On Selfies, and Vulnerability

I’ll admit it. I’ve been a secret selfie-judger for some time.

Since “selfie” became an official word by being added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2013, much has been written about the selfie and its effect on culture.  Tina Issa wrote in The Huffington Post that they should be renamed “selfshie.” She writes, “It has created the selfie monster — people who seem to want to scream ‘look at me’ or ‘look at what I have’ every minute of the day.” And while I do see her points, this isn’t about that.

In the New York Times, James Franco defended the selfie, calling it the “Mini-Me’s that we send out to give others a sense of who we are…the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.'”

Hmmm, even though I am an actor and understand his points about the ever-growing role that social media has in our industry, I do not agree with that. He says he’s turned off by someone who doesn’t post selfies, because he wants to know who he’s dealing with. That viewpoint both fascinates and alarms me, because it truly reflects how much selfie-taking and posting has begun to shape the way we take in and reflect back the world around us. That’s the thinking of someone so deep into the world of selfies that it has become the norm from which to measure reality. Yikes.

I avoid posting selfies as much as possible. I HAVE done it, guilty as charged. But I can literally count the times I posted them on-line with two hands. Yes, I DO post. I am ok with posting (or having others post) a group picture (or a “groupfie” as my sister-in-law coined them.) I will post new headshots or stills from film sets – those are solo shots of me.

But a selfie? That just feels so gross to me. So self-absorbed. Pathetic. (Yes, that word really crosses my mind.) I tend to post sunsets, landscapes and pictures that avoid looking like selfies, but I am still posting. (Is that even that different, really? I am still participating in the “look at what I’m doing/just did/am doing…” So am I really just a passive-aggressive selfie-ist?)

Do I judge friend’s selfies? Honestly, yes, I do sometimes. Not the cute pics of them with their children or friends or family or partners. I love those. But when they post a picture of just them, I admit it, I DO judge them sometimes.

What is the root of this judgement? Am I afraid of being judged as selfish, of being a narcissist, in the way that Tina Issa judges selfie-ists? Or, following Franco’s logic,  am I afraid of being vulnerable, of being seen as I really am? Am I hiding who I really am because I do not post selfies?! This has been kicking around in my head and causing me to have sleepless nights.

(OK, that is not true. I only recently found Franco’s essay, but it did get me thinking and these are great questions to explore, but that is not exactly what I want to write about…)

What IS true and what I DO want to write about in regards to selfies is that I am concerned about selfie-taking and its effect on our society’s future art. Hell, I am concerned about its effect on our society’s future.

Let me explain.

This summer, I was away traveling and working for three months, July through September. It was glorious for so many reasons. I was out of my routines, comfort zones and the structures of my NYC life. This shook up my internal sense of the world in amazing ways. I gathered information and inspiration and took in so much I felt on sensory overload most of the time, in the best of ways. It was fantastic.

Except. For. The. Selfie-Taking. Going. On. Everywhere.

For two weeks out of the three months, I traveled with my niece and sister-in-law to London and then Paris. We visited all of the usual top tourist attractions, and I can tell you this: for the most part, though everyone still goes to see all of these wonderful places, no one is actually really looking at them anymore. The London Tower, Parliament, the cathedrals, the London Bridge, the British Museum and its artifacts, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, the Louvre and all of its treasures…all now just check-mark locations from which to get a selfie so that you can post and show to the internet world that you were there.

Full disclosure: yes, we took groupfies, many of which I posted. My niece took selfies. Once or twice I tried to take selfies. Not sure why. I think sometimes we just got swept up in the frenzied, competitive selfie-taking vibe and took more than we needed. (There’s a sort of “selfie mob mentality” at these places.) Mostly though, for us, a picture together was a natural extension of the moment.

But there was a moment of experience from which to extend out from, you know? Between us and the place or the piece of art. Most people literally walked up to a place, took selfies, and ran to the next selfie spot.

From a safe distance, I watched. People pushed in a frenzy, fought to get close, but not to actually look at these works of art or places of beauty. They fought to stand their ground and get their selfie with the work of art.

But for the most part, no one was actually experiencing these places anymore. No one was taking them in and allowing themselves to be affected by, informed, inspired, moved by them. If you are a person who still remembers how and is able to let something affect you, you are in trouble, because you are going to be in danger of pissing off the selfie-takers when you try to experience these sights.

While in Paris, we actually witnessed several arguments between people traveling together over the quality of the selfies they were taking. It was the strangest thing. In one case, one person seemed to feel that they had not yet gotten the best shot, while the other wanted to move on. In the other, someone felt that their selfie was better than the other’s. These were not quiet disagreements. These were heated, high stakes, loud, public fights. The psychology behind such an argument is fascinating to postulate. The pressure some people must be feeling to get the perfect shots of themselves to show off to the world must be pretty serious.

We also witnessed two times where within the throngs of people pushing to get their selfies in front of the most popular attractions in the Louvre, people had to be physically restrained by their friends because they were about to get in physical fights with other people over selfie-taking issues…someone’s wife was too tall and staying too long in one place and blocking the view…someone pushed someone else….

