Reserve

I read an article on the First Thoughts blog today about the tendency for Christians to use Facebook for pharisaical flaunting of our inner lives, relationships, and emotional exhibitionism. Ok, I get that — there’s certainly a temptation in that direction. I went to Facebook to see what the status updates were. There was a Cat Stephens Youtube clip from an Orthodox bishop, a Solstice announcement, a picture of the school fish pond, a quote on friendship, some stories on persecution in the Middle East, soccer updates, summer outdoors activities… it was a mixed bag, to be sure, and a bit of a waste of time, but I don’t think I’m buying this “emotional immodesty” thing, at least amongst the people I know. Sometimes, sure, but that’s pretty easily ignorable.

Still, the post made me think of writing more generally, on blogs or in any publicly informal venue: just how modest and reserved ought one be? There’s a tension there: as a writer I want a little distance; I oughtn’t write about the fight I just had with my friend or the annoying habits of those with whom I live or how much sleep I got last night. There are things that are private, and writing on them might hurt someone, or at the very least bore everyone who’s not in on the drama. But good writing often has to be a little personal, and writing teachers like to talk about personal honesty in one’s writing. A lot of the craft in essay writing seems to revolve around a tension between what I’m saying about the object — an opinion, book, or event — and what I’m trying to say about my own reaction to it, what I can perhaps get out of it that will help me make a better account of the world. I’m going far afield from the First Thoughts post: she was, I think, mostly referring to brief, apropos of nothing, emotional slush and personal feelings of affection.

Emotional immodesty on Facebook might look like this: a young husband and wife having an intimate conversation, dripping in mawkish lingo, referring to each other by their Twitter names while on the public Facebook news feed. (Yes, this actually happens.) It might be women who get engaged, posting their every saccharine emotion, or how much they spent on a wedding dress. It’s pregnant women posting pictures of their ultrasounds and creating Facebook photo albums with a monthly picture of their pregnant belly for all to see. It’s new mothers posting pictures of themselves just after giving birth, and tweeting about their new baby’s first bowel movement.

Facebook’s emotional immodesty has a spiritual dimension too. It reads the way people might tweet about their inner prayer life, updating their status with their deepest spiritual insights. Its tone is holier-than-thou and uncomfortably personal. In fact, it’s downright pharisaical: a platform to be excessively public about spirituality and the inner life. Take this recent Facebook posting, for example:

“I love that I can talk to @[Twitter name] about anything, but I love it more when we spend hours over coffee talking about God’s love for us and how we can grow in displaying that through our marriage and to our son.” The instinct to display happiness and God’s love to the world is a good one. However, announcing it in a sentimental display is only showy and embarrassing.

Fair enough. There seems to be something that happens — or at least should happen — between experience and writing in a public format that makes the experience not just about the the writer, but about what life is like as a human person, but which formats like Facebook and Twitter, because of their immediacy, tend to discourage. There’s something that happens — or can happen — in the very act of writing something down with an audience in mind. Sometimes it can’t, and it has to stay in one’s own mind or journal; even in writing a letter to a friend one must at least implicitly answer: why are you telling me this? There’s a moment where, to take ms. Samelson’s first example, one ceases to write about how adorable one’s love is, and begins to write about what it is for a person to be in love: what is love about, how is it experienced, what are the delights and pitfalls? Perhaps there’s poetry there in the delight one takes in a spouse or a child — perhaps even a modern kind of poem that includes some roughness concerning bowel movements. But that requires time, thought, and concern for one’s readers.

In one of Jacob Klein’s lectures he mentions a poet who says that he produces poems as a mother bear produces cubs: they come out soft and soggy and she patiently licks them into shape. I wonder if sometimes we do our observations a disservice in either bringing out those that are best not pointed out, or, more so, in bringing them out before they’ve had a chance to coalesce into real thought? Perhaps sometimes I do the latter, posting a thought before going to the trouble of seeing if I could find a helpful and precise way to express myself, thus ensuring that I probably never will go back and fix it. There’s a lack of concern for others there that might be worth considering: making one’s comments all about oneself without thinking through what affect they might have on those who will be reading them.

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