Have you ever looked at a photograph and wondered what the people are really thinking and feeling behind the pinned-on smiles? Do you sometimes imagine what stories are masked behind the poses? There is an inevitable disjuncture between who we are in private and who we are in public. I think that is the way it should be. Not everybody has earned the right to see our hearts, and we ought to refuse to prostitute them for just anybody. Modern society is critical of this, though, and the popular opinion seems to be that this reflects a reprehensible lack of authenticity. I cannot subscribe to that view.
One of the things skills I believe that educators and parents need to foster more deliberately in young people is the ability to engage meaningfully and appropriately with social media. It is increasingly becoming the most important social platform for many young people, yet – because we are not always comfortable with the technology – we are largely content to allow them to make their own rules and govern themselves. I am not talking about censorship. Initiatives like monitoring where young people go online, with whom they interact, or how much time they spend on Facebook are – I believe – largely unhelpful. What we really need to be teaching children is how to speak and listen in this faceless realm, not what to say or who to listen to.
Because one doesn’t always see responses to one’s status updates or comments, it is all too easy to say things that are better left unsaid. Couple this with a widespread belief that it is okay – admirable even – to say exactly what you think, or to express with awkward openness precisely what you are feeling, and you have a recipe for trouble. Too many people seem to hold the belief that pronouncing inconsiderate and ill-considered opinions, or giving voice to excessive and uncomfortable displays of emotion, is appropriate and beyond reproach because it is being honest. But complete honesty is neither always appropriate nor loving.
Masks have a place. They always have had. Even Jesus needed time to be apart from people (Matthew 14:13; Luke 4:42, for example), and out of love did not always tell even his disciples what he was thinking or who he was (John 7:2-10). It is unwise to say everything that comes into our heads, just as it is unwise to let everyone know exactly how we are feeling at any given time. I am not saying we need to hide who we are, only that we need to be more discerning in how we share ourselves. There are appropriate forums for these things. And the public domain of social media is not one of them.
As a general rule, I would argue that if you have processed the emotion, you can write publically about it. Otherwise it belongs in a more intimate space, with a psychologist or a pastor or a friend. As far as the intellectual goes, my guideline would be: if you cannot hear the voice of a rational critic without getting worked up, you probably should shut up. It means that your emotions are in control, not your brain, and while emotional truths should have a place in the way we form our opinions (we would be foolish to believe they do not), if emotion dominates our discourse, we cannot think critically.
All this is by way of introduction to the poem I want to share with you. Please don’t read it as a plea for counsel or sympathy. It is about real emotions, but like titanic, it is about hurts I have long since worked through. I share it now for two reasons: a sense of pride in the artistry of my creation, and the hope that somebody who is in the midst of a similar emotional place as I was then may find some solace in the realisation that they are not alone.
The poem was inspired by a line from one of my favourite poems: Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
“To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”
My poem is about that juxtaposition of those two worlds – the private and the public, which exist simultaneously in every social setting. I often wonder how differently we would treat people if we saw their inner worlds too. And I often find myself watching people as they interact, and marvel at the countless untold stories behind every laugh, the untold “decisions and revisions” underneath the camaraderie. And I love them more for the bravado, for masking their vulnerability and uncertainty so courageously. I hope that they all find an intimate place where voicing their fears and hurts is appropriate. Everybody needs that space. I also hope that the space they choose is not their facebook status.
Now for the poem:
his thoughts sink in the crimson
of the claret cradled in his hands
(its sweetness on his breath is like death’s fragrance,
he thinks – like dried rose petals; worn-out memories…
he doesn’t know how to purge himself of the past,
and each tomorrow looms vast and obscene.
he sometimes wishes they would see
how his eyes belie his pinned-on smile,
how the strength that daily he puts on weighs on him.
he wears on his heart the stain of her rejection,
the indelible colour of her contempt.
he has spent himself on dreams;
every night seems as empty as he feels)
a jocular remark wrenches him back –
a witticism, a sip of wine, a wry smile