Paradoxology by Krish Kandiah, Free for CAPC Members
Paradoxology provides an apologetic for uncertainty and a defense of discomfort.
Social media creates a curious existential balance. It allows us to be continuously connected and completely alone, simultaneously. This conflict of being has piqued our philosophical imaginations, provoking us to reflect on what these new ways of relating to others signify. For years, we have conjectured, speculated, and wondered about the situation of our selves, most specifically the selves that we project online. Almost every facet of our Web-based human relationships is drastically different from its real-life counterpart, which has led some experts to question whether these online social interactions are healthy. But even though we aren’t strangers to the idea that online interactions have potentially negative consequences for self-esteem, self-image, and satisfaction with reality, few of us have curtailed our usage.
We who have assumed a kind of second life on the Internet have become well-acquainted with the backspace key. We are masters of deleting, filtering, and editing.Despite being bombarded with all kinds of cautions about how to deal moderately with social media, we still frequently find ourselves carefully curating our online persona. What we share on social media might be intended to build relationships with family and friends, but it is often packaged as content created exclusively for a specific group of consumers. Some users are selective with what they share online for prudent reasons, but many social media users post out of apprehension, hoping to convince others that their online presence reflects a life worthy of being followed by their friends.
The online documentation we create and share is hardly a real-time record of our everyday lives. Instead, we who have assumed a kind of second life on the Internet have become well-acquainted with the backspace key. We are masters of deleting, filtering, and editing. We maintain an acute sense of presentation. In the worst cases, our concern for upholding the image can outweigh our regard for accurate content—or even promote a complete dismissal of the truth. Even an admissions of failure are turned into self-depreciating trends, like #firstworldproblems, communicating imperfections that shine with quirkiness and wit. Online, our triumphs are pristine and our faults are charming. There is no room for ordinary.
Among the many monsters the Internet has bred, one of the most inescapable must be a general sense of discontent. Social media experts have coined the phrase FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out, to describe the anxiety one feels while scrolling through the highlights that “friends” post online. This warped observation of other people’s high points often causes users to feel that something better is happening somewhere else, and they often feel a little lost or even ashamed of their lesser lives.
Social media is like a perpetual high school reunion, one to which we all have a nagging, never-ending invitation. The fact is that these kinds of gatherings used to be contained occasions. Previous generations prepared for these renowned times of social comeuppance with a clear, linear timeline of how it all would begin and end. Before the anticipated event, they had adequate time to prepare an impressive, if false, veneer. Participants chose dates, lost weight, and formulated euphemisms to make their lives impressive and their friends jealous. The event itself might have been high-pressure, but it also had a scheduled end. Social anxieties could be soothed by focusing on the fact that whether the evening was triumphant or awkward, it would, eventually, be over. Afterward, reunion goers could collect a few token souvenirs and be on their way, perhaps with a few uncomfortable memories, but mostly with their egos intact or on the mend.
But social media has ruined this tidy timetable. Every time we log on, we are reunited with old friends, new acquaintances, and every stripe of family member. Many people have detected a latent sense of pressure to please and impress presiding over every post they craft. In this alternate universe of curated presentation, ordinary laws of time and space cease to apply. We regularly travel back in time. We create light where there were shadows and flush colors with saturation. We easily cut out the bad, the distasteful, and the awkward. Frankly, we often lie. Social media users do all of these things for a spectrum of reasons, out of a healthy desire to share our lives within an uplifting community and a vain longing for external validation.
Even with the arsenal of tools at our disposal—implements that revise and gloss over the truth—there are still real limits to the transformations that can be conjured. While we can make adjustments to our timelines, the Internet doesn’t enable us to create more time, nor does it give us superhuman abilities to accomplish more than is physically possible. And that is what ultimately fuels FOMO. Because if you are a graduate student drowning in your dissertation, flipping through photo albums of your college roommate’s wedding doesn’t help build confidence in your life choices. And scrolling through your cousin’s verbose and eloquent remarks about his political internship doesn’t make your work as a stay-at-home mother sound, or feel, very significant. Your intellectual friends are participating in NaNoWriMo and you’re binge-watching Netflix again? It’s hard to feel proud of that (perhaps for good reason). Our lives are a result of our choices, and at some point, all of our choices pale in comparison to the glowing results of someone else’s decisions. To accomplish everything that seems good or fulfilling or right would require a miracle that suspends the laws of physics, a 21st century version of walking on water.
The problem with making big decisions is that choosing one thing effectively means rejecting other options. Sylvia Plath explains this dilemma perfectly in The Bell Jar, a novel that focuses on a young woman’s nervous breakdown as she attempts to navigate the plethora of fine choices that she has earned through her numerous accomplishments. Esther explains her dilemma metaphorically:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
In a society that offers us more choices than we’ve ever been extended, it’s easy to become paralyzed by possibility. Social revolution has broken down gender stereotypes that once withheld certain opportunities from men and women. The Internet has made education essentially accessible to anyone in the civilized world, regardless of the wealth or status of the student. Science is miraculously making mothers out of women whose bodies wouldn’t otherwise allow it. Our potential is effectively infinite. And we are drowning in it.
Without natural limits to our capacity for accomplishment, some of us have become panicked about what we’re missing out on. Afraid to make the wrong choice, we often delay making any kind of choice, postponing our diminishing potential until it begins to wither on its own. We are constantly reminded of the possibilities we surrendered, prone to wonder what might have been had we chosen differently at a number of intersections. Left unchecked, this tendency can become immobilizing, and social media is like a baseball bat to the kneecaps when it comes to crippling conjecture. There, we are fed an endless diet of our friends’ best moments, forced to monitor the carefully crafted details of their lives while we sit on our ordinary couches and scroll through our commonplace smartphones.
Social media places us at a curious crossroads. It constantly asks us which version of reality we will trust as true. Will the lack of continuity between the reality we experience and the reality we consume keep us motionless, painfully uncertain of how to proceed? Will we live our lives in shadows, ashamed that time has bound us so efficiently and kept us from achieving every possible glory? Will we exist in a perpetual state of panic, eternally anxious that we have missed out on The Point of All of This?
How do we, a people who are inundated with images of what we have not done, live unaffected by FOMO? Conventional philosophy maintains that the antidote to fear is peace. But really, it’s hope. And believers are commanded, over and again, to live in hope, to allow it to banish fear and annihilate panic. It is a belief not in external evidence or perfected presentations, but in a comprehensive plan that has been unfolding since the beginning of time. Hope is a relief, a freedom to be both optimistic and confident. Hope releases us to embrace the ordinary, the common, and the present. Hope liberates us from comparison.
Practically speaking, hope delivers us into the providence of God. We need not seek out the miraculous or the spectacular. When we consider the great tradition of faith that we’ve inherited, it becomes clear that God often works miracles square in the middle of ordinary circumstances. He uses what we have immediately available to us—slingshots, loaves and fish, wooden crosses—and brings forth wonders. We have to remember that walking on water only requires that we walk, just as we always have, with faith that the path before us is sure and right. The truth is that our most carefully constructed narratives pale in comparison to the one that is being authentically and actually crafted by God, one that weaves in the mundane and the ordinary with the incarnate and marvelous.
We can move forward knowing that our steps are ordained by an Almighty God, one who has already weighed all possibilities and chosen these very moments to define our existence. There are no gimmicks, no enhancements, and no revisions in this story; His glory is pure, and right, and perfect in its original form. He never asks us to live up to the standards we impose on ourselves, rather, His commands are always simple: Love Him. Love your neighbor. Act justly. Love mercy. And walk humbly with your God, over the common earth and, miraculously, over the water.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.