Norway is replete with jaw-dropping scenery. London is rife with attractions. A cruise is ideal for reading 400 pages of a novel in one go #truestory.
But every so often, while driving along a coastal highway, walking down a busy street or reading in an unbelievably comfortable sofa chair, my thoughts turn to those who are not physically with me. So I grab my device to check for messages, send a Whatsapp text or stalk a Facebook profile. Moments later, I berate myself for not being fully present, for being shackled by social media, for wasting my holiday away on habits that I already spend too much time on back at home.
On a boat ride through Geirangerfjord, I was torn between just sensing the beauty surrounding me, joining in the LOG groupchat about summer blockbusters, and posting social media updates to share what I was experiencing. On one hand, being connected seems antithetical to a getaway trip. Was I diluting my holiday with home? Was I sacrificing deep impressions for instagramming a perfect life (metaphorically, since I don’t actually use instagram)?
But on the other hand, is there not something indulgent and individualistic to just completely shut myself away from the familiar – to ignore the fact that people at home would be interested to know where I am and what I am doing – simply to more fully experience the foreign? Was there really a need to wrench myself so forcefully away from my loved ones?
Perhaps the bohemian streak in me is just rebelling against the now-popular-tune damning the trappings of social media.
But perhaps there are some justifications in remaining connected – two in particular that I can think of.
The first is continuity. Jessica Pan, co-author of Graduates in Wonderland, writes about how she feared that
the closeness [she shared with her BFF Rachel], born of four years of spending most days and nights together, would eventually be lost. [They] would be reduced to “happy birthday!” messages and then, after a few more years apart, maybe even those would stop arriving.
Their solution, which worked well enough for them to write a book, was to simply remain connected by emailing each other once a week.
“You have to email me every single week. At least one email. It doesn’t always have to be long, but it has to be every week,” I said to her.
“Agreed. Once a week. And it has to honest. Brutally honest,” Rachel said. “I don’t want us to write those fake updates where everything is rosy and wonderful when actually we are dying on the inside.”
“Right. If we skim over the embarrassing stuff that happens at work or the niggling doubts about our relationships, then it’s not worth staying in touch at all,” I said.
Apart from the epistolary allures (I admit that I have made and abandoned half-hearted attempts to get a penpal) of regular email exchanges, there is such great wisdom here. We live in community. We cannot cease to share our lives just because we are separated by time and space. And we cannot assume that when we reunite, we will simply carry on from where we left off. Because we all lead such varied and exciting lives, and so much changes within short spans of time. In the three weeks I was away, Jean and Mum caught dengue fever, much drama happened in church, BFFs had their own epic trips, people struggled with work and more. Oh, the vagaries of ordinary life.
There must be continuity then. There must be a constant effort to enquire about home, to remain interested in the lives of our loved ones. And if we remain connected enough, if we continue to share enough in each other’s lives, even if we cannot share enough in each other’s presence, then perhaps
even though we’d only seen each other twice in five years, it felt like we hadn’t been apart at all — our in-depth, frequent emails had kept us close. Instead of sending summaries of our lives, we had written to each other as we were living the big moments.
But to send a personalised email or Whatsapp to a specific person or group is perhaps less controversial. It is the undirected tweets, updates and instas that are touted as the evils of social media. Still, I would argue that there is some merit in general updates, even if this deserves a much closer cost-benefit analysis.
These merits, and my second justification for being connected, can be characterised as availability. Personalised communication is ideal, and may work between BFFs. But there remains a wider community, whom I do not have capacity to interact with on an individual level, who is still interested in my life. Do I not have a duty to share with them, to make myself available to them, through some form of general update, about my life?
I will not go into a debate about the various forms of updates (though it should come as no surprise that I am an advocate of longform prose). But this also explains in part my philosophy of being open. If people are interested in my life, why should I deny them access? Why should I not let them get to know me? Privacy, oft a mere euphemism for a fear of vulnerability, hardly seems justifiable when being open provides opportunity for my loved ones to keep up with my life in a much less exhausting way than personalised communications.
Of course, there are legitimate reasons for privacy – dignity of the person, sensitivity to others, misrepresentations et al. And of course, there are more impure intentions for posting general updates: to glamorise my own life, to elicit envy, to attract attention #beentheredonethat. And even if these intentions were not conscious, the act becomes the character, and we risk caring more about our Second Life than our authentic lives.
But perhaps, and this is only a posited thought, making myself available to those who love me enough to be interested in my life is worth the risks of becoming vain and proud.
I do not have a habit of posting regular updates (though Gaiman does #fanboy). The only (arguably) general update that I wrote while overseas was a Letter to LOG. But I did burn a fair amount of data on Whatsapp conversations. I discussed a theory of indulgent travel and the loss of introversion, while on a scenic Lofoten coastal bus ride. I did a midweek check-in with a cellgroupmate, while resting in the much-less-populated Asian section of the British Museum. I fanboyed about Gaiman staying with Syrian refugees, from a hotel room in Seattle to a friend in an Iranian desert.
Perhaps I could have been more present to my physical surroundings. But I guess I chose to be more present to the people who matter in my life instead. That is my essential argument: that the value of being connected to people is worth the cost of being less present to my locale.