Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Snapshots and a Few Thoughts.

Earlier this fall I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with a delightful five-year-old girl. We had just finished building a miniature log cabin with some wood scraps when the rest of her family ventured out to begin that evening’s bonfire. Not uncommon to most family activities, someone had brought their camera and began taking a few snapshots to remember the day. I was about to suggest a swinging door for the small front entryway when my play date tapped me on the arm and handed me a stick saying “hold this like this”. She then pointed in front of us to her mom who was about to take our picture. So we sat in close to each other and smiled and the picture was taken. Nothing too unusual except for what happened next. She asked her mom for the camera and walked it back over to me with the digital screen reflecting our pose. And then in the middle of a golden, September evening, that same five-year-old girl looked over and asked me, “Jessi, do we look cute?”

The question was a simple one and not something unlike what I would ask one of my sisters regarding a pair of jeans. But what caught me off guard was the age of this young inquirer and her acute awareness of self-imagery.

A few weeks later my husband and I were walking through the local mall and passed by a mother and three kids. Amidst a flurry of the youngest crying, and the two year old throwing Cheerios on the ground, the eldest daughter (around ten or so) kept insisting that her picture be taken mimicking the model in the store window. Now it’s been a few years since I was that age, but for the life of me I can’t seem to recall such urgency for documentation of my days. I remember a time when taking pictures of birthday cakes or catching a fish down at the dock meant we smiled because our parents told us to. Not because we were wanted to reassure ourselves of our cuteness.

It’s not just grade-schoolers. In fact, the more I come to know and love the Jr. High girls I am able to work with, the more I see this same way of thinking in their social mediums. Countless photos are found on Facebook of individuals taking their own picture from an arm’s length, all with various captions labeling each photo as “me”, “my new hair-cut”, or “just bein’ me”. I’ve even had a few girls come up to me with pictures on their phones saying “Don’t I look good here?”
You-tube is another venue where this line of thinking can be found. It is inundated with homemade videos starring the self. Just the other day one of our patients at work, after waking up from her surgery, insisted that her mother film her groggy antics for her to post on You-tube. Over and over again she mouthed, “film me, film me, film me, Mom”.

However it is not the self-portrait that I find particularly incriminating. Lots of the world’s great artists drew, sculpted, or wrote about “the Self”. But what is discouraging is the intensity and the frequency the adolescent mind seems to be consumed with their appearance.

True to my easily defensive nature I tried blaming this issue on several things. The first being Facebook itself. Such an easy target with tools to create ones own profile and publish images to validate that identity. But although this seemed to be an easy explanation it didn’t account for the fact that my 5-year-old friend was acquainted with this pattern of thinking as well and she is nowhere near a Facebook account. So that possibility was out.

Then there was the old standby- television. Older generations have been blaming behavioral issues on that box for years. Yet while the shows may have changed (arguably for the worse), the medium remains the same. Marshall McLuhan, philosopher and communication theorist, advocates an extremely convincing argument that the medium of television itself is in fact the message. On the basis of this philosophy it seemed that there was nothing new under the sun that would cause such a me-focused behavioral change.

Another possible scapegoat I explored was the digital camera. It could be argued that the digital age has only fostered an insatiable desire for instant gratification. But could the lack of film processing really be the sole culprit of a growing self ware, self-absorbed generation? It seemed too easy.

Truth be told, I’m not sure how long I would have gone on pointing fingers at anything or anyone other than myself, had one of my small group students not revealed a specific and humbling story. Over the course of one of our studies, she shared how her and her friends always sit in the upper balcony at church. One particular service she could not help but notice the deaf interpreter who always came to church to sign for just one woman. She shared how touched she was by his servitude and dedication and that it convicted her to emulate those same characteristics.

She “couldn’t help but notice.” I’ve always been told that those around us are watching what we do, but what I had failed to realize up until that point, is that it’s so much more than that. Not only do we have a younger generation noticing us, they are also processing and incorporating what they see into their daily lives.
So the answer then to where our youth are drawing their awareness of self-awareness, is not from networking system, machine, or digital immediacy at all. But rather those they are imitating on a daily basis. Me! My generation! Our youth are paying closer attention to us than we think. Which leads us to the sobering conclusion that the message we are sending out lately is the elevated importance of the question “How am I looking?” When in actuality, in all matters and at all times it should be, “How am I living?”