Recently I was at lunch with a bunch of people. Smart, funny, good, well-educated people. Delightful people on the spiritual path who I was just beginning to know.
As we chatted around the table, I asked the woman next to me about herself. She’s a professional, working in media. I told her a bit about my writing.
Then she said, “Well I’m ‘sex-positive.’“ [Wikipedia defines the sex-positive movement as “a social movement which promotes and embraces sexuality with few limits beyond an emphasis on safe sex and the importance of consent.] “So I’ve been sleeping with all these younger men. I go on these slutty websites and hook up on the weekends. It’s just wonderful. So freeing. I feel like finally I can express my authentic self.”
Before I understood what was happening, she whipped out her phone and swiped to a photo of a hot-looking young guy, nude and in shadow.
“This is who I slept with (except she used another term) over the weekend,” she breathed.
I couldn’t have been more taken aback than if she’d casually said, “I like to go around smashing bird’s eggs on the weekends.”
I totally understand the desperate desire for anesthesia and connection that would lead to trolling “slutty websites.”
But please don’t pretend this is the deepest desire of your heart, what you’d hope for your daughter. Please don’t call this your highest, most authentic self. Please don’t tell me this is freedom.
Connecting… Without A Connection
Not long afterward, I read a New Yorker article by Nathan Heller entitled “Is the Gig Economy Working?”
The piece focused on those who work for TaskRabbit and Uber, those who rent out their homes or rooms on Airbnb, and those whose jobs are built on manufactured identities and self-images. Jobs in the latter case that twenty years ago, before we became saturated with and formed by social media, would have caused us to scratch our heads and say, “But these people don’t really do anything!”
Heller described meeting one such young woman, a marketer of personal brands, at a party. “I think we’re just coming into the next wave of human civilization,” she told me, and drained her cocktail with a straw. “Humans can operate on a person-to-person basis, sharing ideas and sharing business without intermediaries.”
That’s not the next wave. That was the last wave. That was what we did before social media.
We used to call our friends and have a conversation that was ours alone. We used to exchange private letters. We used to sit down with one another instead of dashing off a breezy public, “Let’s get together soon” and when the person actually gets in touch, privately, and says, “Let’s!”, we ignore them.
But we don’t do that anymore. We’re inviting the world to look at us as we look at ourselves in the mirror. And in the process, these behemoths have somehow convinced themselves and much of the rest of the world that this public faux-sharing is some essential facet of our existence.
Where is the real person-to-person interaction? Where is the conversation where we ask one another: What do you think about when you wake up in the middle of the night? What are you most afraid of? What do you think happens after we die?
The gig economy, of course, discourages such deep, or really any, true conversation.
As we rent out our homes as airbnbers, often never meeting the people we rent to, or drive random people around in fifteen-minute rides in our personal cars, or go off to perform another one-hour chore for someone who’s hired us online based on customer ratings and a carefully-curated “profile,” we’re not connecting, really, with anybody.
As one TaskRabbit worker said, “This just doesn’t seem sustainable.”
I’ve welcomed, and frequently use, Uber and Airbnb. But let’s be clear. Airbnb is not home-“sharing.” Uber is not ride-“sharing.”
We’ve always been willing to share our cars, our homes, our tables. When the sharing becomes an “economy” and a third party profits, the danger is that the love gets sucked out of the exchange. And when the love gets sucked out of anything, whether it’s a rise to the airport, a shared meal, or a bed for the night, it loses its savor.
Plus, everything becomes a marketing opportunity. One woman Heller featured took the money she made on Airbnb by sleeping on her friends’ couches (more “freedom!”) and went to Cuba. So far, so good. But did she sip café con leche and marvel at the exotic birds and flowers? Did she chat with people, asking of their dreams, struggles, desires? Did she share a home-cooked meal? No, she saw and capitalized upon a business opportunity, helping the people there set up their own Airbnb accounts and market their personal brands.
Heller quotes some of the people who see Airbnb as a kind of personal savior.
