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Rending the Veil of (Virtual) Appearances

When I was working at a large NGO in my mid-twenties, we had a boss who split her time between two offices. One day, she showed up at our office even though she wasn't expected for days. I asked if everything was okay. She said: “I felt you guys needed some face time with me.”

Her comment stayed with me because she was right. We hadn't seen her for almost three weeks as she had been on vacation and at the other office. The team was in limbo because of decisions that couldn’t be made without her, confused about some mixed messages we had been getting from other teams, and beginning to feel overlooked and frustrated. After a day of having face-to-face access to her, things began to feel right again. It became clear that our assumptions were not entirely accurate and the reality was much more favorable than we thought.

Since those days, our technology has advanced in leaps and bounds. iMessages, FaceTime, social media all make us feel like we are constantly connected to others, which sometimes makes us feel we can go longer in between real visits. But I was recently reminded that none of it is a substitute for spending time with someone. And to make matters worse, these quick, superficial communications can form perspectives that aren’t entirely accurate. Of course, this is not a new revelation. It’s a known fact, but one that bears repeating continuously.

I was able to see the difference between commenting on status updates versus spending time together a couple of weeks ago while I was visiting my family in Arizona. A very good friend of mine lives there and every time I am in town, I am eager to see her. But this time, I wasn’t quite as excited about the get together. I realized her Facebook posts made it seem like her life was a breeze even though she was working full time and has two kids under 3.

But when she arrived, I saw the reality is way more nuanced than her social media persona. She was feeling harried and stressed as her husband was traveling for work and she had minimal help with the kids. She and I spoke about our kids’ progressively picky eating habits. We talked about how difficult it can sometimes be to juggle it all. Of course, none of these issues would make it onto Facebook, and when she did comment on her week alone with the kids, the post said “things are fun when we are home alone!”

Curiously, a few days later, I came to see that even my sporadic social media posts can convey a life that seems way more polished than it really is. I posted a picture of me and my two kids at a wedding in Napa Valley. A friend commented “you make motherhood look so easy!!” My eyes nearly popped out of my head. I immediately responded: “And right after we took this picture, the ceremony began. My kids started screaming and I had to run out with them. I missed the dinner, too, since there was nothing being offered that my kids could eat. In short, I missed the whole wedding.”

Social media, texting, even FaceTime and Skype make it easy to stay up to date with each other, but they don’t really help us connect or see the full reality of what our peeps are experiencing. It’s important to remember this when drawing conclusions about each other’s lives and wellbeing. It’s crucial to remember this when we start gauging how well we’re doing based on what others are posting!

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