In yesterday morning’s New York Times Magazine, Sophie Haigney penned a provocative reflection on the evolution of social media. Her article centers around a new app, that admittedly I had never heard of (does learning about new social media apps in the New York Times mean that I am getting old?), called BeReal. If you haven’t heard about the app, its users are encouraged to connect by taking two photos when prompted to “Be Real” at a random moment in the day. The network pushes users to move away from carefully curated representations of themselves towards a more authentic and spontaneous image that is shared with those they want to connect with.
One of Haigney’s reflections on this new app is that a more conscious dialectic has emerged between the profoundly troubling, scary and significant global events, and the mundaneness of our everyday lives. She writes:
It can be difficult, even devastating, to wrap our minds around the idea that grand events will happen elsewhere, while, if we are lucky, our boring lives go on as always. But it may also be appealing, at the moment, to turn inward toward the personal and minute. Given the constancy of disaster around us, and the ways we yell about it online, we may want to attend to moments of normality. Even boring ones. Even what someone else had for lunch. Which is, half the time, what we talk to our actual loved ones about anyway, when we are out there really being real.
I have been thinking about this message of “being real” as we returned to school these past two weeks. This year for the first time in two and a half years we welcomed parents back onto campus to drop students off for their first day of school. There were great moments of joy and celebration, and as can be expected, there were many new students who had a hard time separating from their parents. Last week, I was having an important meeting on Zoom when loud crying interrupted my conversation. A student got hurt on the playground and needed some extra attention from Esther and Pam.
Before COVID, it was totally normal for me to be having a meeting with parents in my office only to be interrupted by a teacher or a student who needed to talk to me or who was instructed to go speak with me. I remember in my first few weeks on the job, receiving enthusiastic permission from a veteran parent who had scheduled a meeting with me, to deal with a student who needed more attention. “Speak with the student,” they said, comforting me that “students are always the top priority.”
In some ways, the pandemic thickened the barriers between the public and the private space. We went out less and so it was less likely for our kids to have tantrums in public. We dropped off our students in our cars, so the difficult conversation that might need to happen between a teacher and a parent might have happened through the walls of Zoom. In some ways “being real” in the public sphere was more challenging as the pandemic encouraged a more curated, self-selecting image of ourselves that we chose to share with the world.
In her masterpiece work reflecting on the challenges of motherhood, “The Obligated Self,” Jewish Studies Professor, Mara Benjamin writes about an instance of her daughter having an extended tantrum on the NYC Metro in plain view of dozens of other travelers. She writes: “The presence of the other riders transformed an unpleasant but occasional hazard of childrearing into a moment that laid bare the difficult, public side of the intimate relationships between parents and children and the role of neighbors within them.”
She describes two strangers who both took particular offense to her daughter’s tantrum and made decisions to pile on to her struggles by criticizing her parenting skills in the midst of the emotional explosion. She reflects again saying, “I objected to a conception of public space that was so restricted and unforgiving. Sometimes, the unruliness cannot fully be controlled. As a result, these two individuals viewed my daughter - and, by extension, me - as “strangers” rather than “neighbors.”
In this community, we are all neighbors. We are dependent on one another to succeed as a community. It may be uncomfortable at first to break down the walls between the private domain and the public domain, but we can go back to “being real” with one another and encourage our fellow community members to see our full selves, be forgiving, and ultimately be there for one another.