“Airbnb enabled me to go back to school and become a full-time student and work as a part-time photographer.”
“Airbnb is necessary while my cousin is out of town to work.”
“I am here as an individual, not representing some radical, self-serving organization. I am speaking to my own experience.”
Except not really. Except in the making of money from leasing your home or rental apartment or room, you’re forced to be beholden to a company that calls every shot. You have to be controlled by algorithms and non-refundable service fees and guests who can ruin you with a bad review.
Sacrificing…For Another Dollar
We live under the system of capitalism. And money is colonizing our lives, like a parasite that devours the host plant.
Everything we touch, see, and experience is now a marketing opportunity. When you know you can make money off your car, every second you’re not driving becomes money lost. A Lyft driver posted a story not long ago: pregnant, she’d gone into labor while working and proudly postponed driving herself to the hospital in order to pick up one more fare.
When you know you can make money off your apartment, you subject yourself to the insane inconvenience and discomfort of sleeping on a friend’s couch, of forfeiting your own sanctuary, because every night you’re not renting out your sanctuary is money lost.
From there, it’s but a short step to thinking of our entire existence in terms and only in terms of money. Every second where we’re not curating, airbrushing, Photoshopping, Instagramming, marketing every facet of our existence is money lost. The way we live. Where we go, what we do. Our bodies, our clothes, our faces. Our “image.” Our “identity.” People don’t’ need to steal our identities. We sell them: vanlife. geneticboi. stylefitfaddy.
An “online freelance marketplace” called Fiverr has an ad that reads, “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”
People have connected since the dawn of humanity. FB has colonized the desire for human connection and figured out a way to make money on it. “We care about you,” an obnoxious pop-up recently averred as I was trying to message a friend. Do you now? Me and the two billion other people who use your site? Who writes this stuff? Who believes it?
And by the way, no, you cannot organize my photos. No I do not need to be reminded to wish people Happy Birthday. Am I registered to vote? None of your freaking business.
What bothers me isn’t FB for which, for the limited purposes for which I use it, I’m grateful. What bothers me is that its founder recently said, “Our mission is to give people the power to share and to make the world more open and connected. We exist to give you a voice to share what matters to you.”
Huh? The billionaire proprietor of a bulletin board? The world’s lackey? Are you serious?
FB doesn’t give me the “power” to do anything.
But the guy who founded it seems to think he is God.
Free…For a Price
In my day we had another name for ‘sex positive.” In my day we called it “free love.” You just slept with whoever: your best friend’s boyfriend, your boyfriend’s brother, the last guy to leave the bar that night. Out of those days, predictably, for me grew sorrow, loneliness, guilt, the nagging sense that the whole time I’d been lying to myself, and wounds with which I’ve struggled all my life.
But at least the sex really was free. We weren’t pimping ourselves out to a middle man. We weren’t paying for it. Even the last guy at the bar I at least some tenuous connection with.
And we weren’t terribly concerned with anything being “safe,” either.
Now everything, or as much as possible, takes place online, with an enrollment fee, a password, a profile.
The marketers have colonized even sin.
Sacred Connections and the Authentic Self
Once a week my friend Mary Ann O’Connor takes the train to downtown LA’s Skid Row and spends the morning as a volunteer, washing and tending to the feet of the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill. She cuts their nails, salves their fungus, bathes their ulcers. She sits at their feet, listening and learning.
They’re on a plastic folding chair. She’s on an upturned milk crate.
“There’s a naturalness for me, having been a nurse, and therefore in contact with suffering bodies. But this experience resonates in a particular way because I’m clearly in a position of deference. I look up at them; they look down at me. Emotionally, I might be as distraught over something in my own life as they are over their foot.”
“I always feel a communion. I’m touching their sacredness and it happens to be the sole of their foot. They place where they carry the burden of their life on the street. I am intentionally there to comfort, to listen, not to fix. I am very close to my own brokenness in that moment.”
That is operating from our highest, most authentic self.