Reflection: The "curated self" and the search for connection

I read an article yesterday in the Boston Globe that really got me thinking.  It was about social media and self-esteem.  The article reported that a 2013 study by the University of Michigan asked participants five times a day to rate their feelings about themselves, and to report how many times they had viewed Facebook that day.  The more times participants read their Facebook feeds, the less their self-esteem.  The article went on to suggest that reading about and viewing photos of what appears to be the perfect lives of Facebook friends makes people feel bad about their own far-from-perfect lives.

This reflection from me is not meant, by the way, to be a rant about social media, or a plea to get off all social media.  But it is meant to be an invitation to seek real connection with others and to cultivate those relationships that allow us to be our authentic selves.  The very nature of social media, with its "like" versus "dislike" culture encourages us to seek to be liked rather than to be real.  As one scholar quoted in the Globe observed, that has to affect not just self-esteem but our own values and relationships.  It leads people to feel like frauds.  The article used the intriguing term "curated self" to describe the carefully moderated, always positive selves people show on social media.

You know, a few years ago, I stopped reading Christmas letters.  I love to get cards and photographs, and I'm thrilled with handwritten notes.  But I just stopped reading the mass-produced form letters with descriptions of splashy vacations, job promotions, children with perfect smiles and harmonious relationships with their parents and top grades, and well-behaved pets.  I thought, These would be pretty hard to read for someone with a stalled career or a job loss, or someone going through a divorce or the death of a family member, someone with a child being bullied at school or struggling with addiction, or a person whose last "vacation" was spent moving an elderly parent to a nursing home.  It occurs to me that most of the time, social media postings are like those Christmas letters except with 24/7 updates.

The thing is, I think that a lot of us find ourselves presenting that "curated self" all the time, trying to pretend that every aspect of our lives is just perfect, or that we're always cheerful and happy--even when things are far from perfect, even when we're falling apart.  I hope that each of us has someone--or even better, many someones--with whom we can be our genuine selves, with whom we can be authentic and even vulnerable.  I hope that our church is a place where people feel safe to share not just the great things in our lives, but the sorrows and the fears, the stuff that has us up at night staring into the darkness or pacing the floor.

Everyone at our church knows that I hit a very rough patch at Christmastime last year.  Most people were surprised at first, because I was presenting that curated self.  From the outside, it must have looked as if everything were just great, even though that was far from true.  What I've learned these past few months is that sharing my real self, being willing to be imperfect, to admit mistakes, to share feelings (even the "dark ones" like fear or anger) opens the way to genuine, deep relationships and real connection.  It is ironic, but I believe that real strength is not relentless cheerfulness or stoicism, but rather the willingness to be vulnerable.
Our faith teaches us that God loves us, not in spite of who we are, but because of who we are.  God loves us so much that God was willing to do anything to be in relationship with us.  God was even willing to be one of us, to reach humanity by becoming human.  As a child I once knew used to say, "Jesus was God with skin."  (That's the best description of the incarnation I've ever heard, by the way.)  And our charge is to love others--and ourselves--the way God loves.  As people of faith, we're invited to challenge the "like" versus "dislike" culture and to love others right where they are.  We're invited to let go of our curated selves and to be our authentic selves.

I'll admit that I hope that any photographs people post on Facebook are flattering, and that I hope that we can come up with a picture in which everyone in our family is smiling at the same time by Christmas card time--but I also hope that in my interactions with the people in my life I'll be brave enough to show my real self, warts and all.  Actually, that is my hope and my prayer for each one of us. 

--The Rev. Mary Scott Wagner, Rector, Church of the Good Shepherd, Reading.  First published in the Oct. 1, 2014, issue of "The Good Word" e-newsletter and republished here with permission.

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