“You can’t say that,” she told me slowly, seriously.
“Why not?” I asked with more than a bit of a laugh catching in my throat.
“Because that’s mean and you’re not a mean person,” she responded.
She’s right, of course. I absolutely can’t say what it is I really want to say because, even though what I’ve got to unload in terms of comments strikes me as tremendously accurate and actually governed by a little bit of restraint, I’m also aware that those comments will undoubtedly come off as far more mean than I intend. Because here’s what I really want to say to one of my Facebook buddies:
1. Sweetheart? Your Facebook posts, while always slightly bizarre and glaringly transparent in your quest for neediness, have now veered into crazy person territory.
2. The more times you write an epic poem on social media about how you have lost yet another friend due to a disagreement the two of you had over social media, the more times I think that maybe you should be committed in a place that doesn’t have Wi-Fi.
3. It legitimately freaks me out that the man who lives with you responds to your posts with a comment meant to validate your new and spiking level of ridiculousness. I mean, can’t he just sit next to you on the couch and tell you he agrees with something you posted? Why must his comment be public? Dear Lord, why?
4. While I certainly understand the cathartic burst of releasing your ideas into the world (Hi, I’m Nell and this is my blog!), I’m still mildly confused by the fact that you post shit that is so obviously designed to get you scores of affirmations from a lot of people you cannot possibly care about. Yes, some of my dearest friends are people I follow on these sites, but there are also people labeled “friends” that I haven’t seen since the day I first learned how to use a tampon. I’m used to the odd world of social media now; I’m accustomed to the likelihood of getting a birthday notification for a relative stranger or finding out that a former student of mine just bought herself a puggle. But while I’m on board with inhabiting a universe crammed full of puggles, it doesn’t mean I really care about how well her dog slept last night and she can’t possibly care that I don’t care, right? Like, isn’t that the silent but binding agreement we all sort of made when we signed up for Facebook and Twitter and Instagram as adults – that we could send a smiley face here and there or get in touch when necessary but that there didn’t have to be any real emoting involved since that kind of shit should really be reserved for your closest confidants and occur in the actual real world instead of through a screen?
5. When you post that you’re fat, that you’re the worst parent in this or any other hemisphere, or that you’re a total failure, let’s face it: all you want is validation that you are in fact none of those things. And listen: wanting some validation is okay! Know what’s also okay? That your posts make me want to become the first female Jewish monk on the planet, one who embraces solitude but maybe would like to discuss the parameters involving the no sexual contact rules with the Head Monk in charge.
So yeah, that’s the stuff I wanted to say to this person, but a kinder soul explained that I could not say any of it because to do so would just be cruel. Then she taught me how to fix my settings so I’d never have to look at the person’s posts anymore and doing that made me feel like I was driving by an eighteen-car pile-up where sirens were blasting and red and blue police lights bounced across the night sky and the glass-covered pavement and I kept my eyes straight ahead and didn’t glance at the carnage for even a second.
The ability to just fucking hold my tongue is hard for me sometimes. I don’t always pull silence off gracefully and the truth is that I often don’t even try. While the only people I usually attempt to say the most honest things to are those to whom I am the closest, there have still been some calamities along the way and I think many of them have been my fault for not having the gumption to just keep my mouth closed. An example seems necessary, so here’s one:
Friend: You should come to the zoo with my kids and me! You love animals!
Me: I do love animals, but I don’t know…
Friend: It’ll be so fun! And my kids will freak out if you spend the entire day with them!
Me: Yeah, but that’s a very long day to spend with someone else’s kids. Plus, every time one of them acts out, you end up including me in the apology by saying something like, “Aunt Nell, I’m sorry he is acting out right now, but he is only showing off because you are here.” Know what that does? It makes me feel badly for joining you, it encourages your kid to grow up to hate me, and it makes me actively contemplate getting my tubes tied. That said, should you stop by the otter exhibit at the zoo, please get me a stuffed otter. And make it a boy otter so I can name him Samuel.
My answer right there was honest – but it was also profoundly unnecessary. I could have just said that I’m morally opposed to zoos or that I have plans that do not involve alpacas, but I guess I just subscribe to the notion that there are some people you should get to be entirely honest with and that there’s strength in certain relationships that allows real honesty to be present. I don’t expect everyone to be honest with me (nor would I want such an interaction with people I don’t trust or care about), but sometimes – in some scenarios – honesty just feels like the right choice.
