I read a blog post last summer that won’t let go of me. I don’t remember where I read it, who wrote it, where it originated, only the topic, which I have labeled in my mind as “photographs are liars.” The post was made up of a series of pictures of several different women who were suffering from varying degrees of postpartum depression and anxiety. In the photos they were all smiles, arms around their children, leaning into friends or spouses, nuzzling the cheeks of tiny babies. The captions told a different story, the true story, about what had really been going on that day, before and after and sometimes even during the snap of the photo. One talked about how she had just been discharged from the psychiatric ward that same day. Another described how she had to call her mother to come get her 2 week-old the next morning because she just couldn’t make herself get up and go through the motions of caring for him. I can’t stop thinking about it, because a photo snapped with a smart phone on a random Tuesday afternoon is just the tip of the iceberg. Upload that photo to social media on Wednesday morning, and by lunchtime, every person who sees it, from your aunt in Seattle to your best friend to that lady across the hall at work, forms an opinion, and that opinion is often false.
I have run across a few pieces lately on the great “information” hub that is Facebook about appearance versus reality, particularly where social media is concerned. In short, for many daily posters, many writers suggest that the photos and statuses and check-ins and 160-character shout-outs do not line up with real life. Does the source of the disconnect lie with the poster or the reader? Are we painting a pretty picture of ourselves, our lives, our jobs, and our kids? Do we want people to think we are always neat and smooth and tucked in around the edges? Do we need the high fives and back pats, or in some cases, the pity-fests and sad emojis, that our posts generate? Or are we as readers making our own judgments based on what we read in our newsfeeds every day? Are we labeling the members of our social media networks faster than they can share their 30 Day Challenge result photos or their kids’ academic accomplishments? Probably and probably.
I am not particularly fond of trumpeting my pain or outing my weaknesses, but that photo article has me thinking. While I’m not one of those fantasy posters, whose main social media objective is to create an illusion of perfection, I do practice omission. I prefer to deal with my crazy and my crap in my own space, not on the billboard that is the internet. This has always been my way, and I’m comfortable with it, and yet, I am haunted by that blog post, by all those smiling women who were crumbling on the inside even as their selfies told a different story. Perhaps I’m haunted because I know those women. I am those women. We choose to smile for the camera because we want to remember moments with our kids and families and friends as good and fun and happy, because who wants frames and photo albums and years of Facebook posts filled with sad faces and red eyes?
My only point of reference is my own Facebook news feed, and it’s probably a lot like yours: on Facebook, as in life, it takes all kinds. People will post…anything, it seems. The majority of posts on my own Facebook timeline are articles I found funny or important, humorous links and pictures posted by friends, statuses my husband tagged me in (often involving bacon), random funny moments and observations, and the very occasional photo of my kids and family. The few photos of me on my own or my husband’s news feed from the past year or two are smiling and happy. I appear to be having a great time, and truthfully, I might have been in that moment. But parts of the past two years were hard, filled with moments of struggle I chose to keep to myself. Brutal days, dark tunnels, unshakable sadness, debilitating anxiety–most of it hidden from view, because every ounce of energy I had went into maintaining a semblance of normalcy for my family. There is little to indicate what was actually happening in my life (unless you count the handful of run stats prior to my rendezvous with The Evil Ovary last August) or in my head, save an article or two about depression and anxiety, and a quote here and there, that hinted at the circumstances beyond the realm of the screen.
It’s a conundrum for me for sure: I am troubled deeply by the sad, broken, smiling women in those photographs, and yet, I do it, too. Why, then, am I so bothered by their confessions? I have been pondering this for half a year, and I think the truth of it is starting to sink in for me, or at least my version of the truth, which is that we as a society are so programmed to believe what we see on a screen, we forget that those are real people dotting the landscape of our news feeds, and they are experiencing real life, and life can be hard. Sometimes we judge them and forget what they might be going through, and sometimes we use their smiling faces as a meter by which to judge our own circumstances. Before Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, before all the world was a digital stage, we actually had to hang out with people or talk to them on the phone or exchange mail with them in order to know what was going on in each other’s lives. Now we can spy on our hundreds of “friends” and make assumptions about their existence without ever really knowing if our conclusions are accurate, and oftentimes those conclusions are terribly off base and hurtful–for them and for us.
