Somewhere along the way, in the century of the self, we forgot each other. We forgot this vast and wonder-filled universe, of which we are each but a tiny and transient wonder.
We forgot that all creative work — be it music or mathematics, poetry or physics, anything we might call art — is a hand outstretched in the dark, reaching not for visibility but for the light that lives between us. Reaching for connection.
We forgot what Whitman knew even as he proclaimed “I celebrate myself!” — that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” No word appears in Leaves of Grass more times than you.
We are living through a pandemic of selfing — rampant self-celebration that mistakes applause for connection, likes for love. Social media companies are capitalizing on our native need for affirmation, exploiting our compromised immunity to manipulation at every turn: algorithms prioritizing selfies over sunflowers, algorithms amplifying the word I, algorithms doping us on the dopamine of being noticed, seducing us into forgetting the art and joy of noticing — that crowning glory of consciousness. And somewhere, in the quiet core of our being, this frantic hunt for likes is making us like ourselves less.
There must be another way — a way to unself* just enough to remember each other, to grow a little more awake to this world that shimmers with wonder, of which any one self is only a fleck.
Whatever that way is, it is not some new technology. Maybe it is a new ethic. Maybe it is the oldest ethic.
Here is what I** propose***:
As an experiment, for one continuous month, make the focus of one in every three things you share on social media — wherever you normally share, however regularly or irregularly you do, however many people you reach — something other than yourself or your own work: a friend’s art project, a stranger’s poem, a record by a musician you love, the tree shimmering with majesty and mystery in the low morning light, someone in your community you admire, a bygone pioneer of something you value, a book that spun you on your axis, the lost cat sign crayoned by a neighbor’s child, the new community garden a few blocks over, news of the dazzling galaxy discovered by the dazzling new space telescope a few million lightyears over.
Try it for a month — try it on like a shirt, see how it feels. And if you don’t feel that warm glow of generosity, that good glad feeling of making another’s day, or simply the relief of a small sabbatical from the tedium of the self, then you can always go back to the old way.
Wherever you land, it will not have been a wasted month.
* Thanks for the lovely term, Iris Murdoch.
** I am Maria — a reader and a writer who has met just about every cherished human in my life through mutual cherishment of each other’s work. This manifesto is the product of long ambulatory conversations with friends — in forests and in city streets, in studios and in writing hideaways — inveighing about the soul-syphoning turn social media has taken over the course of our friendship, and its toll on our souls (from which our work springs), and on the souls of every single creative person we know (which is all persons).
*** This is an experiment. It is only one of myriad possible solutions to a problem dogging us all, making our lives smaller rather than larger. Everyone is complaining. (Except, of course, the social media companies.) I believe that the best way to complain is to do something, to make something. This is what I am doing. This is what I made.