In one way or another, we all live what psychologists call a “divided life.” And for many of us, nowhere is that phenomenon more strikingly apparent than in the way we interact online.
Do you ever feel like you’re a different person at work than you are at home? Are you the same at the gym and at church? At your morning bagel shop? Your kid’s school? Driving? Alone?
As humans, we live in a constant state of response. We react to each environment and person we encounter, bending ourselves to fit each situation. We act differently at basketball games than we do at the theater. Our response to a professor is different from the way we interact with a good friend. This, of course, is natural. But when the difference in our response reaches beyond courtesy and decorum into issues of morality – the way we feel about and treat others, the things we talk about, our integrity – we’ve entered into what some psychologists call a “divided life.”
Years ago, a startling example awakened me to the burden of living “divided.” I was leading a project with a large, interdisciplinary team. I heard through the grapevine about a distant team member—we’ll call him Todd—whose bad attitude was making life miserable for a lot of people. I didn’t know Todd, or so I thought. But a few days later, I looked down the hallway to see my neighbor, Todd Graybell, approaching.
“Ross! Are you part of this team?” Todd asked. “I am,” I replied, “in fact, I’m responsible for this project.” His face brightened. “Well,” he said, “our team is so excited to be part of this. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” As he walked away, I had a sudden reality check. My friend Todd, who I knew to be a man of high character, was “Todd with the bad attitude.” I was surprised. But less than 24 hours later, I overheard this conversation: “Man, I don’t know what happened to Todd, but he was totally positive today.”
What happened? Now, of course, I can’t say for sure. But for me, one possibility was that suddenly, Todd had come face to face with the fact that he was a different person at work than at home. And with that jarring realization, he had come to himself.
I never spoke with Todd about what transpired that day. And I don’t know if he actually “awakened” as I’ve proposed. In fact, it’s possible that the whole situation was just one big misunderstanding. But what I do know is: my experience watching Todd’s story unfold was enlivening and life changing for me. For the first time, I could see that living a divided life was no way to live at all. And I was suddenly aware that, in some ways, I was living that way myself.
In his book, “A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life,” Parker Palmer speaks of the struggle of “divided” living. “I pay a steep price when I live a divided life—feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood. The people around me pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness. How can I affirm another’s identity when I deny my own? How can I trust another’s integrity when I defy my own? A fault line runs down the middle of my life, and whenever it cracks open—divorcing my words and actions from the truth I hold within—things around me get shaky and start to fall apart.”
Because of my experience with Todd, I began to awaken to the “fault lines” that were shaking up my life. I began to see the ways I was living divided, and I could see how the effects of that living were damaging my relationships. So, I went to work. I started scrubbing away years of bad habits and comfortable compromises. It was painful and taxing. But now, after many years of trying to live differently, I’m more whole than I’ve ever been. I’m far from perfect, but the divisions of my soul are not nearly so pronounced as they once were. Except for maybe in one area of my life.
“Ross, why are you so different online?” my wife asked unexpectedly last week. “What?” I asked, a little dumbfounded. “You’re passionate and responsive and connected in person. But online, you just sit there. You don’t give what you could. You don’t confirm others. You don’t speak up when you think something isn’t right. It’s not like you. Why is that?” Now, this article isn’t about online diplomacy (though I may revisit that topic later), and it’s also not about some of the long-held questions I have about how well current social platforms seed our intellectual ground for meaningful, productive conversations. But what I will say, for today, is that my wife’s question struck me. Again, I could see that I was living “divided,” not necessarily in a negative way, but all of me wasn’t coming to the table in my online life. And maybe I could do something about it.
How whole is the connection between your real-life and online personas? Maybe you’ve never had a #facebookrant, but when something online doesn’t agree with your perspective, does your passion ever get the best of you and provoke a response you would never give in real life? Have you ever let the false feeling of anonymity inherent online embolden you to say things in a tone you would never take with another person face to face? Have you ever been fooled into thinking that what you say online, and the way you say it, don’t really matter or don’t affect your real relationships with friends, acquaintances, or family members? Or, from another perspective, has someone else’s strong perspective or response online ever caused you to withdraw, check out, or silence your own views and perspectives? If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, and most of us can, then chances are that you may be living just a little divided.
But if everyone is doing it, is it really so bad? Palmer’s perspective is simple and powerful: keep living a divided life, and soon, you won’t even remember what constituted the real, authentic you in the first place. Online, the danger is even greater, because the distance between us and those we interact with there is widened significantly by the almost complete lack of face to face interactions we have. And, without that personal connection, the emotional discipline we would relentlessly require of ourselves in person often goes out the window. Soon, we are living divided lives, and we don’t even recognize it. And, as Palmer submits, in dividing ourselves, we begin to lose ourselves. And what is lost may never be found again.
So, what? Am I advocating a divorce from social media and online interactions? No way. This online world is our new normal, and so much good can flow from it. But here’s what I am noting, for myself and for all of us: avoiding the potentially life-altering divisions of our own souls that can occur online is going to require more of us; not less. More discipline. More diplomacy. More deliberate effort. More, even, than our live interactions require. Why? Because at the heart of all this is that fact that, in real life, we actually care about one another. We care about how we make each other feel. We care about our deep, long-held, meaningful relationships. And we have an obligation, because of those connections, to tread lightly, think carefully, post responsibly, and bring all of us to each and every interaction.
So today, I’m recommitting myself to a more deliberate, authentic, undivided, online life. I’m going to bring you the real me, and I hope to find the real you. And maybe next year, my wife won’t look at me and say, “Why are you so different?” but instead, “How did you become so whole?”
Join me in overcoming the great divide between who we are…and who we are online.
“Avoiding the potentially life-altering divisions of our own souls that can occur online is going to require more of us; not less. More discipline. More diplomacy. More deliberate effort. More, even, than our live interactions require.”