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If You Can’t Say Something New, Why Not Say Something…Nice?

November 22, 2018


There is a line from the movie Notting Hill, in which a famous actress dating a humble bookseller tries to get past the complications inherent in their relationship by breaking things down to simplest form, and saying, “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

The line became a source of social media memes, sometimes cute, sometimes snarky, sometimes heartrending:

  • I’m just a grandmother, standing in front of a convenience store clerk, asking for a scratch-off-winner.
  • I’m just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to mow the lawn.
  • I’m just a girl, standing in front of a gallon of ice cream, asking it to love her.

This week, as I began the daily social media drive through headlines and hot takes, I suddenly felt like I’d reached a complete dead end.

I was just a girl, standing in front of her Twitter feed, asking it to say something new.

By that I don’t mean “express an original thought”—original thoughts are rare, and if one has one why waste it on social media, where it will either be ripped to shreds before it develops or stolen by someone with a bigger following and better connections, able to parlay it into a two-books-and-a-condo-in-Hawaii deal.

Rather, what I was asking of social media and its participants, including myself, was an un-narrowing of thought, a willingness to think other thoughts beyond the repetitive few we have expressed for days in and years out. The predictability of Twitter has turned it into a giant hamster tank, with millions of us running in own little cages, every day—saying the same things, every day—just spinning, spinning, spinning our wheels.

What an unconscionable waste of time that is, and I say this as someone who has, as of this writing, sent over 168,000 tweets. There may be a few deathless pearls included in that number, but mostly those droppings are parts of arguments, retweeted puppy videos, and shameless self-promotion. And I am going to die!

#MementoMori is a popular Twitter hashtag begun by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, a Daughter of Saint Paul. It is an old-timey Catholic charge to remember our deaths so we might better live our lives.

As popular as the hashtag is, we still waste enormous amounts of our pre-death time spinning our wheels and going nowhere, and most of social media is pointless time-killing, aggression release, or naked attention-seeking.

Admittedly, I am a social moron, so perhaps killing time is simply all “socializing” has always been, but I suspect not. Cleaning my office in anticipation of Thanksgiving I came across Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and began to reminisce about how, during my childhood, all the neighborhood parents were involved with a bowling league. One night a week they’d come home from work, feed the kids, and go bowling together.

Imagine it: people of dissimilar backgrounds, education, religions, interests, and jobs would get together and they would engage in a few friendly frames, enjoy a beer or two, and encourage each other in good-natured rivalry. They were not fast friends—they disagreed with each other over many things, including politics—but they somehow managed to be more to each other than feelings and opinions. They managed to be neighborly, and welcoming, and “present” to each other.

It was just bowling, just a few hours a week spent relaxing, with no social pressure at work beyond picking up a spare for the team. But if you think about it, the fact of the league was remarkable, because the participants had come together at random—eight families thrown into proximity by post-war affordable housing—and yet they made it work. They didn’t live in hamster cages of isolation; they weren’t experiencing an “insulation of being” by pursuing like-mindedness until it devolves into no mind at all, only likes.

Bowling Alone was released in 2001—just before the attacks on 9/11 and a few years before Twitter and Facebook took off—and since then Putnam’s statistical study on how American society was breaking apart has seen its theses proven: community activities dissolved as family members moved away from each other (the bowling league worked because most families had an auntie or granny in residence or nearby), and a mobile and prosperous nation pursued self-actualization and began resisting random togetherness.

It was happening well before we all decided to stay home and spend our evenings hitting “like” or “send” buttons or binge-watching Bob’s Burgers, but our technology has exacerbated the trend. Americans increasingly hang apart, not together, and that’s true both in real life and in the virtual life of the ether, as we close avenues of communication and engagement with each other one gated community, one “mute,” one “block” at a time.

We have lost our healthy sense of curiosity about the world of ideas beyond our own musings, the world of people beyond our own tribe.

No wonder so few are saying anything new.

Were he still alive, an old English professor of mine would be grieved and angry by it. “Bong!” He would call out to the room, in utter boredom, when our sophomoric philosophies would wear him out. “Bong! Say something new, or sit down!”

But what is there left to say?

Chances are that over the next day or month we’re going to find ourselves sitting with a group of people and sharing meal or two. They might not be people we construe as members of our “tribe” even if the DNA insists upon it. They might be people we have stopped saying much to, because we eat differently than they, or vote differently, or worship differently. They might have utterly different—even “offensive”—worldviews from our own.

But if we know that’s true going into it, then maybe this year we don’t have to declare our worldviews, or take our stands, or throw down our politics along with the spoonful of mashed potatoes. Maybe we can instead consider that, DNA or not, our coming together actually does have a random quality to it (“How did someone as unique as I end up with these people in my family?”) and even consent to explore that a little.

  • Ask questions about the decisions of youth, the roads not taken; whether they went untrod by choice or simply because they were closed to them?
  • Be curious about the art, the music, the cinema, the poetry that helped to shape others, and why they love it.
  • Consider that everyone else would like to believe they are as unique as their individual fingerprints suggest they are, and resist labeling them with a generalizing statement. “When you label me, you negate me,” wrote Kierkegaard.
  • Remember death. Some people at the table this year may not be around the next one.

These are only offered to get some new conversations rolling, some new perspectives opened in hopes that—even if only for a day or two, or a couple of meals—we all might leave our hamster wheels unspun and emptied, and see what happens.

I’m just a girl, standing in front of the world, asking it to maybe go bowling together.