My Online Life–Does it Tell the Real Story?
Yesterday I caught a glimpse of my two lives—the one I was living, and the one I was about to post on Social Media. And boy, were they different!
I came home from work a little upset and immediately started to post something about my day online. My wife could tell something wasn’t quite right. Looking over my shoulder, she said, “Are you sure you wanna post that?” Without looking up I responded, “You wouldn’t ask if you’d seen my day.”
“Tell me about it,” she said, offering to share her strawberry-mango-smoothie.
Between bites I told her about being cut-off in traffic, and how people are so rude, and how I hated being on the road so much. Then she asked something that stopped me cold: “Was your whole day about driving?”
Of course, it wasn’t. In fact, I’d had my usually busy day—but as I unpacked it—I could see how truly full it had been. I had spent the day interacting with students, faculty and other staff at the High School where I taught Drama and American History. We’d had an assembly about lockdowns and gun-safety. I’d written letters of recommendation to college admissions for three graduating students, and counseled two more on how to get their grades out of the gutter. I had graded papers, coached actors with their Shakespeare monologues, and worked on the set design for our upcoming musical.
As we talked, I realized I had only driven a few miles to and from the school. I’d spend hardly any time in my car at all. I wondered aloud to my wife why I was posting about driving when it represented such a small part of my day. She didn’t have an answer, but she did remind me of a rule I knew well.
As teachers, we try and give seven positive comments for every piece of correction. While that seems reasonable in theory, and I know it works, I can also tell you that it’s not very easy in practice. At least not at first. In my first years of teaching I had failed miserably at it over and over again, only recently finding more ways to encourage the kids than to discipline them.
Now, as I looked at the post I was about to send out to the world, I saw that I hadn’t yet learned how to apply this to my online life. And I needed to. I’m a pretty positive person (unless I’m driving) and I generally see the good in the world and in people. And yet here I was, just like those early days in the classroom, wondering why it was so much easier to point out the wrong than to highlight the good.
Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman says, “we are wired to remember intense, negative experiences more than positive, subtle experiences, even if the positive subtle experiences are most of what our days consist of.” (Kahneman, TED Talk)
I could see how true this had been for me. My day had been filled with subtle, positive experiences—the very experiences I sought when becoming a teacher—but here at the end, all I could remember was this small, mundane, negative moment.
Had I always been like this? Was I really “wired” to remember my life this way?
I looked back at my own high school experience—going to class, hanging out with friends, doing my thing (whatever that was). But at some point during the day, someone would knock my books down the stairs, make fun of my shoes, or my hair, or my backpack, and when I got home I told my mom how much I hated school. But that wasn’t completely true.
It also wasn’t true of my youth generally. Yes, I dropped piano lessons, missed getting my Eagle scout, and quit the cross-country team—all, as I remember, because of some negative interaction with my teacher, scout master, and coach. But I could decide right now what i wanted to remember about these years. It was all up to me.
Kahneman tells the story of a young man who said he’d been listening to an amazing symphony for 20 minutes, but right at the end there was a horrible screeching sound. “It ruined the whole experience” he said. Kahneman’s response was direct: “It didn’t ruin the experience, you still had all those wonderful minutes of beautiful music; but it’s your memory of the event that was ruined. And your memory is all you get to keep.”
I could see how true this was for me. Piano, scouting, cross-country—were these really negative experiences? No.
I had wonderful times playing the piano—like when I played “The Entertainer” for Linda Beckstead at her 14th Birthday party and she kissed me on the cheek. And all my best friends came from my scout troop—such great memories of camp-outs and kayak trips we took together—how could I misremember those? And as for running, I’ve been doing it my whole life. How did I ever quit doing this thing that gives me so much joy? A small negative moment got in the way of how I remembered all of these important life-moments.
And that’s what almost happened again last night.
I was going to post about something that happened on my drive to work. It had been a peaceful and stress-free drive until the moment someone cut me off getting into the parking lot. I was frustrated, and in my post I was ready to say, “I would be so happy if my day didn’t have to include other people’s driving.” Not particularly offensive, but also not the full, true story.
In fact, like I said, most of my morning drive had been free and easy; no traffic, open lanes, green lights and a sunny spring morning. In fact, I remember being passed by a mini-van with a teenager in the passenger seat wearing an oxygen mask, tubes in nose, a recently shaved head, and tears streaming down his face. I remember feeling a burst of compassion and saying a quick prayer in my heart for that young man and his family. I was filled with an immense sense of gratitude for my life and family.
Wow. So much good had happened! And all of it was shoved to the background because of one intense, negative moment. And that was what I was going to share? That? I was going to post about an inconsiderate moment in a most inconsiderate way. People would have read and commented; they’d have shared their own stories of being cut off. Soon there would have been 350 likes, 25 shares, 172 comments, and none of it truly representative of my real, personal experience–a glorious morning drive.
It was then that I thought of George (not his real name). He was the most antagonizing, disruptive student I faced in years of teaching. And worst of all, I could never find anything positive to say to him. But then one day, something came to me in the moment: “George, you find so many ways to disrupt this class, I think that shows amazing creativity. Good job.” He stopped throwing pencils at the ceiling and gave me a shocked look. “Thank you” he said, smiling. Then he went back to entertaining himself by making fart sounds with his arm-pit and making the whole class laugh. I’m sure I laughed too. And then I kept trying to teach the class.
But something remarkable happened the very next day.
George brought me a story he’d written and had never shared with anyone. He handed it to me quickly and faded back into his normal activity. But he and I were different. I saw his antics through a new lens. He was still sent out of class a lot and even suspended a few times, but at least I could praise him on his way out. “George, go see the principal, and remember you’re quite a gifted writer.”
My experience with “the post that almost was” has invited me to re-examine and re-align the two lives that sometimes struggle for expression—the real one and the one I post online. If my wife hadn’t stopped me from posting, so many people would have only gotten the smallest, most mundane part of my day—that part that happened to be negative. And they would have missed the truth—the richness and wonder that is actually my life.
So this morning, I posted about the sun streaking across my windshield, my favorite song on the radio, my daughter’s arms around my neck as I dropped her at kindergarten, and the joy of going to the best job I’ve ever had. Sure, I had to park six miles away from the entrance, but that was just a chance to get some exercise. Because today my lens was different.
Here’s to being re-wired—ready to take in and keep all the wondrous, profound, beautiful moments that are all around us. Here’s to sharing my life online in a purposeful, authentic way that demonstrates how much light and joy are really in it. Because what I post will be what I remember. And those are the memories I really want to keep.