Can We Love the Stranger on Facebook?
by Jennifer Cobb, guest contributor
“Disarmed the Thunder’s Fires” (photo: ZedZaP/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
As we approach Passover, I am reminded once again about the imperative of embracing the stranger, of diversity, as a foundation not only of a healthy democracy, but of our personal well being. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, delivered this message when he reminded us that during Passover we remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. As Sacks says, “The sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different than us, that we are not threatened by them, needs cultivating. This would lead us to see that 21st century as full of blessing and not fear.”
There is a conundrum buried in this idea. Communication technology has been the driving force of change in the 21st century, the source of much of our contemporary blessings and fears. Thanks to technology, the world has shrunk rapidly. One needs look no further than the events unfolding in the Middle East to understand the power of technology to connect and inspire. At the same time, technology mediates so much of our communication, raising the question, “Can we truly learn to love the stranger if we meet them on Facebook?”
There are those who believe that social media is expanding the diversity of our networks, exposing us to others in new and powerful ways. A recent Pew poll indicates that Internet users have more diverse social networks than non-Internet users and are more likely to join groups, both online and offline.
There is some indication that those who join online groups are also more engaged in their local communities. Keith Hampton at the Annenberg School argues that social media offers new pathways to diversity through what he terms “pervasive awareness.” Pervasive awareness offers the continual, asynchronous exposure to many aspects of our online friends’ interests and activities, giving us a broader understanding of those we are connected to and uncovering greater diversity in our existing relationships.
There are others who fear that, as we spend increasing amounts of time in tightly constructed worlds of our “friends” and pursue news and information based on our personal interests, we are constricting diversity by living in echo chambers that continually recirculate our existing beliefs. This is what Nicholas Negroponte termed the “Daily Me.” It is not just our conscious choices but personalization tools built into technologies that are exacerbating this tendency.
Eli Pariser, the first executive director of MoveOn.org, made a concerted effort to follow people online whose views differed from his own. He noticed that over time those voices started to disappear. Facebook and Google were curating the information he saw based on the “preferences” indicated by his clickstream. Pariser commented that the web “shows us what it thinks we need to see, but not what we should see.”
Beyond the debate about whether or not social media is exposing us to a greater diversity of “strangers” is the deeper question about the nature of the self we reveal in this medium. Sherry Turkle, in her recent book Alone Together, shares the story of Brad, a teenager who has chosen to give up Facebook. Turkle writes:
“In a profile, there is no room for error. You are reduced to a series of right and wrong choices. ‘Online life,’ Brad says, ‘is about premeditation.’ He sums up his discontents with an old-fashioned word: online life inhibits ‘authenticity’. He wants to experience people directly. When he reads what someone says about themselves on Facebook, he feels he is an audience to their performance of cool.”
As Rabbi Sacks wisely reminds us, it is only when I am most uniquely myself that I can “contribute something unique to the heritage of humankind.” The knowledge and expression of our most unique selves requires a commitment to authenticity, to knowing who we are in the most profound sense. This is hard work, even among friends. But it is when we encounter the other in their unique authenticity that we are enlarged. This is when the power of what Rabbi Sacks calls the “dignity of difference” is unleashed.
Social media and communications technology can offer maps that show the way toward the other, clues about who they are and some of what they experience. But we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into confusing the maps with the reality. We must remain vigilant in our pursuit of embodied encounters that allow us to look into the eyes of the other and receive them deeply.
May we not, this Passover, forget that slavery can take many forms. One of the most insidious is slavery to the belief that technological progress releases us from the hard work of tikkun olam, of healing the world through our own unique and authentic humanity.
Jennifer Cobb is a business consultant specializing in marketing and strategy for public and private sector organizations. She has a degree in ethics from Union Theological Seminary and is the author of Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World. She lives in Berkeley, California and blogs regularly at The Spruce Blog.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
How I Am Preparing to Get Alzheimer’s Disease
by Alanna Shaikh, guest contributor
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. I am losing him in inches and pieces. It hurts. He is my hero and my mentor, and now I help him remember how to put on his clothes every morning.
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. There is a powerful genetic component to the disease, and I share a lot of my father’s risk factors, including bad triglycerides, a viral infection, and elevated cholesterol unaffected by diet. The odds are frighteningly high that I will someday get Alzheimer’s too. In 25 or 30 years, when it comes for me, maybe there will be a cure — but I can’t count on that.
My dad taught me how to learn from everything I see, no matter how hard it was. He was a professor of Human Anatomy and Physiology, and told me once that he was present when his mother died. He held her hand and told her how much he loved her. As she died, he catalogued her body’s shutdown, comparing it to what he’d read — because he was a scientist.
And so, now, I am learning from my father. It’s what he taught me to do. And what he’s teaching me now — his last lesson for me — is what it means to live with Alzheimer’s, and by extension, what I can do to get ready.
First, I am getting new hobbies. My dad is an intellectual. All his hobbies were brain hobbies — reading, chess, poker, bridge. Now he can’t follow them. He recognizes his beloved chess pieces, but he doesn’t remember how to play. Reading is too slow and too hard to be enjoyable, and he can’t play cards at all. He has no way to keep busy. So I’m learning hobbies that use my hands. I spend more time drawing, and I’m learning to knit. I want to teach my hands, so that when my mind can’t do it, my fingers still can.
Second, I’m living my life as fully as possible. Dad got knocked out of his game too soon, but he had achieved enough for a long, long life. The work he loved, and the impact he had on his students — it was more than most people do in their lives. His contribution to our world does not fall short, even if he ran out of time. I am trying to do the same thing — to give as much as I can to the people around me, to work and think and create and contribute as much as I possibly can, in case my time ends early.
