lifetime, I’ve watched our culture become increasingly inauthentic as we consumers demand more and better ways to live in a fantasy world. Role playing games, superhero movies, digital image manipulation, porn, virtual reality tech and special effects allow us to sink into illusion.
Over Memorial Day weekend I did an experiment. I installed a free hidden objects game on my laptop to see what it was like.
It was a big file and took several minutes to download. When I opened it, it covered my whole screen, corner to corner. I couldn’t see my task bar or clock. There was no obvious way to exit; I used the Escape button. The graphics were colorful, animated, attractive, and interesting. A pop-up suggested I use headphones to fully experience the sound. Constant pop-ups urged me to join social media communities playing the game. Constant pop-ups advertised other games (paid) I could play, or pressured me to purchase tools and tokens that would make me a better, faster, more successful player in the “free” game I downloaded.
Free, yes. Want to compete successfully? Want to win? Now you have to buy things!
By the way, if you play every day you get extra points!
The game was cluttered. It provided constant validation and reinforcement. The characters were good-looking, well-dressed and Caucasian. Beautiful food and drink, jewels, and true love were heavily emphasized. One collects points and objects and advances in levels. You don’t have to search for what you need, though, if you’re feeling fatigued. You can simply buy what you need.
The puzzles were timed, of course, which made them a lot less fun for me. Although one plays alone, the competitive aspects were continually reinforced.
The reviews of the game say things like “Beautiful!” and “Addictive!”
Because, you know, addiction is a good thing.
I played for a couple of hours. During those hours I didn’t invest in health, happiness, resource , resilience, or my own power. I wasn’t present in the real world.
I also didn’t think about climate change, politics, my job, or getting the car into the shop for brake work.
My feelings were numbed. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t anything else, either.
When I exited the software, I felt as though I’d eaten a bag of jelly beans. I uninstalled the game Tuesday morning.
Have we become a culture that favors illusion over real life? Do we prefer fantasy, as long as it makes us feel “good,” entertains us, or distracts us? Do we prefer being led and manipulated to thinking for ourselves and forging our own paths?
I feel sad and scared after this experiment. If we don’t choose to live in the real world and deal with facts, we have no hope of solving the challenges and problems facing us, from maintaining our cars to managing climate change.
Fear helps us survive. The feeling tells us we must take action. If we refuse to feel fear, or respond to it, we will be deselected.
Facts can be inconvenient and unpleasant, but refusing to deal with them is like refusing to deal with fear. They don’t disappear if we deny them. Nothing can be solved or learned if we refuse to acknowledge facts.
Reality endures. Truth and clarity are powerful. Illusion lies. It might be seductive for a time. Illusion might pretend to be power. In the end, however, it’s empty. It only takes and weakens. It enslaves us, confuses us, and steals our power. It increases our fear while pretending to relieve it.
Faith is a choice about where we put our trust and confidence.
So, here’s a question. What does a happy person look like? Out in the world, how do we pick out the happy ones from the sad ones? Do we look happy to other people?
This morning my partner and I sat in the sun at the breakfast table after we finished eating. We eat in front of a big window with a southern exposure. Outside the window is our bird feeder station. I had a mug of hot tea between my palms. Our big brown tabby, Oz, was stretched out on the table in the sun within touching distance, should we care to pay homage to his gleaming coat and superior self. After a luxurious stretch, during which he lengthened by six inches, his paw was in close proximity to my water. It was a coincidence, entirely innocent. Ozzy would never dream of knocking over a drink. He was merely sunbathing.
I was warm and had a stomach full of good food. I felt peaceful and content. Happy. I sat with my eyes closed and my hand on my water glass, soaking up the sun and the silent, relaxed presence of my two companions.
In those moments I was consciously happy. I was not laughing, talking, taking a selfie, dressed up, made up, or sitting in an elegant, expensive home. One of the panes of glass in that window is broken from snow sliding off the roof. The table we eat at used to be a workshop table and is stained, scarred, and pitted.
One of my best friends, who is also a reader of this blog, remarked a couple of days ago that happy doesn’t look the same on everyone.
I’ve written about pseudo self before, our propensity to build a careful façade to display to the world. Everything about advertising and many aspects of social media set us up to believe toxic mimics for happiness are the real thing.
Even I, who don’t watch TV and am not on social media, couldn’t have defined happiness before I started reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., and writing this series. I knew what happiness was supposed to look like, though. It’s bright and colorful. Attractive, animated, healthy-looking, well-groomed people smile and laugh. Every relationship is obviously loving, tender, exciting. Animals and children are adorable. Food, diamonds, cars, and clothing are gorgeous and enticing.
Except the “happiness” displayed on our screens is like the romance displayed on our screens. It’s not real. It’s a seductive, carefully created fantasy, unattainable and unrealistic. It’s for-profit entertainment and manipulation. It’s a laugh track.
The ingredients of happiness are not on a screen. Or in a mirror. Or in a closet, basement, attic, garage, store, or storage unit.
We experience different intensities of feelings, and we differ in our ability and willingness to express those feelings. Someone who feels ecstatic happiness may indeed demonstrate ecstasy, but not necessarily. Some feel deeply and intensely, but do not communicate their experience to onlookers. A person who communicates rapture may not be any happier than one who expresses harmony and relaxation.
On the other hand, and social media teaches us this, some people work very hard on a happy façade but are in truth deeply unhappy.
My own experience of happiness is frequently subtle. Peace and contentment are dove grey, not neon orange.
Are we losing our ability to see and value the subtleties in life, the understated, the quiet, the neutral colors, the silence and spaces between action, stimulation, events and possessions?
Have we forgotten happiness can be found in a few humble, unextraordinary, unrecorded minutes in the sun at a scarred table with loved ones after breakfast?
If we asked the people in our lives about their perception of happiness — their own and ours — what would they say? Is there a gap between our own experience of happiness and the way others perceive us? If so, why? Is the confusion in our expression or their perception? When we long for those we love to be happy, what do we mean?
Happiness is not one size fits all. It doesn’t look the same, sound the same or feel the same for everyone. Before we decide we ourselves or others are unhappy, it’s useful to remember that. Perhaps we’re happier than we realize, even though our lives don’t look like a movie or a popular and carefully created Facebook or Instagram account.
Here in Maine we occasionally have long days of rain mixed with snow, especially this time of year. The sky is dark and sodden, pressing all the light out of the day. It’s foggy, icy, cold and wet. I have a pair of rubber-ducky yellow boots I wear on such days. They’re ridiculously bright and cheerful. I wore them into work recently, and one of my coworkers remarked on them. I told him I love them because they make me smile.
He said they made him smile, too. And he did.
My yellow boots give me happiness, and I even get to share it.