There’s a certain type of blogger I’ve come across every so often as I’ve roamed the wild interwebz over the years. These bloggers take a weird kind of pride in being a better person in person than they are online. “When I attended [insert popular elbow-rubbing event or conference or festival] recently, lots of people I met were surprised at how nice I actually am in person!” they brag.
This has always confused me. Shouldn’t it be easier to be a better person online? On the internet, you have so much control over what you post and share and who sees what and when, so much time to carefully craft every status update, to perfectly pose for every instagram photo. Of course, it’s also incredibly easy to respond with knee-jerk emotional reactions or poorly-phrased off-color jokes or loudly ill-informed political opinions… and just as easy to see how they then spin out in a storm of misunderstanding, self-righteousness, projection and regret. So, yes, I understand why in-person encounters offer an opportunity for depth and nuance not afforded by online interactions. (I certainly prefer them myself for that reason.)
But that’s usually not what these bloggers mean. Mostly, they seem to be almost as proud of how obnoxious and rude they are online as they are about how nice they are away from their keyboards. Being rude is a badge of honor, a sign that they are smart and strong and capable of defending themselves and their opinions, sometimes even against attacks that are more imaginary than substantive. Most of us have a little voice in our heads that longs to say rude things to all the people we think deserve it. Reading rude things can make us feel pleased and powerful by association, like we’re breaking the rules and getting away with it. But rude has become so commonplace on the internet, it’s turned into a toxic environment… especially when you’re the target of attack, the victim of someone else’s desire to be brash.
I, on the other hand, strive to be a better person online than I am in person — at least as much as I try to live up to the totally unrealistic image of myself that I cultivate online as someone who always has something interesting to say and says it with a roguish wink and a hearty helping of self-deprecation. As the folk singer Ani DiFranco says, “As bad as I am, I’m proud of the fact that I’m worse than I seem.” I think that most people who’ve only known me online would be surprised by how sarcastic and critical I can be in person. (Just ask my mother.) I try to keep that in check when I’m working on a piece of writing, even if it’s just a tweet. I know I’m so very far from perfect, and in real life, in the heat and spin of the moment, I don’t always have the chance to take back an unkind word or retrace a social misstep, or even think through what I’m saying before I open my damn mouth sometimes. So I try to be more careful, more sensitive, more thoughtful when given the chance. I work pretty hard to make this a virtuous cycle that pushes me always to be better, rather than a vicious cycle that pulls me down into a spiral of alternating defensiveness and shame.
I have a few principles that I try to embody in my work as a writer, and I take them very seriously. One of them is, as Gandhi said, to “be the change that I wish to see in the world.” One change I wish to see in the world is an internet culture in which we rejoice in sharing the things we truly value most, the things that bring us the greatest joy and laughter, that stop us in our tracks with their beauty or poignant vulnerability or deep-rooted truth. I wish more people put as much energy into telling the world what they love and why, as they do complaining about what they dislike.
This is not to say I want a Pollyanna kind of world, where everyone is always positive all the time and, if they can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. On the contrary, some of the most profound pieces of art that I’ve encountered in my life have been born of the hard, dark, gruesome experiences of grief and pain and suffering and loss. What makes this art so powerful is that, through its creation, the artist has enacted a kind of sacred transformation — taken that raw searing anguish and somehow molded it like molten glass into vessels filled with light. If they can do it, I think, maybe there’s some small hope for me, too.
So I try not to complain. When I am drowning in grief or writhing from injustice, I try to own up to it as best I can and turn it into something beautiful, something that has meaning. Or at least something funny.
But sometimes it’s hard. Really, really hard.
Today is one of those days when it’s been really hard not to complain. It’s 3 AM. I’ve been awake and sleepless going on twenty-four hours now, with the devil of discontent riding me all the time. When I close my eyes and try to sleep, the devil starts blogging in my brain, bitching about all the things that have been bothering me.
I am lonely, the devil says with my voice. I work so fucking hard, and nobody notices. Or if they do, they think I’m an idiot for working so hard on things that nobody cares about but me. I never accomplish my goals, and it’s society’s fault for not making my goals easier, not making the road smoother and the gas stations more glamorous. Even when I succeed in creating something I can feel proud of, the feeling is fleeting, quickly replaced by a list of everything that I didn’t do while I was busy doing that one small thing — such a small thing, too, that it’s already been forgotten, lost in the Facebook fog. The world is full of people eager to tell me all of the reasons they don’t have the time or energy to show up, to be fully present. Even if all I want is uncomplicated company, it still feels like asking too much.