When I was in college in the early to mid 1990s, I experienced what I now jokingly refer to as my “little breakdown.” A handful of people who were in my inner circle at that time knew that I was struggling. The photographs of me from that time, of course, show a smiling, happy, successful student. There were good days mixed into those hard days, because that is how life works, and I can look at those pictures and remember both. And the people who went through that time with me can do the same, because they knew me, they were with me during those days. Fast forward to two summers ago after the birth of my son. Riddled with unbalanced hormones, sleep-deprived, and dealing with a legal situation I would wish on no one, I found myself in a similar state. Again, there are photos of me smiling, looking engaged and happy, but the inner circle I had enjoyed 20 years before didn’t quite look the same. The only person I saw every day besides my kids was my husband. Nearly every other communication I had was virtual, and while some people have the intuitive capability to read between the lines of a photo on Facebook or a 10 minute text exchange, others do not. Others say things like, “Well you looked just fine yesterday,” even when all they know of yesterday is what they saw on social media. That, I think, is the heart of this matter for me: that despite the picture I share with my 513 “friends” on Facebook, I want to know that at least a few of that number are actual friends, confidantes who know me well enough to see past those well constructed pixels. I want to know that despite how together I might appear on the outside, there are people who know I am fighting the good fight on the inside, and it is hard.
And here is the saddest thing of all: I fear we are so conditioned to believe what we read on a website, see on television, skim on Facebook, that it’s hard to turn off that filter when we are face to face with living, breathing three-dimensional people. I’m reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s Carry On, Warrior this week, and she tells the story of how a woman told her at church one Sunday that her family was perfect and that this perfection “made her feel bad about her own family. This happened three or four times over a two-week period. Once a woman said, ‘You are so pulled together. It makes me feel so apart.'” She goes on to share this theory: “If you are thin and smile a lot, people tend to believe that you have the universe’s secrets in your pocket and that a raindrop has never fallen on your head. If you also happen to be wearing trendy jeans, well then, fuggedaboutit.” She laments that she wanted her outsides to match her insides so that people who saw her would know what she was about, but she didn’t want to have to “start looking like Pig Pen or Courtney Love to make that happen.” I had two very strong reactions upon reading this. The first was powerful guilt. When I started reading Glennon’s blog, Momastery, I knew nothing about her. The most recent post at that time showed a picture of her standing on a beach wearing cute exercise clothes. I immediately felt envy over her narrow waist and muscular arms and legs and her amazing, prolific writing. I was struggling to lose pregnancy weight, recovering from a medical scare, and desperate to be myself again, to laugh and write and feel. And then I read her story–daily struggles with anxiety and depression, recovering alcoholic and bulimic, suffering from chronic symptoms of Lyme disease, broken but so authentic. I had recently been told by one of my closest friends that it looked like I was having a “super great summer” based on some snaps from the pool my husband had posted. I should have known better.
Which brings me to my second strong reaction: YES. That. What if all our outsides matched our insides? Wouldn’t a lot of people be shocked by what they saw. I’m picturing a cross between a horror film and a bad reality show. But for many of us–I daresay most–it is human nature to put ourselves together, make ourselves look reasonably functional, try to participate in life as normally as possible. I really don’t feel like this is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s kind of a survival technique. What’s bad is that we–even those of us who are also in the trenches–make assumptions based on the version of normal someone has chosen to wear around, and our assumptions are usually as misguided in real life as they are on Facebook. Earlier this fall I went to work reeling from a terrible morning that involved a lot of yelling and crying and backtalk and hurtful words. Being a mom to a daughter is sometimes hard. I felt like I had failed on so many levels, I was sad and angry, and I was fighting the urge to cry, and then a coworker vented to me about her own bad parenting morning and ended her rant with the statement, “You are always so calm. I wish I could be more like you as a parent. I’m sure you never yell at your kids.” I felt my eyes widen and I said, probably louder and more forcibly than I meant to, “How do you know what kind of parent I am? You have never seen me parent! I am far from calm!” and then I walked away fuming. I was furious because someone judged my parenting based on my behavior on the job, but when I really stopped to think about it, I was reminded of that article, those struggling post-partum moms, and of Glennon Doyle Melton, and I had to wonder if God wasn’t trying to teach me this hard, hard lesson: we just never know, so we–all of us–should assume nothing.
