Experts in intercultural communication remind us of the importance that narratives and rituals play in our lives and in orienting us to our own identities, history, the norms and expectations of our society. Each society uses rituals and narratives for this purpose, and they combine to form powerful tools to teach us.
I’m thinking of the opening scenes of the Robert Redford film, A River Runs Through It, where Norman MacLean describes beautifully how he and his brother learned at the feet of their father, a Presbyterian pastor who taught them the value of faith, fluid writing, and fly fishing, in equal measures.
As Norman said:
“We were left to assume, as my younger brother Paul and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John was a dry fly fisherman.”
Learning the values
Hours of painstaking practice, on a daily basis, reinforced their father’s instructions on these three values which had long been central characteristics of this Montana family of the early 20th Century. Norman and Paul learned the lessons well.
When I see that film, I can’t help but think of the times my own grandfather took me trout fishing, and of the times I took my own two sons to hunt for the big bass on Indiana lakes. Then I think about the much greater amount of time the three of us have spent apart, glued to the computers.
The stark truth
Let’s face it: You don’t get much connection to the family or your own identity from the Internet. You may learn about them, but they don’t become ingrained in your DNA as Norman’s and Paul’s lessons did.
Instead, our time spent in the virtual world of the Web provides us with narratives that are snippets or soundbites, constantly interrupted by hyperlinks to “related stories” to which we happily leap, distracting our attention from the main story or narrative that — frankly — was getting a little too long anyway for our short attention spans.
Welcome to the virtual world
And instead of the rituals of the family dinner, learning writing or fly fishing from Dad, we spend hour after hour vicariously living others’ experiences, often with a stand-in avatar for us as we get lost in some online video game or doing armchair traveling around the world.
We already know we have become more splintered as families as everyone heads off to their own laptops to explore their virtual worlds which may not be representative of the corner of the world we inhabit at all. That being so, how do we expect to understand that culture as our parents and grandparents did?
It’s not just family members going their own way, but also members of the same culture or society doing the same thing. The younger we start out exploring the world on the Web instead of the real world in front of us, the more time we spend away from the rituals and narratives that teach us about that culture.
And, since we learn a lot about our own identity from our culture, we make it harder to discover that identity.
No mall directory
Is it surprising that we wake up one day to discover that, like the first-time shopper in a huge shopping mall, we have no idea where we are in relation to the places we want to be or how to get there? There is no mall directory, because there have been no narratives and few real-life rituals to point us to our destinations.
The other day I was watching a TV commercial for one of those online services that helps you track your family tree. Something like Ancestry.com. There was this woman who was talking about her great-grandfather as if he were someone from an alien planet whom she knew absolutely nothing about until she paid this online service to discover his identity.
Then I realized, I don’t even know who my own great-grandfather was. As a child raised on television, I can tell you the name of Tonto’s horse, but not the name of my grandfather’s dad or mom.
A telling sign about how we’re losing our sense of our own culture? Wouldn’t our grandparents chide us for side-stepping the importance of knowing our own family history?
Is our time spent in the virtual world, as opposed to the real one, exacerbating that disconnect from our own culture? At best, it doesn’t help.
I say I don’t want or need love in my life. Truth is, I lie to myself because I’m afraid to end up alone. – Anonymous.
There isn’t a time of day I don’t think about killing myself … I try to be the fun-loving, lighthearted nice guy. But who is it I’m trying to deceive? – Anonymous.
Question: What might happen if we were to use the worldwide public stage of the Web, in all its openness, to expose our deepest, innermost secrets? Would anyone actually do that?
Answer: Yes Many Web users are venting their personal longings, embarrassing moments, quirkiness, complaints, fears, and angst on sites designed especially to reveal secrets. The two comments that begin this blog post are two of those actual secrets posted within the past two weeks on sites set up for this purpose.
Anonymity is key
The caveat is that they are revealed under the promise of anonymity.
It is ironic that the world’s most public forum which can and often does embarrass people by making private facts public, is also the same forum that people are relying on to keep their identity secret.
Among the web sites that are available for bean-spilling is PostSecret, which seems to have started the trend, or which as least is one of the most popular of the public secret sites. How popular? As of today, more than 1,066,000 Facebook users alone have “liked” this site.
