Remember the first time you heard about this thing called Facebook? In February of 2004, this new way of connecting, communicating and sharing burst onto the scene. I resisted the temptation for a couple of years, but once I saw the possibilities, I was hooked. I connected with friends from all of the various stages of my life. It was exhilarating and exciting. And at home, Facebook provided wonderful entertainment as soon the race was on for “friends.” A common dinner conversation consisted of, “Donna friended me, did she friend you?” “What do you mean Amy messaged you, she didn’t message me?!” Life became a whirlwind of likes, friend requests and numbers. Numbers of friends, number of likes, number of comments…these things were important.
Now it’s an unbelievable twelve years later. Facebook has become a normal part of our society and the lives of so many. With close to a billion users out there, one can easily throw a stone and hit a Facebook user. And with most of humanity using a smart phone these days, the amount of time people spend engaged in posting, liking and commenting is quite simply mind blowing. I imagine that many of you have resisted the masses and find yourselves blissfully detached from Facebook, but if you’re like me and 1500 miles away from home, friends and family – this is the easiest way to keep up to date on day to day lives and milestones. However, as I look around here tonight, on this holiest of holy days on the Jewish calendar, a time of forgiveness and healing…I feel that I need to make a confession to you, as you represent many of my 701 facebook friends….because the truth is… If I post a picture on Facebook, I might as well use a jeweler’s loupe. I’m checking every angle in order to make sure that I don’t look too old, too wide, too short, too….whatever. I don’t go so far as to edit my pictures, but I definitely make sure that I look good in whatever I put out there. And, I have yet another confession to make. Although I enjoy connecting with so many of you on social media, I have unfollowed almost every single one of you. Now, to those of you who don’t know the nuances of facebook…there is unfollowing and there is unfriending. Un-friending is similar to “dropping the mic”. It is the punctuation mark on a broken relationship, the official end that signifies that there is no more to be said or learned about one another. Unfollowing, however, is very different. Unfollowing means that you do not have to see every post that your friends make. To me, it means that I value your friendship and the relationship that we have, but that I can no longer invest the time necessary in order to see pictures of your lunch, your political speeches, or which NFL team mascot you most resemble. But I want to be clear – it’s not you, it’s me. The social media ambivalence that I have been feeling came to me recently when I read an article about the effect that constant Facebook perusal can have on your life. It said that the more we use Facebook, or Instagram for that matter, the higher the likelihood that we will feel depressed. When we see someone else’s pictures and posts, our brain automatically fills in the blanks of the highlight reels that we are seeing. At the same time, we’re so caught up in our own mundaneness and what’s lacking in our own lives, it’s hard not to feel bad about ourselves. And you know, it’s true. And I realized, while reading this article, that it’s not what people post that has me unfollowing – it’s actually what they don’t post.
Let me explain. A recent study found that Two-thirds of users on social media lie when posting. Sounds pretty harmless, though, right? Who doesn’t polish their lives a bit on Facebook by making them seem more glamorous, or photoshop their pictures so they look even more gorgeous? The study went on to find that the most common social-media lies include pretending to be out when really being at home, lying about relationships, and lying about career success. The respondents said that they lied out of fear of appearing boring or out of jealousy about their friends’ more exciting posts. The study even coined a term for this phenomena – “airbrushed reality.”
The more I thought about it, the more disillusioned I became with social media because the truth is that pictures that we post are just small snapshots of our lives. Imagine life as an enormous iceberg and the small portion above the water is equivalent to what we see on social media. There is so much more lying deep beneath the surface, unseen to those on top of the water. However we look at this iceberg and assume that we are seeing the whole picture just like when we look at social media we incorrectly assume that we are seeing a whole and accurate portrayal of someone’s life. Everyone has the right to post whatever they would like on social media. This is their right and I do not disagree. There is nothing wrong with social media and its original intentions of sharing photos and information with our friends and family. However overtime, somehow, this mass media outlet has spiraled out of control and turned into a validation of young people’s beauty, happiness and self-worth.
You might have noticed this unbelievably gorgeous tallis that I have on. You could say that I have Facebook to thank for it. Growing up in Boston, I had a tight group of friends from the time I was four years old. We swam together, ice skated together, went to school together and played together. Inevitably, about an hour into our play dates, my friend Kirsten would drift off to the side. She would almost hunch into herself, pull a sketch pad out of somewhere and create pure beauty on her paper. Even at four years old, we recognized her talent. As the years went by, we all remained friends, though like typical teenagers, we drifted towards different cliques. I would always see Kirsten, dressed from head to toe in black, with her black lipstick and black combat boots walking through the halls – and to the casual observer we probably looked like a scene out of the Breakfast club as me, in my prized Varsity Swimming Jacket and she, in her goth apparel would high five as we passed each other in the halls. Days turned into years, and I didn’t see her again…until a few years ago when we re-connected on Facebook. It was no surprise to me that she had become a well-known artist. Her work screamed to me from the screen – vibrant colors – reds, oranges, blues on silk, the motifs of fire seeming to wind its way through every piece. I was immediately called by and obsessed with her work. One day, I messaged her and I asked if anyone had ever commissioned her to make a tallis? Her immediate response was, “Do you know how healing this would be for me if you wanted one made?” “For as long as we have known each other, I am ashamed to tell you that my ancestors were some of the worst German evil in history. My mother’s people were their slaves more or less, historically, but she feels so much guilt she even goes to temple, despite being born to a Mennonite family. I have such a quagmire of ancestry. Nothing would be nicer in all my adventures in German guilt and coming to acceptance if I could create a prayer shawl for you.”
