Have you noticed how beautiful everyone’s lives have become? People’s homes and families, vacations and outings are so artfully photographed and presented they look straight out of Martha Stewart. The trappings of fashion, or dressing up, we see in these photos have always been there. But something is new in how carefully staged we are, how brilliant everything looks on the surface. Cropped in just the right place to create an impeccable view, and enhanced with a filter, or soft and striking light, to make our lives look perennially artful.
But we all know this isn’t true—that the perfect lives we present are not reality. The views we are liking and disseminating are cultured, curated, cropped illusions. We do know this. Or do we not? Do we actually think this loveliness is true for everyone else, therefore we strive to make our own lives reach a similar standard of enviability?
We are slipping back to the 1950s—a time when it was all about appearances. Granted, I wasn’t alive in the 50s (my birth year: 1970), so my view is skewed. What I know of the 50s-era comes from novels like Revolutionary Road, The Hours, and The Final Beast (the last—a Frederick Buechner novel—lesser known, and my favorite). Each era is remembered more for its excesses than the reality, however, and this is true of the 1950s. The excesses associated with the 50s do seem to be reemerging like a genetic disease encoded in our collective DNA. My encapsulation includes: overemphasis on appearances, hiding what is unpleasant—literally or figuratively cropping it out of the picture, striving to keep up with the Joneses, repressing introspection and true vulnerability, a slip back into patriarchy after gains made by women (in the 40s, unfortunately, because of war), a fetishization by parents of children and their activities, tolerance of authoritarianism in aspects of government, and a myopic choosing of the easy way over the best way (think of Crisco, the rise in auto dependence and fossil-fuel gluttony, new gadgets and silly appliances for every task, the expansion of large factories and large factory farms over smaller, sustainable modes of production, a false sense of security in weapons of mass destruction, overspending and emphasis on materialism, scapegoating people of color and immigrants).
Welcome back to the 50s. But instead of Crisco and McDonald’s and Sears-Roebuck, we have Amazon and iTunes and IKEA—companies far more expansive, influential, and culture-shaping than their 1950s forebears. Rather than Elks and Boys Scouts and Rainbow Girls, we have Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram. Nowhere is the influence of these Internet culture-shapers seen more dramatically than in the arts and publishing worlds, where musicians, writers, small-scale makers, and designers are disempowered by economic models making it hard to survive as creatives. But the culture shapers brought to us by the Internet have also changed Main Street and the viability of American-based businesses. Alas, they have gotten into our heads, shaping our worldviews, our views of The Other, our values, and even our elections. Welcome to the 1950s. Thanks a lot, Internet.
I was a late-comer to Instagram, but joined up a couple of months ago. Because I wanted something on my page, I posted several photos in the first weeks. In doing so, I noticed I wanted to present a certain image of myself and my life, to make my photos, or the views of my life sparkle as much as my friends’ photos and lives. It made me a little sick, really. I pulled back. I need to reflect on what unsettles me about it. As a writer, a creative, I’m supposed to “put myself out there,” “build a social media following,” “present myself,” curate “my brand.” I would like to dismiss this all as hooey, yet there is a correlation between online presence and commercial success in the arts. That is the nuevo-1950s reality where we dwell, in which the obligatory social media presence replaces the obligatory cocktail-hour schmoozing of the 50s.
I confess, I love the Internet. I use it for research and education, but also fabulous entertainment. I love having the best teachers, the best voices on any given subject readily available to me, and the ability to cherry-pick the entertainment that suits. Thanks to the Internet, I have more connection with friends. I am enriched in a million ways. As with anything, the Internet is a tool we can use in superficial and destructive ways, or as a benefit and an enhancement of all that is good. On the other hand, I also struggle with addiction to this tool. It is physically uncomfortable to be disconnected for too long. What if I suddenly want to know the average monthly temperatures in Oaxaca; or I cannot remember the difference between “gross” and “net”?
I associate the era of the 1950s with the rise of plastic and high-tech, fake foods. In our era, the phoniness is often more ephemeral and metaphorical. What I find disturbing about the cultivated images we put out on social media is how it deprives us of something we need that’s hard to put a finger on.
Attempting, I come up with this: Essentially, we need each other’s struggles. The best learning comes from surrendering to the experience of failure and loss, and letting it teach us. Trial and error; three steps forward, two steps back. It is how we grow. And we need to see other people doing it if we are to summon courage to do it ourselves. Also, we need to share struggles with others so they feel more hopeful and less alone in their trials, and because we gain so much from reaching out for help—impossible to do while presenting an image of self-sufficiency and perfection. As the beloved Buechner says, “the human best tends to be at odds with the holy best.”1 I think he means that when we’re busy putting our best face forward, we steel ourselves against the holy best, which—face it—comes out of death and rebirth. Look around, all of creation wants to show us the pattern. The metaphors of the great faith traditions show us the pattern. We don’t ascend by ignoring the failures and imperfections, the fallowness and decay. We ascend—slug like—by looking soberly at them, learning from our and others’ imperfections, making adaptations, deepening self-understanding and compassion, then repeating the process all over again. This is the holy process of the universe—“the holy best.”
1 Frederick Buechner, A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory (Zondervan, 2017), p. 41.