It’s mission, simply put: “PostSecret is an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard.”
The site administrators do the rest and post the cards.
An artistic element
Alongside the compelling lure of looking in on other people’s secret lives, the various secret-posting sites also offer the artistic element of seeing how well the secrets match the selected visual elements of the e-cards posted on the site. So these are not just secrets, but expressions of art, as well.
Among the secrets posted on this site’s e-cards are the following:
• I slept with someone so they wouldn’t commit suicide.
• I don’t know how to tell you this, but I can’t become a military wife for fear that you will die.
• I loved giving birth, but I hate being a mother.
• Every time I get into a taxi, I check to see if the driver is the man who killed you … I want to ask him how he didn’t see us.
And the secrets go on and on.
Recently, the concept of posting secrets has moved to Facebook, a site where all wall posts come with names and photos of persons posting them, right? Only partially so when it comes to special “postsecret” Facebook group pages. Like any FB page, you have to ask to become a friend and the person running that page can either accept or reject your request. In the case of a “postsecret” page, the site administrator serves as that gatekeeper.
Postsecret sites on Facebook are catching on at a number of institutions, including college campuses. Earlier this month, for example, some students at California’s Azusa Pacific University set up PostSecret Apu. Within the first two weeks, the site had accepted more than 1,750 friend requests. Some 200 secrets have been sent in already.
The administrator of the site is kept anonymous, along with those who choose to create “postcards” and send them in for posting. However, the identity of those individuals commenting on the secrets, is revealed just like on regular Facebook pages.
College students adapt it
Here is how PostSecret Apu describes itself and its mission:
“This is a student project and in no way reflects the direct values or opinions of any faculty or staff of Azusa Pacific University.
“A place to share. A place to be. A place to express the things holding you back. A place to seek help. A place to help get you to a place of freedom.
“You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to Azusa Pacific University’s PostSecret. Secrets can be a regret, hope, funny experience, unseen kindness, fantasy, belief, fear, betrayal, erotic desire, feeling, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. This is meant to be an outlet you might not otherwise have.”
Since Azusa Pacific University is a faith-based liberal arts university, the new site is probably more controversial than it would be on a state university campus. There have been some concerns about the kinds of expressions that might come forth and the possible impact these might have on the university and its efforts at creating a community spirit of believers.
Nevertheless, the site administrator has stated that the only caution the school has issued is to not use the APU logo or to state that this is a university-sanctioned site, which it is not. The administrator also advises users not to name any APU employees in their posted secrets.
Wide range of secrets
The secrets posted on this Postsecret Apu page, cover a wide range of personal aspirations, regrets, complaints, and revelations. Some are lighthearted and thankful like the following:
• Not a day goes by that I don’t miss calling you my best friend.
• On most days I’m too lazy to brush my teeth.
• Come friends. It’s not too late to seek a newer world.
But there are many darker secrets, too, like the two at the top of this blog post and the following:
• People assume I dress modestly just because I’m a Christian. The truth is, I’m ashamed of my body.
• I know I’m as worthy of love as anyone else. But after so many years of telling myself otherwise, I don’t know if I’ll ever really believe it.
• I lost 35 pounds in an effort to be healthy and desired. I’ve never felt worse about myself in my entire life. Life was easier when I was fat and guys left me alone. Since then I have been sexually assaulted … Being thin is not worth this hell.
• On most days I feel … so alone.
The poignancy of these secrets is enhanced by the creative visual imagery that serve as the background for these e-cards. The fact there are so many such secrets posted in such a short window of time is an indication of the private world of pain and longing that many college students carry beneath their smiling faces. Happily, others attest to the positive adjustments other students are making in the world as they grow into their early 20s.
Troubled find support
But several of the secrets are dark ones, and the darkest are those that bespeak thoughts of suicide and of those grappling with their own gender identification.
On the up side, most of these expressions garner many comments of support and offers from others to listen and to be friends with those students feeling lost in their pain and confusion.
One of the 16 people who responded to one secret confessing suicidal thoughts said this: I am so sorry you are hurting right now. I’m so sorry that you feel you have to wear a mask when you are in so much pain. Please know that you are not alone in this place, that you are not the only one who has felt this way.
The site administrator has also posted contact information for a local suicide prevention center.