Monday, February 10, 2020

Social Media and the Thief of Joy

In my last post, I discussed how dangerous the comparison game can be: how it can rob us of peace and tranquility, making us feel inadequate and unlovable; how it can make us forget that each of us is made in the image and likeness of God, with an immortal soul that is unique and beautiful and worthy of love; how we were all made exactly as we are meant to be, warts and all (yes, we all have them--and that's okay!).  Why do we look at others around us and feel like we don't stack up?  Why do we think, If I was just [prettier, smarter, thinner, more talented, more outgoing--you fill in the blank] than I am, I would be [happier, more successful, more confident, a better mother, more beloved--fill in the blank again]?  Maybe you don't do this, but every now and then I do, and I know it's a terrible habit that I need to break.

I've struggled with this off and on throughout my life.  For instance, in this 1978 photo of my husband and me, taken at a friend's wedding when we were going into our junior year of college, I can remember comparing myself to the other females at the reception and wishing I looked like anyone but me.  I'd gained the freshman 10 and then added another 10 my sophomore year, decided to cut my hair short and regretted the change, and was wearing an extremely unflattering dress.  And there he was, my matinee idol boyfriend, so handsome I could hardly look at him without becoming breathless.  What did he see in me, anyway? I wondered.  I could be so hard on myself!  And why?  This guy loved me!  He could have discarded his high school girlfriend for someone "better" when we went off to college in different parts of the country, but our long-distance relationship was still going strong after two years of mostly being apart.  (We had no Facetime, but wrote lots of letters!)  2020 Laura, 39 years into an extremely happy marriage to the good-looking guy in this picture, wishes she could tell 1978 Laura to lift up her head and smile with confidence, secure in the knowledge that he wanted her just the way she was.

At the end of that last post, I hinted that I would be back to explore the topic of comparison further, focusing on how social media has made the habit of comparing ourselves to others even more of a problem than ever before.  So here it is, another post just days after the last one!  (Is blogging back?!  Maybe not, but I am.  And thanks to all the nice readers who left sweet and encouraging comments for me last time I was here.  I was feeling the love--and I finally got around to replying to all of you wonderful people.)

I don't know about you, but I find that I am sometimes left feeling a bit blue after too much time spent scrolling through Facebook feeds.  It's not just that Facebook has become a popular platform for uncomfortable discussions about politics and countless nasty anti-religion/anti-life memes; it has, but there is also plenty of positive news, daily, about family and friends, some of them long-lost before the advent of social media--not to mention all those wonderful photos of loved ones that you might not otherwise see.  There is so much good to be found there, no doubt about it.  But there is also so much bad.  And some of what is bad comes from looking at all the good and worrying that in comparison to what you're seeing, you or your life is "less than."

Jenny Uebbing, one of my favorite Catholic wordsmiths of all time, touched on this topic in her recent Instagram stories, admitting that sometimes after ingesting too much social media she comes away asking herself questions like Why can't I get up early and work out? or Why aren't my kids X,Y, or Z? or Why doesn't my house look like that?  She went on to talk about the danger in this--how social media is really just two-dimensional, and how it gives us a 40,000-foot view of other people's lives (I'm paraphrasing here, trying to remember exactly how she put things), so we're not really seeing the whole picture. I realize that deep down, everyone probably knows this about social media; they know that people usually only post the good and the beautiful, the uplifting aspects of their lives, not the dark struggles they might be going through at the time. (Because I don't care how blessed you are, let's face it: no life is ever lived without trials and tribulations, without sadness, fear, and loss.)  I mean, there's nothing wrong with wanting to share mostly the best portions of your life with the online world.  But this can also lead people to compare, and then to feel down because their lives don't seem nearly as bright and sparkly as those light-filled images and upbeat captions they see--even though they know in their heart of hearts that these images and captions don't tell the whole story.

The other danger about comparing our lives to the Facebook and Instagram feeds of others, Uebbing observed, is that we're not all at the same point in life at the same time, and it's harmful to compare our lives to those of people going through completely different stages than we're going through.  How true is this?!  You might feel like you're drowning right now, with a houseful of crazy toddlers and demanding babies, or a couple of angsty teens, and find yourself worrying about how your children are going to turn out and wondering how things will look 10 or 20 years from now.  Then you'll see a picture of a family you know, showing the kids all grown-up, happy, and successful; and without even knowing you're doing it, you might start to feel like  maybe you're a failure as a parent, even though you're not seeing all the many difficult stages that family went through as they traveled the bumpy road you're currently on to get to where they are now.

