I had a telephone chat the other day with a good G+friend about the sorts of things we’re willing to share online with perfect strangers, things that once upon a time we might have been more inclined or comfortable sharing with only our closest friends and colleagues in real life. I thought about the profound changes in my own life – the private, creative and business sides of my life – that have expanded my own willingness to explore the world of communicating online about personal things, which is inevitable for a writer of literary nonfiction, for whom anything and everything, to be honest, is fodder for an essay.
And while some might say it’s impossible for anyone who has an online presence to lay claim to any personal mystery at all, I do, in fact, make such a claim. Boundaries most certainly do exist. Not everything is up for discussion. Not everything is offered up on the smorgasbord platter du jour. I do not have people to dinner and post group photos to the net, either at the table or after everyone has gone home. My iPhone is not camera ready at all times. I still haven’t done a HangOut on G+. And I still gravitate toward the familiarity and stability of people I’ve known for a very long time when I choose to reveal particularly personal details of my life, even though the demands of my friends’ lives and the geographical distances between us makes it extremely difficult to pull that off these days.
For all the conversation about how little privacy any of us have in the technological world, I am agog at how remarkably open we are to talking about a lost job, a marriage, a divorce, happiness, sadness, a move, “our smiles our frowns, our ups our downs” (as Henry Higgins woulds say), more open than I can recall at anytime in my life. Is it just because social media has made it easier to be so? I hardly think so. It might seem that way, but I don’t think it’s an accurate assessment. The structure of our lives has changed and that is what has allowed the sea change in our definition of friendship.
For gone are the days when one might work for the same company for many, many years, with a group of colleagues one gets to know better and better year in and year out. And gone as well are the days when one might live in the same house in the same city for a long time, where one could plan on settling down and watching a sapling grow into a fine shade tree for one’s house. Life for many, many people has become a moveable feast of jobs, companies, careers, friends, families, co-workers, apartments and cities.
And so knowing someone well is not such a big requirement for a personal reveal. Nor is proximity. Nor is a common career or the same life’s work or similar daily or weekly rituals, or the same religion or political affiliation.
When I first moved to New York I had a core group of friends with whom I would chat in person or on the phone every day, every week. As time has gone by, my core has scattered all over the world, following the swiftly flowing tides of work, creative endeavors, financial opportunity and love that summon from more and more distant ports of call. The voice, the ear, the counsel, the comfort, the commiseration, laughter and encouragement of a longtime friend in the same time zone with a relatively similar life is not nearly as available as it once was.
And so we send our radio signals out into the aether, because we have learned that a rather remarkable number of people are listening, and interested, and curious and comforting. There can be a rather blissful security in a lack of familiarity. A kind of gentleness of spirit can be revealed among strangers, although to be sure the occasional brute will show up just to cause trouble, because that’s what brutes do for lack of a better and more engaging metier and meaningful purpose on Planet Earth.
But there is another reason, a profound one, that strangers share remarkably personal details about their lives with one another…and it has to do with the healing power of a stranger’s words. I have been following Life, Interrupted, the online Times Journal/Blog of Suleika Jaouad, a beautiful and gifted young woman who has been entertaining the most unwelcome guest of all in her life – Cancer – and writing and talking about it with remarkable honesty, clarity, focus and objectivity…all in a profoundly personal way.
Would I have the courage to let myself be seen bald by the masses?
Would I share every detail with the world at large?
I don’t know. This brave young woman is surrounded by love and family and friendship. Yet she is now also surrounded by strangers, some of whom are in her shoes or who have recently worn similar ones, some of whom know someone in the same boat and all of whom are cheering her on.
Maybe that is what this sharing thing is all about. A certain kind of painful shame is being erased, and perhaps for the good. We don’t need to be ashamed of getting cancer or AIDS or losing our jobs or enduring any one of life’s travails. We don’t need to only share our feelings about our lives with a therapist, as though we are alone, while we figure it all out.
We can reach out, as Suleika Jaouad has done and be met back with a flood of support. The world is indeed changing. In some wonderfully good ways.
Have a lovely evening, everyone.