It was the invention of the newspaper, among other things, that helped to collect large numbers of individuals into coherent groups, aware of and thinking about the same events and grappling with the same issues. This was useful in the creation of national identities and nation states, and is still particularly useful in the facilitation of democratic self-governance by a well-informed populace. The Internet, and particularly the social media, have enlarged and democratized this demos-forming mechanism, both for good and for ill. Much has been made, of late, of the phenomenon of those who intentionally create and distribute misinformation—“fake news”—for the sake of making a profit. A great deal has already been said about this, and about the community-forming effects of the Internet more generally, and much of it has been said with more insight than I can muster. At any rate, discussing this is not my present purpose. It bears mentioning, however, because my present purpose is very much akin to it.
The first week of January is traditionally a time for reflection, and many of us are looking back on the past year. We human beings might reflect on a day, or a week, or even a month with a certain measure of nuance and judgment. Yes, Tuesday may have been quite difficult and frustrating indeed, and that project we’re working on won’t seem to come together. But, on the other side of the ledger, we saw some very good friends for dinner on Sunday, and received a bit of good news from our family. These are the ups and downs of daily life, and almost all of us can see them for the mix of good and bad that they are when we look at them up close.
When we look at them at a distance, however, we see them in much broader strokes. It is not possible, or perhaps it is simply not usual, for us to see the daily ups and downs when we look at a much longer period of time, such as a year. Our minds look at a year much like they look at an impressionist painting, taking in the larger picture, but ignoring the individual spots of color that make it up. The spots of color are there, but the artist wishes for us to see the whole rather than its parts. The artist wishes to create, in short, an impression. And an impression, unless we are very intentional about it, is about all our minds tend to make of a year.
But a year is not a painting. A painting is made by a painter, and the painter intends for it to convey something in particular. When a throng of people go to a museum to see a particular painting, there is but one painting, made by one painter, conveying one particular subject. Each person in the crowd may bring a particular perspective to the painting, but they are all reacting to one painting, and all or most of these reactions will fall within a given range of typical responses to the painting.
A year, on the other hand, is not fully and truly something we all hold entirely in common. I had a 2016. You had a 2016. Our brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, each had his or her own 2016. Parts of it, we all shared. But much larger parts of it were very much unique to each of us. Each of us painted a 2016. Or, if you will, a single divine Painter collaborated with each of us to paint a 2016 so vast and so intricate that none of us can see all of it.
And yet, despite the multiplicity of individual 2016s (or the vast and incomprehensible intricacy of the divine 2016), it seems to be the general impression that this past year was very bad indeed, and this is why I began with a discussion of newspapers, the Internet, and social media. For just as we are informed about the substantive (or not) issues of our common life through these channels, so too are we also informed about the emotional currents that accompany these issues. Here is where it is easy to have our lives hijacked and reduced to only a bit part in some other human being’s narrative.
The truth is that the issues of our common life make up, for most normal people, only the smallest portion of our lives in total. The vast majority of each of our lives takes place in our own private spheres, with our individual families and friends, our own likes and dislikes, our great passions and pet peeves—in short, our own unique ups and downs of daily life. Communal emotional responses are healthy and normal, but they are healthier and more normal when we have them with communities we personally know. Shocking public events can make us share them with strangers, for a time. But to have them delivered to us in viral videos and memes would seem to artificially expand the community, artificially prolong the experience, and—most suspect of all—artificially direct the bulk of our emotional responses away from our own individual private spheres. They can become the fake news of our private lives.
None of this is to minimize the sadness of, say, losing a childhood hero. But when we let our lives be more communal than private, we lose the parts of ourselves that are most our own. And so do those near to us. We are not fully ourselves, fully unique, fully alive. Rather, we become like a painting in which the artist paints only in certain colors, and eschews the rest of the palette.
So, yes, this year is just about over. And doubtless there are parts of it each of us would rather had been different. But let us make one of our new year’s resolutions to pull our heads out of the Cloud, to live more fully in our own lives, to be most fully ourselves, to cherish our unique loved ones, to share our hearts with those most close to us, and to be most fully the unique persons God created us to be.
St. Irenaeus said, “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” Best wishes for a happy, hopeful, colorful, and fully alive 2017.