Being a part of a family does not automatically equate the ability to be honest and that’s something I know for sure. I know by now what it is that I’m allowed to confront and what’s off-limits and I know that the barometer for some people about what constitutes a confrontation is miles below where my barometer resides. Mine’s high enough that I could use it to kick ass in a limbo contest, but I wouldn’t even be able to crawl beneath some of theirs and that’s something I have to accept because to not accept it would lead to probable insanity and almost certain estrangement. It’s hard, though – confusing. I wrote a letter to a family member last summer to try to resolve some issues in a way that didn’t involve face to face communication because that person refused to engage in such a thing. I wept as I wrote the letter and I wept again when I sent it because the things I wrote felt true and sad and so unlike what one should ever have to say to a member of her own family, but I was proud that I refused to walk away from someone I love. Our relationship has since improved, but here’s the thing: the recipient never said a single word about anything I’d written. There was no acceptance of complicity in the matter and certainly no apology was offered and I allowed myself to realize that moving on without a real discussion about what went wrong is the very best this person can do. Accepting such a thing was a legitimate choice on my end and it’s one of the times when I really did hold my tongue and not say something like, “So, want to discuss any of the hundred reasons why we almost fell out of touch for good or should we just pretend it never happened?” To say anything would destroy our tenuous peace, the one I hope grows and swells, and the truth is that I’m grateful for the break in all of our battles. Shrapnel has never been a good look on me.
I think what I want more than anything is for the closest of my relationships to provide the kind of protective bubble where anything can be said, where everyone involved knows that not a single comment is being made simply to cause any sort of pain. Unfortunately, whenever I share one of the genuine interactions I’ve had with my closest friends with someone else, I find that I’m met with a reaction of barely contained horror. There was the moment, for instance, when my best friend called to ask me what I thought of a baby name. She was several months pregnant and she knew it would be a girl and she wanted to know what I thought of the name Tal.
“Be honest,” she implored.
“I don’t love it,” I responded. “You say it great because you can pull off the Hebrew accent it needs to sound exotic. Nobody else will figure out how to say it that way and it’ll just sound like a weird syllable.”
She took a beat just then.
“What do you think of Ryan?”
“Love it!” I exclaimed.
Ryan is three now and she looks like a Ryan and she is adorable and I know that I’d love her exactly the same if her name had been Tal. But I never would have figured out how to say it right because being Jewish doesn’t mean being able to pull off a Hebrew accent.
When I told my sister about the chat with my friend, she was absolutely grossed out by everything I said and she appeared to want to hold a séance immediately that could maybe remove the evil that clearly lurks inside the core of my very being.
“She told me to be honest,” I explained patiently.
“You should have just said that you like the name,” she said while shaking her head at what an asshole I am.
I tried to tell her that I never would have been so honest with another friend or even with this one had she not started the conversation by pleading for honesty, but my appeal for logic fell on deaf ears. And, to give my sister some credit here, she truly believes that she is right and that I am wrong and I guess there’s a part of me that admires her convictions. I could never tell her that, though – she’ll think I’m being sarcastic.
I usually pull out the honesty card because I think it’s necessary and because maybe being honest – though a difficult endeavor sometimes – might help. An older family member is very sick right now and my mother is having a tough time with the knowledge that he might not have a lot of time left. Watching my mother experience any kind of pain feels devastating and she has a real right to feel borderline traumatized by all of this. Still, when she tells me that this relative is the only one who has ever had her back, I don’t have it in me to nod consolingly and say, “I’m sorry you will be left with nothing and with nobody who cares about you.” That’s what I’m supposed to say, right? Cause if so, I did it wrong – and I stand by it.
“Listen,” I said to her over the phone, “there’s no way to look at this as anything other than upsetting and profoundly sad. Losing him will be terrible and I hate that you are in such pain. But to maintain for even a millisecond that he is the only one who has your best interests at heart is moronic. You have built a life that now includes many people who would do anything for you, so to pretend that you’re losing the only person who falls into such a category is ridiculous and untrue. There’s a lot about this scenario that will cause you devastation. Maybe try not to add things to the mix that are totally inaccurate.”
Is that a harsh comment? Would I have appeared kinder had I said less or maybe nothing at all? Is there any possible way that my mother believes that I’d say any of those things because it makes me happy to see her cry? I think the biggest question here is why honesty amongst the people you’re closest to is not simply expected and accepted.
