Self-reflection in the age of selfies
Posted on October 1, 2014
Lena Dunham is not done confessing. That’s the headline of the New York Times Magazine profile just published about the actress-turned-memoirist, and it couldn’t be more apt.
Though I’ve never seen an episode of her highly rated, super-raunchy, nudity-filled HBO show “Girls,” I consider Lena something of a cultural case study, given how often she is touted as the voice of my generation. That voice has never shied away from revelation, however unflattering or immoral.
It will reach new heights this month, when her memoir “Not That Kind of Girl” is released, the product of a $3-million book deal Lena signed with Random House two years ago at age 26. The Atlantic called the memoir “a new chapter in her campaign of self-exposure” while The New York Times Magazine said it was written “with a ferocious, hilarious and occasionally worrisome candor.”
Lena’s revelations range from decades of psychotherapy (beginning when she was 9) to the loss of her virginity – diplomatically summarized by the New York Times Magazine as a series of “questionable personal choices.”
The critical response that intrigued me most came toward the end of James Parker’s Atlantic review: “There’s something very contemporary in Dunham’s self-exposure, her restlessly accelerated processing of her own experience.” He went on to render a chilling assessment of Life On Perpetual Broadcast, that 21st-century young-adult proclivity. “That’s modernity: the inside’s on the outside, leaving a vacuum on the inside.”
I often wonder about the Facebook effect on the inner life, what it means when the time between experiencing and sharing is reduced to a matter of seconds.
Reality TV stars are questioned about their willingness to bare it all for national consumption, and I’m amused when these boldfaced confessors insist they don’t share everything with the cameras. Somehow Kim Kardashian’s second go at a nationally televised wedding was supposed to seem restrained because the footage ended right before the actual ceremony and was shot only by friends, not producers. (I can’t help but think of Dave Letterman’s comment to Kim when she was on his show last year: “I just wonder if you’re getting good advice.”)
But it’s not just a question for celebrities. Self-disclosure is an issue every conscientious young adult grapples with. What goes on the blog and what stays in the private journal? What do you share with a close friend, a group of online followers, the World Wide Web, God? Where’s the line between self-aware and self-absorbed, between naval gazing and soul searching? Will I know when I’ve crossed it?
I find myself composing tweets in my head, a strange sort of outside-looking-in sensation that, though aimed at capturing the moment, surely hinders my ability to be in it. When it comes to my social-media output, I try to evaluate my intentions and distinguish the sociable impulse from the narcissistic one. Am I making a connection or making a statement?
The Catholic Church calls us to develop the inner life, beckoning us to bend our knees, bow our heads and close our eyes, inviting us to make our confession before a priest, not a camera. It gives us tools specifically designed for self-reflection like spiritual direction and that increasingly foreign, healing prospect of the silent retreat.
In an Instagram era, these offerings feel more vital than ever. How can we still our hearts when our thumbs keep on tapping?
Pulling the plug on all social networks probably isn’t the solution for most of us. But we can turn to this month’s Scripture, St. Matthew’s account of the greatest commandments, for a litmus test on each tweet: Is it drawing on a love of self or a love of neighbor?