The devil digs in his sharp-hoofed heels and chortles. By now it’s 4 AM and I feel like I’m losing my mind. I don’t understand people. I don’t know what they want from me. I don’t know why I’m not enough, not even for myself, and why it’s so hard to be the person I want to be. I don’t know why the person I want to be is apparently such a strange and impossible creature, so that the closer I come to becoming her the more I feel alienated from others around me. The currents of culture — of sexism and justice and hope and rage and bigotry and grace — seem so palpable sometimes that I can taste them on my tongue, yet it’s like I’m surrounded by chain-smokers who keep telling me I’m imagining things. I don’t smell anything weird, they say with the devil’s smokey voice. Why are you always so critical of everyone? Why are you always so discontent? Why can’t you just be a little less difficult, a little less demanding? And I might even think they’re right, maybe I am crazy —
Except that I love the cedar trees, every one of them, and the sunlight cutting through the mist, and the smell of the ocean, and even the half-damp tea bag in the bottom of my coffee mug on my desk that I forgot about for so long it’s gone rancid, and the bones of the crow that’s roadkill in the gutter. So I know it’s not all just in my head. I know that I am not incapable of gratitude. That I am not a plot device in someone else’s story.
Sometimes, I know so clearly that beauty really can be found anywhere, that love really is that simple.
So I cry. Big, fat, unattractive tears — so that soon the bedspread is covered with soppy, snotty tissues like the kind only an angsting adolescent should produce. And just when I’m really getting into it, just when I’ve started to revel in the gross catharsis of bodily fluids, the devil starts up again. Why are you so fucking melodramatic? No wonder nobody takes you seriously. You get yourself worked up into such a lather over stupid shit — when are you going to grow up? Jesus, it’s every other week with you. It’s just life, girl, everybody deals with it. Why can’t you?
Which brings me back to the internet. Everybody does deal with this stupidly difficult thing called life, and these days women get to deal with it more than most, and in very public ways. It’s not exactly comforting to look out on the world from your bedroom at 4 AM and realize that, for fuck’s sake, even if you ever are recognized and successful, the judgement is never going to stop. There will always be people out there who feel they have the right to complain that your body is too curvy (or not curvy enough), that your hair is all wrong, that you’re not aging well, that you are either “abrasive” and “cold” or “overly emotional” and “unprofessional,” that you don’t deserve your confidence or your self-respect or your friends. There will always be someone for whom being cruel to you is some kind of power trip. It’s never going to stop.
Do you know how exhausting it is to realize that? Especially at 4 AM. And yet, that’s not what gets to me most. What gets to me is the guilt — the feeling that, if I let the assholes bother me, somehow I’ve failed. The shamers and trolls have given rise to new courageous efforts to push back, to be body-positive, to empower girls and women to feel good about themselves. And so I see articles about Carrie Fisher sniping back at the critics who complain that she’s no longer fuckable, and how Serena Williams thinks strong is sexy, and how Pink doesn’t care what anyone says about her image because she’s the happiest with herself she’s ever been. And all I can think is, Oh good. How nice for Pink. And it just makes me feel like a failure because I’m not as together as Pink is.
And then I remember my new mantra: Even Mindy Kaling cries.
I have a huge amount of respect for Mindy Kaling. Not only is she hilarious, but she’s nerdy and authentic, by turns silly and sarcastic, in ways that I really admire. She’s also dedicated to her craft. She’s spent her career cultivating the confidence she needs to share her work with the world. She talks about this in her book, Why Not Me?, in an awesome chapter on how in order to build confidence as a woman in a sexist society — and a woman of color in a racist one — it helps to work your ass off and be damned good at what you do. She admits that, you know what, every once in awhile when she’s exhausted or frustrated or worn down to the bone, she lies down on the floor in her office… and cries.
And I think, if she can do it, maybe there’s some small hope for me, too. If even Mindy Kaling cries, then maybe crying isn’t such a big deal. Maybe it’s not a sign that I’m a failure, a girl who still hasn’t grown up and gotten her shit together. Maybe it’s just what happens sometimes when you care that much.
And the people you love and the work that drives you will still be there when it’s over.
So that’s okay. Maybe that’s all you need to get the devil off your back. Knowing that, every once in awhile, you got to let the devil win — just for a little while, just until you make your next bold move.