I found it all exhausting and depressing. (And slightly scary — that mob mentality is no joke.) People have always taken photos of tourist places, but over the years since the selfie and the selfie stick have become the predominant norm, something has been changing. I was in the Louvre only three ago, and it was not as bad as it was this past summer.

What does this all mean? And why am I so afraid?

I don’t know what it means. But I do know why I am afraid.

I thought the one big point of travel is to leave one’s known environment to be exposed to new and stimulating sights and sounds, tastes and cultures in order to expand one’s self. If you go somewhere exotic and only spend 2 minutes with some amazing piece of art or in front of one of one of the wonders of the world trying to take the ideal selfie so that you can post it on-line and everyone knows that you were someplace fabulous, how does that change you in any way?

Yes, there are still people who are taking in and being affected by these artworks and wonders. But they are few and far between. Often they simply cannot get to some of the places and sights because it is either literally too dangerous to try to stand and look at the something, or because everything is now revolving around the selfie-taking culture and there is simply no way to spend time looking. (Museums and tourist spots structure traffic to support selfie-taking because it is the norm, not the art-gazer who wants to experience the art.)

I know because I was one of those people trying. I was shoved several times when I wanted to stand and take in the treasures of these places. At the Louvre, an older man literally almost knocked me down to get in front of Venus de Milo. I was stunned.

I truly wonder, if picture-taking was banned at such sites,  two things. 1) Would people comply? Or refuse, outraged, claiming their rights were being messed with (the right to bear selfie sticks?) And 2) would people still care to go look if they could not document that they had been there for their friends?

Or would it feel empty and worthless to them without being able to have that connection with the internet and the social media network as they move through the experience at hand. If they are left with just themselves and the piece of art or the building or the historical place, would they be able to tolerate the anxiety of that kind of true intimacy with themselves and their own experience? Or would they be so uncomfortable with this ever-decreasing sensation in today’s world, the sensation of being alone with one’s own experience, that they would just have to shut it down rather than live with it and see what is underneath it, what it sparks, what it creates.

What will our future art look like then? Art is the interpretation of the world. Will art one day all revolve around and reflect selfie-taking? What will that look like then?

It used to be that someone would take in and experience the Mona Lisa and perhaps be inspired to look at their world a bit differently, and then perhaps actually see things in a different way. It might lead them to become artists, or it might lead them to parent differently. Or to daydream, and to end up inventing a machine that manufactures a pollutant-free form of energy.

If no one is really looking at anything except themselves in front of other things, won’t we then only be seeing more of ourselves in relation to everything else in the world, and less and less of the actual everything else in the world? So then how will grow? If we are not putting ourselves in new situations (actually entering into those new experiences, not just taking a picture of ourselves standing in front of them) how can we gain new information? So then how can we become more than we are?

That, my friends, truly terrifies me. I am all for healthy self-involvement, do not get me wrong. I do not believe in selflessness as the ultimate attribute or that self-love or self-attention is selfish. Anyone who knows me well knows that I practice radical self-acceptance and believe that healthy self-awareness and self-love is crucial.

While I do see selfie-taking as narcissistic, I don’t see that as a dirty word as Tina Issa used it in her article. I side with Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, who has spent the past thirteen years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brown is the author of three #1 New York Times Bestsellers: Rising Strong, Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brown suggests we look at narcissism through the lens of vulnerability. Through that lens, she sees in narcissism “the shame-based fear of being ordinary…of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”

Wow. That resonates so truthfully for me.

I wonder if the urge to take selfies in front of extraordinary places and things and people actually stems from a fear that we are so ordinary and so lacking that we will never really be seen, so we take selfie after selfie, stacking up evidence to ourselves and to the virtual world that we actually exist. Typing that sentence fills me with sadness and knowing. I felt that frenzied, desperate feeling from the people around me in those museums and at those amazing places. These were people trying to fill an empty, angry, sad hole with something that can never fill it. All the selfies in the world will not help a person feel truly “a part of” or connected to others in a meaningful, truly gratifying way. It’s like eating bag after bag of Cheetos to feel full. It may feel good at the time, but you end up feeling hungry anyway.

I think at this point in our evolution we actually need more practice at being self-involved. But in a different way. We need to practice how to become intimate with ourselves again. To tolerate the discomfort of the vulnerability of revealing who we really are even to our own selves. Not the virtual-vulnerability that social media and the internet affords. Exposure does not equal vulnerability. We have truly developed that muscle as a society and now it is in danger of being over-developed, like those guys at the gym who have over-worked their lats or their chest and left their legs out of the picture. A little less selfie-taking and a little more actual living the experiences of our lives is what I prescribe.

I urge you to go to a museum, or a park, or some place beautiful and NOT take a pic of yourself (or anything) to post. Just be there. Really be there. Just live those moments and let that be enough. Tolerate the discomfort of not satisfying that urge to reach out via social media to seek meaning in your experience by seeing it reflected in the number of likes it garners. Dare to walk through that fear of “disappearing” into nothingness. Let yourself feel that “ordinary.” Enter into the ordinary and really live there.

That is where the extraordinary is born.

#lessselfiesmoreliving #brenebrown #vulnerability #jamesfranco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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