Questions of identity preoccupy us – much more than has ever been the case, historically speaking. This is so on account of the leisure time we are afforded, the levels of wealth we have attained, and the public personas we now necessarily create and craft via our social media profiles.
In the contemporary world we have time to develop an interest in particular artists or particular social movements; time and resources to shop for clothing and accessories that project a certain image or style; the ability to mark our bodies (hair die, tattoos, piercings, etc.) in ways that publicly declare our persona; we have online platforms that require us to make decisions about which photos or personal stories or opinions we will share. A few weeks ago I preached a sermon that explored, in part, how our shoes are even, now, a significant feature of this persistent crafting of our image. (See that sermon here.)
This whole exercise in creating and maintaining our image can be an exhausting affair – and it will surprise none of us to hear that some friends or acquaintances have given up Facebook and Twitter and Instagram (etc., etc.) for Lent. Giving up social media, in particular, can be a way to provide ourselves with room to breathe – a way to give up on the never-ending cycle of comparison and projection, instead seeking our identity where it truly and finally resides, by resting in God. Although social media is by no means the only locus in this cycle of self-referential and self-preoccupied identity formation, it is the most difficult to wrestle with given its ubiquity – giving it up no doubt helps puts life in perspective.
But aside from giving up social media, for Lent or otherwise, perhaps another way to humanize and de-pressurize the whole enterprise is through a kind of ironic or transparent naming of our self-preoccupation. A kind of detachment that is willing to examine ourselves – and to let others see us examining ourselves.
This is one of my favorite pictures from this past summer – I took it in the course of a visit that our family made to a provincial park near Rimouski. I was a little self-conscious taking this picture of strangers. But there is something so powerful about taking a picture of the picture-taking moment, because it exposes in such a decisive way what we are often doing when we project our identity, whether through social media or otherwise. Very often:
We are propping ourselves up.
We are hiding the others who help us sit up straight.
We are pretending to an independence that isn’t completely true to us.
We are suggesting an identity that isn’t nearly the full story.
So one of the ways to humanizing the endless cycle of self-referential image-crafting, is to take a step back from this image-crafting and to let others see the way in which we are engaged in that activity. This doesn’t mean exposing our every foible and failing, which we have all seen happening on social media – and which feels so inappropriate to a medium that doesn’t allow appropriate responses and conversations around such personal struggles. And of course even the task of sharing pictures-of-our-picture-taking can become a way we project an image of ironic detachment from our own lives – another way to project an image of ourselves as enlightened and cool…
Rather, the goal is to try and infuse some honesty into our image-crafting. And to achieve this goal by letting our friends get a glimpse at our behind-the-scenes deliberations about posting images, opinions, and photos. Acknowledging, somehow, that this is precisely what we are doing. Since we all know that social media isn’t going anywhere fast, and since we also all know that these platforms require some humanizing, perhaps this intentional detachment from our own project of image-crafting is one way forward — by taking pictures of our picture-taking (metaphorically speaking) we display honesty. How to do this is by no means obvious – it will take as much creativity and intentionality as visual artists often display. It will set us against the grain of the culture and against the culture of social media.
This painting by William Kurelek displays the kind of creativity, intentionality, and self-reflective transparency that perhaps we could use a little more of. The beefsteak tomato is propped up – showing its best side, giving it a fuller presence in this still-life, allowing it to provide the sense of proportionality and balance that the painting otherwise would lack. Kurelek lets us see what he’s doing, and in the same moment let’s us see what we are doing, too.