There is hope for us who swim in the social media sea . . . It can be beautiful and enlightening, challenging and painful to swim deep with another person. But for those willing to go, it’s the adventure of a lifetime.
For ages, we humans had to be content with the surface of the ocean, and most of us were fine with that. The underwater world not only harbored odd and threatening creatures, it was hostile to those who require air and light to live. Yet those odd creatures would from time to time fantastically breach the surface. And the surf and the tide would day by day deliver up tokens of the treasures below.
Thus we came to know there was a world down there worth knowing better. And to know it, we had to figure out at least two basic things: how to swim in the water and how to breathe under the surface. The first we’ve been doing forever. The second has taken a lot longer, and requires technology.
Like our relationship with the ocean, in our personal relationships we’re often more comfortable staying on the surface. We show only bits and pieces of ourselves, like the artifacts that wash up on the shore—colorful shells, lengths of rubbery seaweed, endless wet and moldable sand. Only occasionally do we deliberately reveal a hidden gem, or inadvertently hint at the sunken treasure and deeper mysteries that we haven’t fully explored, yet may secretly yearn to share.
As social beings, we may be able to survive living on the surface. But to thrive we must understand others and be understood ourselves. We must know and be known. It can be beautiful and enlightening, challenging and painful to swim deep with another person. But for those willing to go, it’s the adventure of a lifetime.
THE FIRST DIVE CAN BE THE HARDEST
Scott is a highly certified diving instructor. To see him teach, you wouldn’t suppose what a failure his first dive turned out to be. Aiming for the honeymoon never-to-be-forgotten, he and his fiancée prepared for the wedding by certifying to dive in a sparkling Caribbean paradise, where together they would discover the vibrant underwater world they’d so often seen in pictures.
Instead Scott discovered that jumping from the side of a boat into waters that seem bottomless is a long way from jumping into the deep end of a pool. He panicked down there, and soon rose to the top. “My equipment’s not working,” he told his inquiring companions. Sympathetic, they went on without him, while he floated on the surface, watching them weave amid coral and clownfish, dolphin and shark far below. When they returned to the boat effusive over their discoveries, he felt miserable and defeated.
THE PERIL AND POWER OF IT
In comparison to the technology that has given us access to the deep sea, we are still in the early stages of our exploding social technology experience. We see and experience daily its incredible power. In the words of author Eric James, “High school sweethearts are reunited. Strangers meet and form personal unions. Families are brought together. Adoptees find reunion. Interest groups thrive. Businesses leap borders. Genealogies are learned, and one person in his lifetime can place himself into history, and comprehend his place in the span of time.”
This technology empowers us to connect to more people in more ways than our grandparents could have fathomed! And yet we are frustrated at how shallow those connections can be—and how perilous. In our excursions, we’ve made careless exposures and wanton judgments. We’re overwhelmed by sharp comments. We fear drowning in the force of another’s strongly voiced opinion. We find pain, hurt, and fear in those waters. And interestingly, just like Scott, we often blame our equipment—we say it’s technology’s fault.
But it isn’t only that, is it? Technology definitely needs to improve, just as scuba gear has greatly improved since the heavy, tethered diving suits of old. But what kind of training do we need to get comfortable swimming in the deep together? Is there any hope for us?
IT TAKES COURAGE TO GO DEEP
On the flight home, Scott summoned the will to take a deep dive into his own soul and shine a light on something that was hiding there in the dark, a nagging grain of truth. There was nothing wrong with his equipment. He’d bought the best available. The problem was him. He was scared.
It was a hard reckoning, painful to admit. Until he discovered something else there alongside it—a glimmering little treasure called ‘desire to overcome.’ He did not want to float on the surface ever again. He wanted to be down in that world, to know it, love it up close and in the face. And in that hour he resolved to do whatever it took to learn to trust himself, his equipment, and the deep sea.
The plane had hardly landed before he had booked and paid for another dive trip six months out, this time to California. And then, every night without fail, he went to the pool, and then to the lake. As the weeks turned into months, he tried every trick and turn, imagined all kinds of scenarios, practiced again and again responding to potential equipment failure, environmental threats, accruing 50, 60, 70 hours and more. Somewhere in there, the miracle happened. He caught himself enjoying the adventure. His mindset had changed. He’d become comfortable with his equipment, but even more with himself. And when the time came to go to California, he knew he was ready.
Jumping off the side of the boat into the deep sea, he forgot himself. “I was full tilt, all in, right there.” He wove through kelp forests, played with otters, dove in the daylight, dove in the night. “I was so comfortable with my equipment and my fellow divers that I could focus. I wasn’t watching whales from a boat or snorkeling on the surface. I was 60 feet down, in their world. I learned to swim with sharks, I saw them eye to eye.” And instead of being filled with fear, he was filled with joy.
GETTING GOOD AT UNDERSTANDING
There was hope for Scott, and there is hope for us who swim in the social media sea. Robert Ferrell, an information systems security specialist, gives us an idea where we might begin. “If—and I believe this will happen eventually—the tendency to make remarks and adopt positions you would never consider in person can be overcome,” he says, ”online society stands a very real chance of taking interpersonal relationships to a level never before possible.” All of us know what it’s like to construct a conversation in our head, only to be face-to-face with another person and realize that what we planned to say just isn’t right, or fair, or kind, or helpful. Something about going into the depths with another person opens your eyes to the fact that they aren’t the strange or wrong or offensive being you imagined—certainly not the vicious, man-eating shark you feared. They may not be just like you, but they’re like you in unexpected ways. At this depth, there are treasures to be discovered in every living being.
So what do we do to get there? For the most part, the same thing that makes for good relationships on terra firma—recognizing the limits of our understanding, addressing differences with respect and care, being interested in another’s thoughts and feelings, and not giving up on each other. Mastering such age-old wisdom requires commitment, practice, and loads of humility and forgiveness—but what wonders it allows us to see.
Will we do it? Can we commit to this effort, practice these ways of thinking and being till we trust ourselves, our equipment, and the fellow humans with whom we ought to go deeper? Will we invest ourselves in developing technology (or changing the way we use our current technology), so that we can swim and dive with others and be fully engaged, emotionally agile, and respectful?
Scott talks of the sea differently than he did twenty years ago. “I have a relationship with it. I’ve been there, to the very bottom. It’s not as big as it was. Or really,” he says, after a moment’s thought, “I’m bigger for having gone there.”
We’ll grow bigger and get better, too, if we don’t settle for the bits and pieces of each other that float on the surface. If we have the humility and honesty to change our mindset, we will find the courage to wholeheartedly engage with others—to seek out and take seriously what is deeper in them, and be vulnerable enough to let them discover the deeper riches and even mysteries in ourselves. Without harming or being harmed, we’ll be able to swim with beings of all kinds, and see them eye to eye.
"Something about going into the depths with another person opens your eyes to the fact that they aren’t the strange or wrong or offensive being you imagined—certainly not the vicious, man-eating shark you feared. They may not be just like you, but they’re like you in unexpected ways. At this depth, there are treasures to be discovered in every living being."