This week, I suddenly became terribly sick of myself. Let me explain—I’m not sick of the self who hikes, writes stories, reads with my kids. I am sick of my facsimile-self, the one I trot out on social media platforms and in letters to editors and bookstore owners. In the midst of promoting my first picture book, I am making myself literally nauseous.
This practice of being real with myself and others—I thought I had it figured out after the tumultuous, navel-gazing teen and early-twenties years. And I’m thrilled that I’ll soon hold my first picture book. But as a person who hates yammering on about her own work, the endless self-promotion required of writers these days makes my stomach churn. It’s like gazing into a mirror too long, like snapping too many selfies (like the endless shots I find of my tween on my phone). In a culture where we’re trained to post carefully selective snapshots of our lives, I’ve been wrestling with this question: How do I remain authentic in a society where, to get things done, to promote, you must adopt a certain measure of—well, if not deception, then slant?
In the Atlantic article “How to Hire Fake Friends and Family,” Roc Morin interviews Ishii Yuichi, the founder of “Family Romance,” a Japanese company that hires out actors to anyone who is willing to pay enough. Say Thanksgiving rolls around and your prospective in-laws are looking forward to meeting your mother. But she’s embarrassing: chews tobacco, swears audibly, shouts about politics. Worry no longer! Simply hire an actor who will play the perfect mom. Yuichi has played the parts of loving fathers, acceptable husbands, perfect boyfriends. His company has provided supportive colleagues, fall-guys, even healthy partners (complete with cheat-sheets of memories) to lonely people whose spouses are suffering dementia.
While Yuichi admits to occasionally feeling badly about long-term gigs (he’s been playing father to a girl who fully considers him her real father for years now), he defends his company by explaining that providing short-term comfort for people in an unjust world is legitimate. As for being deceptive, he points out that culture is already on that bandwagon: “I believe the term “real” is misguided. Take Facebook, for example. Is that real? Even if the people in the pictures haven’t been paid, everything is curated to such an extent that it hardly matters.”
But today, wearied from too much time on social media, I know that it does matter. It matters deeply to me that I am known and know others in a real way. As I walked down a sodden path in the park with my dog, I finally articulated exactly how I felt: lonely.
Of course though social media is new, the tension between appearance and authenticity has always been an issue. Van Gogh spent much of his life wrestling between the poles of who he was (many dismissed him as a ne’er do well) and the pressure to appear successful. In this letter to his brother, Theo, he vacillates between begging his brother to understand him and defending his authentic, searching self: “What shall I say; our inward thoughts, do they ever show outwardly? There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passers-by see only a little bit of smoke coming through the chimney, and pass on their way.”
I love to think of the fact that many years later, I, with countless others, come to warm myself at Van Gogh’s soul as I read his letters. In his words, often wrenching, often beautiful, I find a friend.
Sometimes our feelings of isolation go deep, beyond the reach of friends, and today at the park I felt that. So I told God: “I am lonely today. Sit with me, please.”
And as I write to you today as honestly as I can, without tipping the camera to block out the pile of laundry on the floor or turning my face to show you my ‘best side’ or trying to convince you to buy something, I invite you. Today, slow down; be present to yourself and to others. Pursue genuine, authentic, communal soul-building. Step up to the hearth, take a deep breath, and warm yourself.
P.S. As always, we love your comments and interaction! Please leave a message–and thank you!