The most important thing I’ve learned from my father: love. My father built his life around the people he cared about. Me, my mom, and my brother were the center of his world. For his birthday, he’d tell us to get things for ourselves because he liked seeing us happy — and he actually meant it. But we weren’t the only ones he loved. He loved the students he taught, he loved his friends, and he loved our extended family — both his own and my mother’s.
Now, with so little left of him, my father still has his love. Seeing his wife, his children, and his grandson brings him joy. He can sit just watching my son read a book. Simply living with his family, my dad can find happiness.
The people he cared about through his life still remember my father. We get postcards, letters, the occasional package. And he is still finding new people to care about; he hasn’t lost his love for people. He likes it when we have guests over. He still flirts with all my female friends. He loves his aide and the omelets she makes him every morning.
I have never loved people like my dad did. He had patience and affection for everyone — for people who told boring stories repeatedly, for people I thought were stupid, for people who were afraid of everything, for people totally full of themselves or so shy they could hardly talk. Dad loved people I could barely stand to talk to. He used to ask me to show patience, tolerance, compassion — and I’d promise to try — with no real sincerity.
So now I am trying to learn my biggest lesson from my dad, the lesson I am trying to live every single day. I’m finding people to love; I’m finding things to love in people. I am trying to love people like my dad always did. I am building my capacity for love now, so it can sustain me later.
And if, in the end, like my father, there is nothing left of me but my love, that won’t be a tragedy. It will be my victory.
I feel more of these questions have been answered by being able to listen to people living life instead of reading from a book.
The Fall of the Wall, JFK’s Assassination, and Two Birthdays
Krista Tippett, host
I was born on the night John F. Kennedy was elected president: November 9, 1960. To be more precise, the election itself was on November 8, but I was born in the wee hours of the night, in a long ago age before computerized returns, as his slim victory became apparent. My father paced the halls of the hospital with a transistor radio at his ear. He was a member of our local Oklahoma chapter of Young Democrats. He told me that I was the handsome president’s personal good luck charm. And so the Camelot president’s assassination is the earliest memory I recall — too early, some say, for me to really remember it, but I know I do. I can still feel the panic of the adults around me and the terrible sense that somehow I had failed.
Two decades later, I ended up spending most of the 1980s, most of my 20s, in a city that kept Kennedy’s memory alive like no other. He remained the unparalleled icon of the charismatic America that had rushed to Berlin’s side as the barbed wire beginnings of the Wall closed around it on August 13, 1961. I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times when the Berlin Wall hit the quarter-century mark in 1986. By that time, it was 12-feet high — and two walls actually, with a no man’s land in between, scattered with tank traps, its every inch monitored by men with binoculars and guns. It wouldn’t be right to say that the Wall had gained acceptance in either of the German worlds it sliced apart. But it had become part of the fabric of reality, of life and imagination. And what really kept it standing was a rock-solid, ingrown fear — a faith, if you will — that the mighty Soviet Union would send in its tanks if those men with guns ever fell down on the job.
Gorbachev inspired a completely different kind of faith, one which evaporated that fear and revealed the Wall for what it was — slabs of concrete and asbestos manned by border guards, who were human beings, after all, and could not possibly resist the peaceful crush of the entire city of East Berlin moving towards them, unafraid, on the night of November 9, 1989. And so it was on my 29th birthday that I learned, stepping off an airplane in Oklahoma, that the wall had opened up.
The suddenness of the Wall’s fall utterly defied the imagination of everyone living closest to it. Even with Gorbachev, and the political changes that rolled across Eastern Europe in the mid-80s, no one really believed it could open up from one day to the next. I recently learned that one of my great friends and colleagues from those years, John Tagliabue of The New York Times, spent the evening of November 9 watching television in a hotel room in Warsaw with the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was as stupefied by the turn of events as anyone else. I could never have imagined that I would one day walk across a bridge that had separated me by less than a mile from an East German family I loved, but had been an impassable border zone throughout our friendship.
Or that I would stroll through the inner wall and the outer wall minus the tank traps, as people chiseled and hammered out pieces to sell or to save for posterity. Nor could I have anticipated the magical reunion I would have with some East German artist friends in Austria for the Christmas of 1989. I would be there as they and their children saw mountains for the first time.
I hold these memories as a reminder that there is at any given moment much we don’t see, and more change possible than we can begin to imagine. I recently had a lovely conversation, that will air on our show in early December, with Bill McKibben. He and I are exact contemporaries; we were both born in 1960 and in college for the same four years. In 1989, he was publishing The End of Nature — the first book about the then-obscure subject of climate change. As I learned from him, though, the science of climate change had begun to emerge at the height of the Cold War. Already in 1957, two scientists at the Scripps Institution described their findings that humanity had initiated an unprecedented “geophysical experiment” that it might not survive. And if humanity is around to write history in a century or two, what was happening with the climate in 1960 and 1989 may dwarf what we perceived as the great dramas we were living through.
I draw caution as well as hope from the fact that history tends to surprise us. And I think I’ve had enough historically momentous birthdays for one lifetime.
“Looking Out for Hope”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
It’s been some time since I’ve posted a Friday video snack. I don’t know about you, but these last few months have been a blur — hectic and almost harrowing at times. And there is good, a lot of good, that’s come of meeting new people and sharing our work and talking to long-lost friends back home.
Looking for a contemplative moment, an adult time-out, a centering event, I was lucky enough to happen upon this short film that puts into play Bryan Mallessa’s fictional letter to Raymond Carver with music by the band Low. The film’s remarkably meditative in its quietude for the medium. It allows one ten minutes to reflect, to peer into blizzard and cold, to think about hard times, and the joy of the road ahead.
(h/t things are happening*)