You can do this in reverse, too, which is what I sometimes do; I see all the wonderful things young Catholic Instagram mamas are doing with their children, how they're creatively celebrating the different liturgical seasons and the feast days of the saints, and I'll worry that I didn't do enough to help instill the Faith in our boys back when I had the chance. When I do this, I'm comparing a grandmother who is now at a stage decades ahead of these moms, a mother who did her very best at the time and shouldn't waste her time on regrets, and it seriously makes no sense.  Especially because although my husband and I had to deal with our share of challenges and certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way, we somehow managed to raise five terrific sons who are still practicing Catholics, are in sacramental marriages with lovely young women, and have given themselves over to the will of God as far as how many children they will have.  Somewhere along the way, I guess, we must have done a few things right.  (Or maybe we're just incredibly lucky.)  So looking back and wishing to change anything that we did is an exercise in futility.  As my late mother-in-law (who quite successfully raised four sons and four daughters) used to say, "If you change one thing, you change everything."

Who would change this?

Or this?

As a mother, you can't help panicking just a little when your kids grow up and leave the nest for the first time, wondering if you've done all you could to prepare them for life; this certainly happened with me.  Danielle Bean describes those feelings better than I ever could in this Instagram post I stumbled upon recently, written as her daughter was getting ready to leave for college:

"We tend to pause and doubt...Did we say all the things?  Teach all the lessons?  Read all the stories?  Say all the prayers?  Did we do all the stuff?...Was it enough?  I can look back now and see that we did a lot of things, but it was not enough.  It is never enough.   We always fall short.  But God knows what he is about...We all fall short, but the gaps leave room for God.  And he fills them with grace."

I love that!  God fills in the gaps!

It's hard enough to think you're doing a good enough job raising your kids without the added pressure of seeing how everyone else is doing it, all the time, all over social media. I am so, so thankful that there wasn't that kind of added pressure when we were raising our boys!  I think it must be tougher for my daughters-in-law to feel they are "enough" (and believe me, they are MORE than enough!), when everyone is online, over-sharing, presenting a picture that makes it look like they have it all together, all the time.  Some young moms can handle it just fine, taking it for what it is and not letting it affect their confidence and peace of mind; if I was just starting out now in the motherhood game, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be one of them.

I think this post has gone on long enough, so I'll just wrap it up by saying that even when I catch myself succumbing to the dangerous practice of comparison, I simultaneously feel like the luckiest and most blessed woman on God's green earth and know that I wouldn't trade my life for anyone else's.  So why do I ever waste even a single moment of this precious time allotted to me wishing for even one aspect of it to be different?  My mother-in-law was spot-on: if you change one thing, you change everything.  If I had been a different sort of person, or if even one thing had happened differently along the way, I might not be where I am today.  And that is the LAST thing I would want.

So here is what I'm going to strive to remind myself, whenever I start to compare myself to others and feel "less than": You are God's precious child.  You are perfect as you are--which is not to say that you are perfect, because the only human being for whom that adjective is true is the Blessed Mother; but you are the person God meant you to be, with the looks, talents, and temperament He gave you to use to use wisely and well, in order to make your way back to Him and become a saint in Heaven.

Teddy Roosevelt's famous quote bears repeating: "Comparison is the thief of joy."  Truer words were never spoken.  If checking Facebook or Instagram too often leads you to let that cruel and conniving thief rob you of your joy, take a break from social media for a bit.  Instagram is a mostly positive force in my life; but even so, I'm thinking of doing just that for Lent.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Mary's Beauty is the Standard

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my husband on a four-day working trip to Rome.  We flew (or rather he flew, I rode) over on Sunday, January 19, had the 20th and the 21st to explore bella Roma, and then we made the return trip across the Atlantic on the Wednesday the 22nd.  It was a wonderful whirlwind trip, and I suppose I should have blogged about it. But like just about every other blogger under the sun, these days I seem to spend more time over on Instagram than I do here.  (Mea culpa!  But it's just so easy posting something quickly on my phone, no matter where I might be at the time, rather than finding an opportunity to sit in the office at my laptop.  That must be why so many others have made the transition from blogger to 'grammer.)

But just when I thought it might be time to close up shop at String of Pearls, a funny thing happened: a few days ago, I was talking to one of my daughters-in-law about how I never make the time to blog anymore, saying that I was pretty sure no one is missing my blogging presence, and she surprised me by saying that she checks all the time to see if I've posted something new.  I hate to let any of my girls down--so thanks for the motivation, Preciosa.  This one's for you.

