Our True Colors Always Show
What would happen if we shunned the constant urge to curate our lives and let it all hang out?
To some extent, this is a question the personal essay seeks to answer by documenting our own experience of being a human in the world.
Thanks to the internet, we all can do so on our own terms and in our own words.
Ostensibly, many of us undertake this kind of intensive emotional labor so we might understand one another better. Anyone who has ever had to defend their humanness in the eyes of peers who view them as unworthy often goes on to become an advocate for equality across a wide range of issues.
To try and shield others from what we went through, we revisit intimate and often painful parts of our lives in print. Because information presented in an accessible and relatable way can go a long way toward humanizing complex issues. Academic literature, meanwhile, is often too abstract.
In this sense, writing is service, a way to turn harrowing life lessons into a contribution toward making the world a more tolerant place. On a personal level, this kind of work can be hugely rewarding: We’re flipping the script and using what was done to us for the common good.
This is how many of us reclaim agency, control over our limiting circumstances, and freedom.
Because words are a powerful tool.
Like any other tool, words can fix as much as they can destroy.
A personal essay that pawns our privacy for clicks can quickly turn into the hammer that smashes a finger or make a hole in the wall. When the race is on to generate as many eyeballs, clicks, and bucks as possible, as quickly as possible, we seldom pause to consider the consequences.
But we should.
In a culture of where tone wins out to voice and noise wins out to signal, accountability matters but it is becoming rarer and rarer. Once we get paid, we forget about it until our words come back to haunt us in innumerable ways.
As a rule, it’s never a good idea to write anything we wouldn’t be comfortable discussing in public.
I write a lot of mental illness and the attendant consequences of losing five years of my life to major depressive disorder. But it took me a long time and much soul searching until I felt capable of turning the pen on myself in a dispassionate way that wouldn’t foster voyeurism.
Having been a journalist for years helps but I remain wary of trading my intimacy for a paycheck. For example, I may write about sex in broad terms but I won’t got into graphic and gratuitous details about what I like and how I like it.
Intimacy and love are the most meaningful connections we can ever forge with a fellow human. To me, they’re neither a public performance nor a consumer good but as sacred as can be for someone who worships no god.
Knowing when to withhold information to protect our privacy and that of those whom we write about is key.
This, in a nutshell, is why journalists are duty-bound to protect their sources come what may. And why we should all tread carefully when a fellow human entrusts us with information off the record.
Because abuse and bullying are endemic to digital life, screenshots of private messages have become the norm. Often, it is easier to expose someone and incite others to join in than to bother initiating a conversation.
We cannot build bridges with pointed fingers.
Contrary to popular opinion, bullying isn’t gender-specific; it’s what some humans do to other humans when hidden behind a screen. No wonder then that many of us can no longer tell the difference between who’s being genuine and who isn’t, between who’s actually trustworthy and who isn’t.
And so we end up prisoners of a predicament of our making, one that is slowly commodifying our shared humanness for shock value via personal essays.
Cue overwrought prose, pathos, and a judgmental tone that often derides others’ pain or paints it as an object of pity, i.e. thinly veiled contempt.
If being ourselves without artifice is no longer the goal, the words we choose will always let the discerning reader know what we seek to conceal.
And exactly who we are.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.