I was on a train in Chicago, going home after a very important meeting that I had done a very excellent job of leading. As I looked out at the city through the train windows, my inflated ego was drinking its strong cocktail of success: one part self-reference, two parts self-congratulation, and a long pour of judgmentalism – of some of the other people at the meeting, of course. Dude, you killed it. I love how cleverly you responded to that person’s critique. Definitely a mic drop moment.
It was dusk and as the light faded outside, the windows on the train started to become mirrors. I saw my reflection and began to examine it. As I considered my crow’s feet, my receding hairline and expanding pores, and my no-longer-fresh face, my ego turned on me. Dude, you’re looking so worn out. I don’t think you don’t have it anymore. What’s happened to you? The egoic cocktail is complicated: one moment you’re buzzing; the next you’re angsting.
And then the light outside changed – maybe the train went around a bend or came out from behind a building, I can’t remember – and the mirror became a window again. My too reflective preening and pummeling became transparent, and I could see through to the sunset, and a neighborhood, and people on the street carrying their groceries and walking their dogs, and a jazz club on the corner. A fleeting shift of energy delivered me from competition to connection, from evaluation to ecstasy, and for a moment or two I was lost in a space more generous than my ego could ever concoct.
Fasting from Social Media
The American election brought me into contact with how occluded and mirrored my vision still is. A week or so after the election, I decided to take a break from social media in order to observe how my using/not-using influences my perspective.
My decision to fast from Facebook and Instagram did not come from an original insight. A couple of friends had posted that they were going to abstain for a while. I was reading a book on contemplative silence by Maggie Ross, a Christian solitary. I had seen a shattering episode of the British TV series, Black Mirror, and a compelling article by a Millennial professional who’s never been on social media. I also just could not bring myself to watch Trump’s Presidential Twitter parade (and still cannot).
A friend who’d signed off of Facebook for the month before the election commented that during his abstinence he’d realized just how much time he’d been spending “watching other people’s lives.” I knew what he meant.
As I began my fast, one of the first things I noticed was how much extra time I had. I finished the novel that’d been sitting on my bedside table for months. I settled back into a daily pattern of prayer and meditation. I threw the ball for our dog a few more times every day and enjoyed his running after it.
I realized that a significant percentage of my daily life had been being filtered through an admixture of screen-based critique, “affirmation”-seeking, and “meaningfulness.”
Here’s a representative sampling from my ego feed:
I simply cannot believe the insensitive idiocy of his comment! How much time can I manage today to write a brilliant rejoinder?
Wow. She’s really doing some beautiful, important work with her new blog / business / book deal / home redesign / work project / marriage. I wonder how I could spruce up my life like that?
How will I wittily curate my posts today to feel the sensation of that envisioned sprucing?
Invidious Comparison & Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose
I began to “come to”: to see how much of my social media using was about not only watching other people’s lives but also watching my own life through the innumerable lenses of “invidious comparison.”
That’s a term that Brian Mahan, one of my theology school professors, uses to describe how even our spirituality can potentially mask our tendencies toward self-seeking. If we’re not awake, our “prayer” or “meditation” can become a subtle way of judgmentally watching ourselves and others, all the more dangerous because our evaluative comparisons and compulsions are masked (and reinforced) by our “practice” or “devotion” or “theology.”
Mahan’s book Forgetting Ourselves on Purpose suggests some truly enlightening spiritual exercises and thought experiments that can help us relax from the invidious comparison, see ourselves and others more generously, and decenter our imaginations of what others might think of us.
For me, at least, it turns out that the path to a more truthful vision requires less “work” than my ego would have me believe and more intentional silence than my ego can generally stand (right now, about 20 minutes a day).
Which is why, recovering “egomaniac with an inferiority complex” (as the Twelve-step community puts it) that I am, joyfully forgetting myself (at once the method and the gift of this practice) – or, in other words, learning how to pray – will probably take my whole life.
A life, I hope, of mirrors slowly turning to windows and perhaps the occasional and increasing awareness, that, as 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart writes, “[t]he eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”
A life, I hope, that can see graciously in the midst, even (more consciously and less time-consumingly?) in the midst of Facebook, because, y’all, honestly, I have missed the dog videos, and baby announcements, and pictures of Hillary Clinton hiking, and (among my own) the intending-to-offend and waiting-to-be-offended soliloquies, and, yes, most of all, the pearls of great price that are revealed from time to time.
That’s how I hope I’ll see.