Gold flakes fell softly, a 24K snowstorm caused by an over-glittered, giant masquerade mask hanging above the doorway. As students walked into the dance, shoulders newly shimmering, I wondered whether more of them would show up.
All told, it was a humble crowd. The music was fine, the dancing left faces glowing, and we had enough sub sandwiches to send everyone home with leftovers. But there was skepticism in the air. People came in and out all night long, eyes searching their phone screens for something better to do. No one fully committed, like a wedding where the bridal party doesn’t dance. Those of us who planned the event wanted it to be something more.
Strange then, that on Monday I got a surprising number of inquiries. When will the next dance be? Why weren’t tickets sold in classes? Can we bring friends from other schools? Was there pizza, or just subs?
I asked the inquirers, “Why is this such a big deal now? We pushed this dance for weeks, and you didn’t show up!”
And then they showed me why it was a big deal – a long series of Instagram posts. They made our less-than-well-attended, glitter-littered dance look like Times Square on New Year’s Eve or the end of Ke$ha’s TiK ToK video. Even I wanted to be at that party. But then I remembered – those posts showed me something that wasn’t real. Not really.
In a world of fake news, Snapchat stories, and custom hashtags for weddings and sporting events, Instagram has become my social media outlet of choice. There’s something that feels more pure about a picture. I follow friends and family members, acquaintances, Jesuit companions, and schools and organizations I’m passionate about. I ‘like’ virtually everything I see, because I know the people, places, and purpose of the posts.
A few months ago, I was on the subway in Chicago. I scanned the train car, and a few feet from me sat a young woman – someone I follow on Instagram. She was wearing headphones, and a magazine sat in her lap. We didn’t know each other well; she would have known I was a Jesuit that sang in the choir at school, and I knew she played in the orchestra. Somehow, we connected through social media, and in my daily perusal, her posts popped up. I saw her with a cat on her shoulders, with a new tattoo on her inner bicep, at the gym breaking a new deadlift personal record. I presumed to know these things about her.
I’m the kind of guy who isn’t afraid to strike up a conversation with strangers on the train. Any reason will do – an expression of joy for just making it past closing doors, quick commiseration about some inexplicable delay, a Green Bay Packers hat and a mutual distaste for the Bears.
But when I saw this woman sitting there, head down, moving from one moment in the city to the next, I froze up. I said nothing. I felt suddenly like I was an intruder – like I had access to photos without her permission, or that I knew more about her life than I should. She was less than a stranger and nowhere near a best friend – like a kid from my high school class I run into at a bar the night before Thanksgiving. I felt awkward and embarrassed about the fact that we had no real connection. She never looked up, and I never said hello. We both know we’re out there somewhere, likely never to meet again. Chicago is a big city after all.
I still see her posts – cats and tattoos and weights and all – and I still ‘like’ them.
I’ve got a few friends who have sick kids in their families – sons and daughters and nieces and nephews with illnesses that keep them in constant flux about whether the next treatment or operation will work. Their Instagram posts show small bodies tethered by tubes to machines that are meant to sustain their fragile, important, trying lives.
I’m not with these friends in the flesh very often; I see their stories unfold on my phone screen. There’s nothing posed about the images they offer – they’re not fabricated dance-offs or selfies with cats. They capture a struggle that calls me to hold them close, to know more deeply the reality of their plight, to remember that love is the filter and the frame.
There’s a place for all of it somehow – the falsely-hyped party, the person I ‘like’ but don’t really know, the haunting image of a sick child. Sometimes I need an escape, and a suspension of reality is just the ticket. Sometimes it’s good to know that someone, somewhere really loves their cat. Sometimes, a reminder that all is not well in others’ lives is a call back to prayer.
It’s up to me to know the difference between them. I am always called to find the real and the good, and to remember that it’s not always clear in an instant.