Over the next year, we would have countless conversations as my German friend, mortally ashamed of her ancestry, researched, learned and studied the halakha or jewish law of how a tallis and its tzit tzit must be made. And I, in turn learned more about my friend, with whom I hadn’t spoken in 20 years. Her father’s people were aristocrats, wealthy, powerful land owners with titles and many castles. The only information she knew was that her great grandfather (around 1901-04) saw the fall of the aristocracy coming, sided with the people, converted to Lutheran and had to leave then because his brothers were going to kill him over it. The other thing she knew was that anything German was forbidden in her home because they did not want any ties to Nazi Germany. The language was forbidden. The cooking was changed. Practically everything. No ties to Germans or Germany would carry forth into the new world. No crown jewels, no artifacts but a culture to some extent that would take many generations to temper. The rest she learned from the internet, history books and our classmate, who in third grade or so, told her that her ancestors in Germany were nazis and killed his relatives. Though she had no idea what that meant at the time, she thought about the guilt that her parents seemed to hold over the years.
I thought a lot about the firey images in her artwork and looked to a description of her artwork on her website in which she says “Media and message combine for the image. Controlling media is something of an alchemy, invoking the ancients’ sense of evidence of authenticity. From time to time, peoples have perished; rapture, or the imagination of salvation from catastrophe gives surviving people a joyful sense of renewal and belief in the endurance of immortal.” She dropped her German last name and considered herself post-German. She told me that she had been asked if she made tallises before and every time, even though they thought her imagery went with it, they ultimately didn’t want a German maker to do it, especially not an obviously Christian-named one. She told me that laboring over my tallis was about the most meaningful project she had done. It was the culmination of a long journey of learning about spirituality, religions, and then integrating it into her artwork. By doing so, she was no longer ashamed, but almost vindicated, in her own mind, by creating something for the community she was always afraid would shun her.
My friend reminds me that one of the foundational commandments in Judaism is v’ahavta l’reacha k’mocha—to love others as we love ourselves. This biblical verse could have simply said, “Love others”, period.” By linking love of self with love of others, however, the verse underscores the fundamental connection between how we treat ourselves and how we interact with the broader world. In this season of making amends, we would be well-served to turn inward as much as we turn outward, and to look for the connections between the various ways in which we’ve sold ourselves short and beaten our own selves up. As we continue through this Holy season and evaluate where we are and where we’d like to be, we should not forget the importance of also making amends in a third category: ben adam l’atzmo, within ourselves.
A well-known Jewish proverb teaches, “Where there is too much, something is missing.“ I know that most sermons on the holidays implore us to take up a cause, take up an ideal or a value…but I’m challenging us this Erev Yom Kippur to give something up. Give up the feeling that you aren’t interesting enough to post anything other than your food choices. Stop taking selfie after selfie in order to get your perfect side. Stop your quest for more friends, more likes and be happy with those people who don’t need a facebook status in order to know what’s going on in your life. Stop being ashamed. Stop hiding and start being you.
In her commencement speech to Mount Holyoke College, Anna Quindlen quoted Carl Jung who once said, “If people can be educated to see the lowly side of their own natures, it may be hoped that they will also learn to understand and to love their fellow men better. A little less hypocrisy and a little more tolerance toward oneself can only have good results in respect for our neighbors, for we are all too prone to transfer to our fellows the injustice and violence we inflict upon our own natures.” If I’ve learned anything this past year, it is that the problem with being ashamed of yourself, or hiding part of yourself, or airbrushing reality is that you spend so much time on being perfect, that you very often overlook the work of becoming yourself.
The Kotzker Rebbe taught that “People are accustomed to look at the heavens and to wonder what happens there. It would be better if they would look within themselves, to see what happens there.” Validation of our self-worth, beauty and happiness should not come from social media or through the expectations or perception of others. It should come from within us. This is no representation of who we are or what we are worth as a person. We should not only start portraying real beauty and real happiness but also the struggles of real life. It is what’s real that is most beautiful, the good and the bad. Because true beauty is how you feel about yourself, not about what you see in the mirror.True beauty is being the best version of yourself on the inside and the out.