I have learned fairly quickly, in just two years, that we become our visible selves. Not our lonely selves or our internal selves or even our midnight by candlelight selves. We become the kind of selves that are stacked side-by-side with the other selves we see sitting in our Twitter feed and our email chains. We become the kind of selves who are measured in what we have told the world.
If that is true, I have failed. I have failed to tell the world that I am the kind of self who knows only how to be quiet and care too much and try. I have not pretended to be an illusory human being who whisks in and cleans up other people’s messes. I have not pretended to have it all figured out so that you might trust me more with your own pain and trials.
My regret is not in painting myself accurately, but in believing that everyone else does the same. In believing that we are not the people we are when the laptop is shut, that we are only the people we can become when we create something for the world to see.
But I know it differently.
The people I have lost too soon, the ones who have died suddenly and over just a short expanse of time, have shared in themselves this character trait. And perhaps it is a product of the older generation, one that I worry we’ve lost, but this trait tells us to be not just extraordinarily and outwardly and loudly passionate, but to whisper our help, our talents, our trials and tribulations.
Do not stand in front of 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 followers and tell them that you have done something wonderful, it says. Stand next to the ones you love most and lift them up and expect that no one, not a single soul, ever breathes a word of it.
I worry that we have learned it backwards. I worry that we, or maybe just me, have ingested the hard-to-swallow notion that we are our projects, our creations, our big bad world-shaking efforts. That we cannot quietly sit in the library and write letters to petition government rulings or bend over pots on the stove and stir some magic into meals for the homeless—or just our ailing neighbor.
I worry that we do good because it looks good, because it gets talked about, but not because we are compelled to alter the status quo. Not because we desperately seek to feel our knees give out when the child we’ve fed comes running toward us and we sweep her in our arms, twirl her around and feel love deeper than all those retweets and likes and mentions.
Before I ever wanted to be someone big and bold and fierce, I was just a little girl who made friends with a man who taught me to do what I did not because I was particularly good—in fact, I was downright awful—but because I could not envision an alternative.
I worry we do things because we feel obligated. We create because otherwise we’ll be forgotten. We spread ourselves like jelly on the Internet, leaving our mark like sticky residue on keyboard keys, sweet but not full of what we really need.
My hope, today and tomorrow and years from now, is that every project and creation and calling is not saturated online because we must not drown and dissolve, but because it itself is remarkable. That we do not feel compelled to bring to life every midnight dream because we cannot do it all. We cannot all be Mother Teresa.
Some of us have to sit quietly and work tirelessly and understand that visibility bears no correlation to our goodness, that hard work will always be hard work, especially when it goes unspoken.
I hope we haven’t yet lost that, but I worry.
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