It is a tall order to suggest that we stop having thoughts about the photos of our friends and acquaintances and coworkers and even famous people we see on social media. We really can’t help it; our brains have been conditioned to create meaning out of what we see and hear since we opened our eyes and took our first breath. But we can work a little harder to ensure that the meaning we create is authentic, and not some version of the truth we have made based on the most basic criteria. We can fill in the blanks–because, believe me, whether you see them or not, there are blanks–with what we know to be true about these people, our people. We can ask questions, particularly when we are processing the smiling faces of our real life friends: How are you…really? Are you struggling with ___ right now? What kind of day are you having? And if that doesn’t work, we can just show up, take a walk, make a drive, dial a phone number, and appear at the doors that open into the real, dirty, messy lives of our friends and family (sidenote: don’t try to show up in the real life of, say, Angelina Jolie–I’m thinking that wouldn’t go over well) and be a part of whatever story is happening behind the camera. I know it’s so 1990s of me to make such a suggestion, but I can’t think of a better way to break the habit of making snap judgments.
The family photo at the top of this post was taken the weekend before Thanksgiving. That day was a good day. Our house was filled with friends who are like family, and one of them was kind enough to take some pictures of us; we were all healthy in that moment, at least temporarily free of the cold we all seem to have had since October; we were looking forward to the holiday season, even as it barreled toward us like a runaway train. Life is like that: you can be standing firmly in a good spot and in what seems like a split second, you are flat on your back. Or vice versa. Again and again, over and over. One minute you are chilling on a blanket with your family, and then out of nowhere, your little brother’s foot has collided forcibly with your face, and then, the sting fades and you find yourself smiling at the very thing that made you cry seconds earlier. This is not some Facebook edit. This is reality, and it rarely makes the front page. But maybe it should. Maybe we would all be kinder to each other if, at least every once in a while, we were honest on the outside about what was happening on the inside.
I sent out that first photo as my family Christmas card, but I put this other photo (and two others like it) on the back, just as a little joke. We made up a little sentiment about how sometimes little brothers kick and big sisters cry, and life is like that, and may your new year not be full of tears and blows to the head. You see, my daughter is crying because my son had, moments before, nailed her right in the side of the face with his tantrummy little Converse All-Star. My son looks mildly confused and quite ready to take leave of the whole situation. I am ready to call the entire photo session off, and my husband is reassuring me that it will all be fine, which is what he does. Truthfully, I am also probably telling him that our firstborn is more than likely almost definitely suffering from the early stages of a concussion, because that is what I do. Y’all, I have never gotten so many comments about a Christmas card. People liked the happy smiley photo, because hey, it is a good photo of my little family. But people loved the reality shots on the back. Loved them. It baffled me at first, but I think I understand now. We see each other every day, but so much of the time we don’t see what we’re seeing. We aren’t getting the just-slightly-before and the moments-after and the messy right-in-the-middle of these lives we peek at on social media. We see the doctored, well constructed, carefully edited Good Shot, but we are longing for the tears and the kicks to the head and the worst case scenarios, because that is part of life. Every life. When we let people glimpse our insides, we are saying collectively, “You aren’t alone. There is some crazy and some crying behind every smile.”
I am working on this. Every day I am trying to look at the people around me with a little more compassion–the ones I meet in person and the ones I come across on Facebook and Instagram. I am trying to see the cracks and recognize the places where tears have recently been. I am trying to remember what I already know, which is that just because the sky is blue and the sun is shining does not mean I’m looking at the comfortable warmth of springtime. I am reminding myself of the truth: this picture is one second among a million seconds, and I cannot let it be the only story I read–or the only one I tell.