Reflections forced by a birthday
A little soul-searching today, on my birthday. It's difficult in a few words to say what's wrong. I've never been an extrovert, but at least in years past I used to think of people more highly than I do today. And I used to find meaning in life more readily than I do now. I am not depressed. I exercise and eat right, and enjoy many delights of the mind and heart. In many ways I'm more self-confident than ever, and I certainly don't have the crippling self-doubt of my youth. But I regard people less, and love them less. I still feel their love when I'm in their presence, but I constrict within my own mind's activities (fruitful as they may be), essentially within my ego, when I'm not with people.
And when I say "with people", I mean interacting in person. That is still joyful. But what I have done for several years now is interact more and more with people on the internet. It used to be on this blog, then on Flickr and YouTube, and always on discussion/debating forums. The forums have changed, the topics have ranged from serious to trivial, but the experience is always the same. You don't see the best of people, dealing with them on the internet. You don't see them honestly, because the anonymity makes it easy for people to be false -- or merely superficial. You can talk for endless hours about a topic -- but that is all you're getting, a person's mental operations about a certain topic, and rarely anything deeper.
What's worse is that malice comes across perfectly well in cyberspace, while good qualities are hindered. Anonymity makes it easy to express hate, and impossible to deliver genuine love. Because you're anonymous, you can express hate and disguise it, put on a pretense, make it look like you're merely disagreeing rationally with irrationality; like you're fighting the good fight, when you're actually doing something quite different. At the same time, you're limited in expressing kindness and compassion, because you're physically absent. You can't even let someone know that you're listening actively, one of the best gifts a person can give another. You can post smiley faces, jokes, kind words, etc. But that is nothing like the true warmth of a friend in front of you. Yet, if you have hate or merely distrust in your heart, it's easy to put it in words. I've seen this all too often even in Christians, which is where it is most dismaying to me. It is not restricted to any group; this is how people behave on the internet.
A lot has been written about how anonymity makes it easy for people to be hostile jerks and so forth, but I find it goes deeper than this. Yes, there's a lot of malice out there; a lot of trolls; there's a recent New York Times article about it, "The Trolls Among Us." But the problem is more subtle than trolls. I've actually had less and less interaction with trolls as I've learned to recognize them; yet I still feel empty from online interactions. A large problem for me is that I put work into what I post online, made up of analysis, or feeling, but always subtle (or as subtle as I can make it). Most of the time it doesn't draw trolls; it draws nothing. What works best in online discussion groups, what gets most conversations going, is not subtlety. You provoke conversations by saying something stupid, outrageous, something just begging to be debunked. Then people like myself get our thinking caps on and start debunking. The internet is an excellent place to mount debunking, because all you need is words and analysis; and as I keep saying, that is all you can deliver on the internet. Anything deeper than that, you can't deliver online. Real feeling, well.... imagine, for example, poetry. You can post a poem on the internet, sure. But most people are browsing quickly and will not stop to read a poem, much less to interact with it the way they might by sitting down with a printed poem in a quiet place meant for undisturbed reflection and safe emotion. The Web is a place meant for cold disposal of information, or for raucous interaction among people posing with their masks on, ready to play or to fight, but hardly equipped to see or understand one another -- much less to peer into the truth of anything.
I have not been merely a victim. If that were even half the problem, it might have been easy to solve. I've been an actor in cyberspace. I do what is meant to be done there, and I've grown quite good at it. I generate information, cold analysis; I revel in debunking. But I hardly need to say that this is all the life of the mind and not the heart -- and not even a gloriously broad section of the mind's life, but simply the slice that loves to debunk. The side that wishes to destroy, not to create.
So I find that my own capacity to understand, to listen, yes, to love, is going severely under-exercised.
Not that this is anyone's fault but my own. I simply wish that I had not let this go on for so many years.