“I think I might have to put Wookie to sleep very soon,” I said to a good friend just the other day. I’ve been saying those words to myself for over a month now, but saying it out loud actually caused me to start sweating. I felt the magnitude of that sentence reverberating through every cell of my body and I think that’s why I started shaking.
“I’ll go with you,” she offered sweetly. “When were you thinking about doing it?”
“Maybe Christmas vacation,” I replied. “That way I’ll have a chance to kind of emotionally recover.”
“Can I be honest with you?” she asked.
“Sure,” I responded – and I meant it.
“That’s the worst idea ever. You will probably be even more upset doing such a thing during a holiday. Do it earlier.”
“I think you’re right,” I told her. “I know you’re right,” I said then.
My friend’s response was the opposite of what I wanted to hear. I wanted her to tell me that Wookie would magically recover from all of her ailments and that she’d reclaim her youth and live another ten years, but she couldn’t tell me that. And even though her response just further validated my growing sadness, I appreciate that she was direct with me. Still, to live in an environment where you breathe the rarified air of total truth is pretty unlikely. Even when you’re being honest, it doesn’t always mean that the other person is and sometimes it’s hard to know for sure. A few days ago I was on the phone for a long time with someone I think I know rather well but I still have some doubts about whether he has my best interests at heart. It’s nothing I can fully pinpoint; it’s very simply a feeling and one thing I’ve learned the hard way through experience is that I must pay attention to the bad feelings too. Anyway, he was talking about how he’d been reading some philosophy lately and that he’d come to understand love better and what it is about love that you cannot control.
“I don’t fully agree with you,” I told him. “Because some aspects of love can be controlled and I know this for sure because I have talked myself out of being in love a few times and I did it in a way that was strategic and calculated.”
We bandied ideas and theories back and forth for a while in much the way we often do, but there was a question I intentionally kept to myself. I actively gulped down the need to be fully honest with both him and myself – and the vagueness I swallowed tasted fucking delicious in that moment. What I didn’t ask him was this: Is this just an interesting conversation we’re having or are you trying to tell me something here? Do I need to put my subtext hat on to decipher your words? Because it’s currently at the dry cleaner getting spiffy for Thanksgiving when I’ll have to wear it for the entire day.
I didn’t ask that question, but I still wonder. And I will wonder about it alone rather than ask every person on social media for their opinion on the matter.
I think maybe that’s what it is about that particular person’s Facebook and Twitter posts that make me fantasize about the merits of strangulation, but it’s a strange argument I’m making here and I know that. After all, I have a site where I expound very specifically about my feelings and my views, but there’s an important and unavoidable distinction here: you have to want to arrive at my site. You must type in an address to land here. Pretty much all I ever post on Facebook or Twitter is that I’ve written something new or that there’s a new critical ranking of the scariest horror movies of the last twenty years and here’s a link if you want to check it out. I kind of live by the notion that not every single person cares about each and every thought that runs screaming through the peaks and valleys of my brain, nor should they. Those who do care, welcome! Read my writing! Agree with me if you want and disagree with me if that feels better. But I’m not attempting to create a dialogue here and that’s why there’s no comment section. Like everyone else, I listen to enough opinions from the people I actually know; I don’t crave the opinions of strangers and it’s my belief that strangers shouldn’t care enough about me to expend any energy fighting with me about why their opinions differ from my own. When you go on Facebook or Twitter though, it’s different. You scroll through status updates and you see everything and it’s weird for me that some people choose to share so much on such a public forum that doesn’t even require the clicking of a link and then that same person gets furiously mad when people react.
Look, I’m not about living a life of total inhibition and secrecy. I think that, for some people, Facebook and Twitter serve a real purpose for those who feel the desire to share and to interact in a modern form of a community. So if you want to announce to the world at large that you have just mastered the fine art of pie-making, go ahead. If you feel the need to let every single person you have ever said hello to know that you’re feeling mildly grumpy today and that you skipped a yoga session, have at it. But maybe you can stop telling us everything else. Stop photographing every single main dish and appetizer you consume. Stop railing about every single political and social belief you stand for. Stop publicly declaring your undying love to the man who lives in your house when you can whisper those same words in his ear while he’s shaving or gardening or packing his bags to leave in a big hurry. And stop expecting that the common decency we have all begrudgingly agreed to live by will keep some of us from finally being far more honest than you could ever handle because, while I too have mastered the art of making a pie, I have yet to fully master the ability to shut the fuck up forever.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.