Opinion: Finding yourself in our social media age – By MINABERE IBELEMA
There is this paradox of life: To be at peace with yourself you have to be true to yourself; yet as a human being — a social animal — you crave for belonging. And belonging requires that you submit to the dictates of groups. Reconciling this paradox is readily the key to a life of relative serenity.
The paradox pops up regularly in conversations and write-ups. This came up during a telephone conversation with an associate I have known since secondary school days. Somehow, the conversation drifted to the ever-present matter of faith.
As a US-based physician, he finds that most of his colleagues are atheists. And they expressed their unbelief routinely. In contrast, he is a believer. So, they see him as an anomaly. Thus, though he belongs with them professionally, he doesn’t spiritually. And that makes for an uneasy experience.
His somber narrative reminded me of another experience I read about in a Nigeria paper some time ago. It was about a magistrate who attended church religiously — pun intended — yet she routinely questioned the sincerity of the ministers and the theology they espouse.
One day, one of her aides mustered the courage to ask her, “Madam, if you feel that way, why do you keep going to church?”
Her response was blunt: She had to go to maintain her credibility in society. If she didn’t, she would compromise her career. Her rulings would be dismissed as coming from an ungodly woman.
So, there we have two professionals — one a believer and the other a nonbeliever — both coping with the challenge of being true to themselves. On one hand they belong; on the other hand, they just don’t fit in.
Brené Brown, the author of “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone,” has narrated a similar experience. In an interview on the US National Public Radio, the research professor at the University of Houston narrated being pulled in opposite directions by groups that invited her for speaking engagements.
Though she is a believer, she is also given to profanity. So, when a church group invited her to speak, they admonished her to eschew the profanity. She would be addressing the faithful, she was told, and her profanity would offend them.
Later, she was invited by a Fortune 500 company to address its employees. But as a condition, they told her not to bring up matters of faith. “We don’t deal with that here,” she was told.
“It made me realise that I don’t belong anywhere,” Dr. Brown said.
At first, she found it unsettling. On further reflection though, it was reassuring. She recalled an interview of the American poet, novelist, and quintessential philosopher Maya Angelou that she had listened to.
“At some point in life, you realise that you belong nowhere and everywhere,” Angelou had said when asked about the key to a contented life. “The price is high, but the reward is great.”
Brown said she was initially unsettled by this take on life by her idol. It goes against everything psychologists have said about the importance of belonging. It took some deep reflection before Brown realised that Angelou was correct.
“We are so hardwired for connection that we end up sacrificing ourselves in order to belong,” Brown said. “(Yet) true belonging is something we carry in our hearts, not something you negotiate with people.”
That is to say that in all contexts and at all times, a person is better off understanding what he or she stands for and being true to it. Obsession with acceptance is a recipe for sadness. Surely, it feels good to feel accepted. But if the acceptance is at the cost of your principles, then the good feeling is fleeting. After all, you have to live with yourself first and foremost.
Alas, more than ever before, it has become harder to retain the sense of self in this age of social media. The technology which has an enormous potential for creating understanding is instead creating a toxic social environment. Cyberspace is largely a cluster of groups that war against each other. People who express contrary opinions are brutally attacked. Misinformation and fake news are rife.
So, amidst the ocean of information out there, it is ever more difficult to discern the truth. Yet amidst it all, we have to find ourselves and be true to it. That has never been easy. Now it is even more difficult.
Brown recommends being spiritually grounded. She defines spirituality not in terms of religion, but the broader commitment to principles. It could be commitment to justice or, in President Abraham Lincoln’s words, “malice toward none (and) charity for all.” Nigeria, of course, has an abundance of religious spirituality but a dearth of the others.
Brown also recommends seeking to understand others in this life’s wilderness. Even when you disagree, you should understand what it is you are disagreeing with. It is remarkable how often “disagreements” result from a caricatured notion of the other. “People are hard to hate close up,” Brown said, so “move in.”
What a difference that would make in Nigeria and elsewhere.
Abishola diary 1
It has been my intention to occasionally append an update on “Bob Hearts Abishola,” the US situation comedy about a Nigerian nurse and her American suitor, Bob. Alas, pressing matters have kept me from doing so. Well, here is the first.
Before the programme debuted on September 23, its producer Chuck Lorre said it would be less about romance and more about cultural enlightenment. Well, so far, the show has been true to that promise.
For brief moments though, it appeared that that wouldn’t be the case. In an early episode of the programme, the hitherto seemingly disinterested Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku) planted a passionate kiss on Bob as they sat on their favourite bench in their favourite park. That was followed by a shower scene in which Bob chatted with Abishola while staring at her silhouette through a partially opaque shower curtain.
But the expectation of deepened romance was quickly snuffed each time, as it was let known that the scenes were all in Abishola’s dreams. Very clever.
As to culture, what the programme has conveyed primarily is the closeness of Nigerian families. American viewers must be particularly surprised to note how intensely Abishola’s aunt and her husband are involved in what over here would be very personal decisions about romance.
The show has also portrayed Nigerian men as chauvinistic. Still, overall Nigerian culture is getting a good play. Punch