Anyway, I'm not going to post pictures from that short but very sweet recent trip here right now (you can see those if you visit my Instagram page, by clicking on the icon over on the sidebar there); well, actually that's not completely true, because I am going to post just one.

The night we got back from Rome, we said our daily Rosary and other novena prayers in our living room (fondly nicknamed "the Rosary Room"), and then we sat on the couch and talked for a while, reminiscing about our little Roman holiday.  My husband started scrolling through his iPhone pictures from the trip, stopping at one to show me and say, "I love this picture.  Now that's a beautiful face."

I looked over to see which picture he was talking about.  "THAT one?" I said, incredulous.  "You actually like that picture?"

"I love it.  You don't?" he said, equally incredulous.

"NO!"  (I might have grimaced.)

"You're nuts," he replied.

I'd asked him to take this picture during our al fresco dinner at a restaurant in the Piazza Navona, after I'd taken one of his handsome mug as he sat across the table from me.  When he'd shown it to me right after he snapped it, my immediate reaction was a silent, "Ugh!  Why am I so unphotogenic?  No filter can fix that one!"  I ticked off the flaws: too-squinty eyes, too-fat cheeks, too-limp and scraggly hair--and too-big glasses.  If only I could have the big wide-set eyes (20/20 vision eyes, without bags under them!), sculpted cheekbones, and voluminous hair of a supermodel, THEN maybe I could see myself as beautiful--in his eyes or anyone's.   So it truly astounded me that he could look at this photo and see beauty there.

This was not a healthy reaction, I realize; why would I want a different face than the one my husband loves?  Why would I think he would want a different--a "better"--face?  I was playing that dangerous comparison game--you know, the one you always lose, because we all know (or should know) that Teddy Roosevelt was absolutely right when he famously said, "Comparison is the thief of joy."

But it can be a struggle sometimes, because we women do long to be seen as beautiful; as Carrie Gress says in The Anti-Mary Exposed (which should be essential reading for all women, I believe!), "The desire to be beautiful is deeply embedded in a woman's soul...Even the smallest girl will tell you she wants to be as beautiful as a princess.  This isn't cultural conditioning; it is something universal that sits squarely in the feminine heart."

The trouble is that the world bombards us constantly with images of feminine beauty that few earthly mortals will ever have, images that focus on the merely physical.  So we get stressed out about our weight, we spend too much on cosmetics, we bemoan the appearance of gray hairs and wrinkles. We all give lip service to the idea that "inner beauty is what counts," but then judge ourselves harshly when our outward beauty doesn't live up to accepted (and mostly unattainable) standards.  Gress points out that every visionary throughout history who has had the privilege of seeing the Blessed Mother has reported that She was "the most beautiful woman he or she had ever seen."  But it's essential to understand why She was so beautiful: "Mary's beauty is important because it is the outward expression of her complete perfection emanating from God's beauty. We can never be as beautiful as Mary, who was conceived without sin; but we can strive to be as much like Mary as humanly possible.  She sets the standard.

My husband loves my face--because he loves ME, all of me (even when I'm occasionally nuts), and he sees glimpses (infinitesimal ones, but glimpses nonetheless) of God's beauty emanating from it. So it is with God; this kind of unconditional love from my husband is a reflection of the Father's love for me, for all of us.  Despite our sins.  Despite our flaws and failings.  He loves us, body and soul, and wants us for His own. He made me exactly the way He wanted me to be, with these eyes, these cheeks, this hair, but most importantly, this soul.  I am an unrepeatable soul, with inestimable worth, God's very own beloved child.  Whenever I cringe at a photo of myself, I need to remember that in His eyes, I am beautiful. This, then, is the reason my husband sees beauty where I see only physical flaws and features I would make more "perfect" if I could.  He sees his loving wife of 39 years, with whom he shares a sacramental bond that will hopefully help us both become saints; he sees the devoted mother of his five sons, the five precious souls God entrusted to our care; he sees the doting Grammy of the 16 grandchildren he absolutely adores; he sees the woman he is growing old with and whose presence--incredibly--he never seems to tire of.

I will probably never think that this photo from our Rome trip is particularly flattering.  But I’ll always be grateful for the guy who took it and the way he loves me.

I have a lot more to say about that sneaky thief of joy and the way social media has made it almost impossible not to succumb to the temptation to compare ourselves to others, but this post has gone on long enough.  So perhaps I will be back tomorrow--or if not tomorrow, very soon!  (Keep checking, Preciosa!)