It’s no bit of news that we live in a time of living out loud, online, always seen, always heard. But I remain fascinated by what those among us do when no one is looking, when nothing is being recorded, or at least when we assume those things to be true. Who are we at our core? Who are we when no one is likely to know, or care? Who are we in the quiet of our souls, in the humming inside of our brains, in the beating of our hearts?
I think about these things a lot–too much, really–because I am amazed at how we have evolved to be consumed with public displays of pretty much everything. We parade our rage, our politics, our activism, our sexuality, our religious judgment, our food preferences, our attitudes toward money, our attitudes toward race, migration, environmental degradation, and so on and so on. We broadcast our homicidal behavior, and celebrate the violence of others. We do this on social media, and sometimes in the streets. We do it in college classrooms, and on campus quads. We even do it in or about workplaces, though that might have consequences few of us are willing to entertain. We do it with family members, with strangers on airplanes, and anywhere and everywhere, it seems, where we can be noticed. Though to be fair, sometimes we assume we’re not being seen and are mortified to find that in fact our behavior has been documented. Not because we’re ashamed, mind you, but because we’re embarrassed that we’ve been caught, and fearful that we might be held accountable.
I’m not a psychologist, but I find the desperate desire to be seen to be pretty sad. I understand it, but still. And not only because it bespeaks a kind of insecurity and need to be affirmed that ought to be embarrassing past toddler age, but also because all that parading and showing is often just dishonest. We lie to a staggering degree about so many things, but most easily and most often, I think, about those things we put out for public consumption. We do it to an epidemic degree with our virtue signaling, by parading and bull-horning all the ways in which we are so team progressive. or so team conservative, or so team… Whatever buys us entry or sustains our membership in the club to which we are desperate to belong.
I had a stunningly modest social media presence. I was so sloppy with a blog I started years ago that it was only recently that I noticed it had attracted thousands of readers. This in the years before influencer became a job title. I was busy living my life and just didn’t pay attention. I belatedly wished I had. Maybe it could have been a forum for shared learning, which would have been a wonderful thing. But we can’t go back. I shut down my LinkedIn account a few years ago, and tiptoed in and out and in and out and finally out for good from Facebook. I had a short-term Instagram account, mostly because I wanted to see the photos my kids posted, and see what the bakery my disabled son works at was posting. It all just felt one-dimensional and even voyeuristic; more performative than informative. Of course there are elements of the latter in all of it, but it’s the proportions that always seem off to me. So I just left those virtual rooms. No one really noticed, because my presence was more like an absence. If I were a tree in a virtual forest, I was one that had fallen, and hadn’t made a sound. Or the sound I made was so slight as to go unheard. Or the other trees were so noisy that my fallen-ness just didn’t register.
All of which brings me back, days before Yom HaShoah, to a story my father, Jakob Mogilnik, z’l, told me many years ago. Following the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust, during which most of his family had been slaughtered, my father found himself in the displaced persons camp at Fehrenwald, outside of Munich, Germany. He told us many stories of that time, including how angry he was that Americans ringed the camp with tanks and confiscated everything of value–chocolate, cigarettes, etc.–from the Jews interned there, while DP camps that housed Ukrainians and others went untouched. But the story my father told that became stenciled on my soul, was that one day he saw an older man on the ground, begging. Everyone passed him by. My father stopped. The man motioned for my father to follow him to the tiny room he shared with his daughter, who was dying from tuberculosis. That is why the man was begging, to get help for his daughter. But no one stopped. Until my father did.
Too many of us walk through this world with eyes that don’t see, and with ears that don’t hear. Or we only see what’s in the mirror, and only hear the soundtrack of our own desires and aspirations. But who are we when no one is looking, when the mirror is covered, when every other tree in the forest has fallen? Who are we when no one is watching? What does the quiet of our souls, the humming of our brains, and the beating of our hearts tell us? What choices do we make when no one can cheer us on or castigate us?
I recall that story about my father and the man he chose to see and to hear and to try to help because it does two things: it reminds me that I am a child of true greatness, and that I have a long way to go to be half as good as the young man who stopped to listen to the father of a dying daughter. But when I see and when I listen, I feel echoes of something powerful within me. And I try dearly to follow where I think those echoes might want me to go. No matter which way everyone else is going.