This morning I watched longingly as a mom and her two young children sauntered past my window. They were walking slowly and looking up at the trees. I could imagine the dialogue between them. “Mom, look, there’s a nest.” “Oh...you’re right. Good eye!” “Mom, look, there’s a bird.” “Oh, gosh, you are so observant.” “Mom, look. Mom, look. Mom, look.”
Every child has their own way of asking to be watched. My own nephew’s phrase of choice goes something like, “Dadalookit.” “Mamalookit.” It isn’t four distinct words, “Daddy/Mommy look at this.” It’s more of a singular sound and it is distinctly his. Before he spoke, the sound was a movement and he would gently, but firmly, put a hand on each side of our faces and direct our gaze to whatever it was he wanted us to see. He, like every one of us, wants to be watched.
We all do things every day to either attract or defend against the notice of others. We accomplish, we please, we shock, we comply, we dress, and we perform. In our own unique ways what we’re really saying is, “Worldlookit, here I am, notice me, validate me, tell me I matter.”
In a world where every coffee date, small group get together, and even chance meeting is blogged, photo texted, and tweeted we have more ways than ever to be seen. The new narcissism emerging from this trend is noticeable. So are the ways in which our efforts to be seen are causing commensurate feelings of loneliness, failure, and lack in those that are doing the looking. And, really, isn’t that all of us? When logging into Facebook gives us opportunity to know what parties we were excluded from, our fear of rejection is fueled. When watching the walls of “friends” serves to clarify the lack of action on our own, we feel the fool. When comparing the photos of our thinner (at least from that angle), richer (in objects, wealth, friends, or beauty), and more accomplished (at least in our own minds) friends to our own, the disparity between their “more” and our “less” takes us down.
To be fair, there are positives to the way in which our technology connects us. We are more aware of the day to day lives of a broader range of friends. We can get the word out about timely events and occurrences and have access to friends far away. We can organize ourselves to support important causes and needs and communicate with the world in important new ways. These are gifts.
There is something strangely powerful, however, about broadcasting our lives and being seen for what we do that is not always about gifting. There is a heady sense of thrill when a post (or tweet or text) elicits a long string of responses or when a photo gets forwarded (and forwarded and forwarded and forwarded...) or when people publicly admire something we’ve done. When we say “Worldlookit” and it looks, we light up.
The problem is, we light up...for a moment. Then someone else’s “Worldlookit” distracts the gaze of our community and we are left look-less. Or lonely. Or envious. Or hungry for the attention we were enjoying. Little of this is conscious and even less is chosen.
As water will fill our empty bellies and make us feel full, so will the look from others make us feel attended to. That’s important. Read it again. As water will fill our empty bellies and make us feel full, so will the look from others make us feel attended to. Truthfully, however, being attended to merely by being seen is yet a drop in the bucket of what we most deeply long for.
We long, I believe, to be known. To be seen “through” in some ways. While it terrifies us, we want what is real about ourselves to be met by others. The external things we do and ways we present ourselves are little more than symbolic Facebook walls which we use to either accurately or deceptively communicate about what is inside of us.
How many times have you posted a status update that reads, “Sitting at Starbucks feeling lonely and regretting the fight I picked with my friend” or posted a photo of yourself from an angle that is less than flattering? How many times have you received a tweet that says “I am insecure and could really use some genuine affirmation”? Instead of these honest reflections we tailor our disclosures hiding within them an often unconscious desire to be seen instead of known.
I am far from inexperienced here. My own flip-flopping tendencies to both desire and be uncomfortable with the attention of others leads to paralysis in the face of social media. I avoid my personal Facebook wall for two reasons: 1) the reality that telling the world what I’m up to in any particular moment doesn’t feel very different than a narcissistic entitlement to direct the spotlight to myself and 2) the possibility of how I’ll feel when others more accomplished, more celebrated, and more-in-every-way-than-me post status’ that push my “less than” buttons. Even though I know that walls provide only a small and uni-dimensional view of my “friends,” I still fall prey to the opportunity to compare and evaluate that it breeds. I know how to ask to be truly known and yet I still, at times, settle into a desire to be seen instead. It’s so much tidier and focused, you see, if I control what you see of me.
My mind knows, however, that “Worldlookit” becomes so much more powerful and rich when it is converted to “You who I know to be safe and caring and care-full, please know me.” My mind knows but my automatic and culture shaped behaviors still get the best of me. It is hard to push past the easier need to be seen to the harder work of asking and inviting to be known.
And so, I repeat, again and again: Being seen is satisfying. Being known is meaningful. Being seen is stimulating. Being known is risky. Being seen often feels safe and within the range of my control. I can hide from, avoid, and divert being seen. Being known, however, involves an openness that is opposite of hiding, avoiding, and diversion. It feels vulnerable and terribly out of control and exposed and wonderful and deep and frightening and wonderful and fearful and free and messy and substantive and inconvenient and wonderful and wonderful and wonderful and...