When we are face to face, looking into people's eyes, seeing them as real, it’s impossible to “hold onto” who we are. We feel a call to acknowledge and support them in their uniqueness. And when we do, we let go of ourselves.
There's a social media secret in the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day.” Remember Phil Connors, the self-absorbed TV weatherman? Until he figures out how to genuinely care for and respond to Rita, his TV producer, he’s doomed to live the same day over and over again. The reason is both simple and profound: his only real future—a future different from his past—is in love. But that love has to be more than the self-serving infatuation that requires reciprocation. It has to be the practical, rigorous, real life love we demonstrate when we get outside ourselves to selflessly lift and serve others.
"Groundhog Day" makes this distinction clear. Day after repeating day, Phil woos Rita by collecting details about her life, her personality, and what she wants in a man. And day after day he pretends to be that man—quoting her favorite poetry, ordering her favorite drink, repeating her vision for world peace. To onlookers, it appears he's doing it all for her. But in reality, it's for him. Every act is an assertion of himself, an attempt to arrange himself favorably in her eyes. So, every night when Phil falls asleep, time rewinds, the clock resets, and Rita disappears. And every morning when the sun comes up, Phil awakens to the same day, the same person he was before. As long as Phil’s life is about Phil, there is no real future for him.
It is sobering to think how social media can entice us into the same doom loop. We may encounter hundreds of friends and followers, be immersed in the details of their lives, and constantly respond to their posts. But if our responses are essentially attempts to assert ourselves—to declare what we “like” and “dislike,” what we find interesting or funny, what we agree with and oppose—we’re just repeating ourselves. To onlookers, our posts with encouraging emojis and triple exclamation points may give the appearance of our being interested in others. But when our underlying motives are to arrange ourselves in their eyes, gain their acknowledgement, and win their affirmation, our social media days are all terribly the same. They’re about us. And we spend our energy maintaining the persona we’ve created for ourselves and others (the funny guy, the defender of a cause, the mama bear, etc.). There is no future in that loop. And while we're in it, it's easy to think there's no alternative.
But there is. Artists and philosophers have long known that when we have a genuine encounter with another person, we change. When we are face to face, looking into people's eyes, seeing them as real, it’s impossible to “hold onto” who we are. We feel a call to acknowledge them and support them in their uniqueness. And when we do that, we let go of ourselves. We learn. We develop. We grow. We become what we need to be to sustain them. And that throws open the door to a fresh new future.
The least forward-reaching, darkest chapters in history are written by those who refuse to let go of themselves—their persona, culture, patterns of thinking—in order to embrace others. The result is not only prejudice and violence, it's loss: the loss of understanding other's gifts and potential contributions, the strength that comes in cooperation, the creativity that emerges through collaboration, and the deep prosperity that only exists in peace. It's the loss of our real future. Lyricist Stephen Schwartz expresses both the problem and its solution: You think the only people who are people / Are the people who look and think like you / But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger / You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.
When we allow ourselves to be touched by the transcendent “otherness” of a human face, we learn things we never knew we never knew. We have to confess that the people around us are distinct, supernal beings, infinitely beyond us. Their reality requires us to be more than our "same old, same old." To truly care for and respond to who they are, we have to leave our past and walk with them into a world different from our own. We have to become new.
Ironically, people’s faces are integral to social media. But the way we regard those faces when they appear in thumbnails, profile pictures, and banners, rarely calls us to leave our sense of self. We find ourselves scrolling through people as if they were things—“Oh yeah, him . . . her . . . the one who had cancer . . . the one who talks incessantly about politics.” We’re scanning for something we can connect to, relate to—a person or situation enough like us that we can respond to without having to adapt our way of being. If we’re not mindful, these faces become just an occasion for us to post something about ourselves—to assert who we are and how we want to be seen. When this happens, other people don’t seem real. Their faces, their eyes, don’t move or change us. They don’t call us to a newness of life.
Be assured, this trouble is not as sinister as it sounds. In fact, it’s all quite ordinary. Remember, Phil’s problem wasn’t that he disliked or was disinterested in Rita. Neither are we disinterested in the “friends” who appear in our social feeds. The truth is, Phil never actually saw Rita—not for who she was at least. She was merely a prop for his performance, a means to his end. If we use social media in the same way—primarily as a tool to get what we want for ourselves, asserting what we already think we know, or clarifying who we think we are or want to be—we’ll never really see people for who they are. Our social media interactions will have trapped us in the loop of ourselves instead of leading us into the world of others.
On the other hand, if we take social media as an opportunity to become more alive to others—more responsive to their unique strengths and circumstances, respectful of their ideas, appreciative of their vision (especially when they think differently than we do), quick to acknowledge the reality of their hardships and disappointments, and generally more astonished at their capacity to be sincere, creative, resilient, courageous, tender, forgiving, selfless, determined, and enduring—then our future is wide open. Social media becomes expanding and enlivening to us. It gives us the chance to get beyond ourselves and become the person we want to be for the sake of others.
In the last scene of “Groundhog Day,” Phil awakens to discover that his long night of self-centeredness is over. It’s a new day. Rita, the woman he has wooed and lost a hundred times because of his self-promoting advances has not disappeared. She’s there. She’s looking into his eyes. What changed in their world? Phil did. Finally, he let go of his old self in order to reach out and respond to Rita right now, in this very moment. And that put him—and them—on the threshold of a real future. “Do you know what today is?” he muses, looking back into her eyes. “Today is tomorrow.” And then, wanting to make sure tomorrows keep coming, he asks the question that renews all of us and gets us beyond ourselves in social media: “Is there anything I can do for you today?”
“We may encounter hundreds of friends and followers, be immersed in the details of their lives, and constantly respond to their posts. But if our responses are essentially attempts to assert ourselves—to declare what we “like” and “dislike,” what we find interesting or funny, what we agree with and oppose—we’re just repeating ourselves.”