Yes, We Can Make a Difference

make a differenceSo, I’m kind of pathetic.
I used to have this website plug-in for something called a Cluster Map that posted a small, colorful, sometimes twinkling, map in the upper right-hand corner of my blog landing page. The map showed the numbers and locations of visitors to my website – 1,478 at one point; I wasn’t getting a lot of play in China, Eastern Russia or the North African continent, but otherwise I was doing pretty well.

Never mind that some of my visitors – well, okay, probably a lot of them – were unmanned computer programs trying to spam my comment section or connect with my server to wreak havoc on someone else’s site. The point was that A LOT of entities were paying attention to me. The point was, and still is, that I matter, I make a difference. Or at least that’s the happy, tingling sensation I got when I saw a new dot shine out from the map like a perfect, twinkling star. I felt, as Sally Field’s character is often misquoted as saying: “You like me; you really like me!”

Kind of pathetic, isn’t it, relying on a twinkling map to feel appreciated?

It’s not just me, though.
I have a friend who’s always up for new experiences. A few years ago, he discovered Foursquare. Not the ball game played with four kids on the blacktop during recess, but the location-based phone app with which users “check in” at places like restaurants and offices.

Obviously, the app provides great advertising opportunities for local businesses. That’s probably the whole point, in fact. But there’s something in it for us too. Each check-in awards the user points, which is pretty fun. You can also, if you are attentive and lucky, earn badges (yes, just like in scouting . . . only minus the personal accomplishment part).

The app also makes it possible to meet up with friends who decide to make a post office run at the exact time you do, receive discounts at your favorite store, or even get a special parking spot for being the “mayor” of a location, a distinction you earn by checking into a spot more times than anyone else.

It was this last award that my friend especially liked, and he was a master at achieving it. Over time, he became the mayor of countless restaurants, various retail outlets, his office, my office and barn (neither of which he visited with any frequency), and a particularly convenient restroom at the local airport.

He was even the mayor of a brick sculpture wall for a time. I’m pretty sure he was able to get this distinction by first creating a Foursquare site for the wall, and then checking in to it every time he stopped at the stoplight on the corner nearest the structure (which he did pretty much on a daily basis).

I know, right? He’s much more pathetic than me.

make a differenceHonestly, we just want to make a difference.
Yes, my friend and I, we want to be noticed, affirmed. We crave affiliation and esteem, to know that we matter. But ultimately, we want to believe we make a difference. And sweet, needy little creatures that we are, we’re not above creating an artificial digital context in which we can achieve this nice difference-making feeling.

Because it feels pretty great, doesn’t it, earning a badge or a title, showing off our web traffic with little glowing dots, or even zinging the other side in a Facebook debate? These small, easy actions offer us a sense of achievement, one we are only too happy to interpret as affirmation of our relevance.

The problem with relying on web traffic stats, social media gimmicks and titillating Facebook posts for affirmation is that the digital world can be a finicky, fickle, even pushy place. Trends come and go, Facebook “friends” let us down, and the roar of an angry digital mob can drown out the still, small voice of reason.

And so reliance on primarily digital connections, accolades and debates often leaves us feeling empty. Noticed perhaps, maybe even “right,” but still empty.

Empty because we haven’t really been able to make a difference. We haven’t really accomplished, or truly connected with, much of anything.

make a differenceIf you’re also struggling a little in this department lately, you’re not alone.
Last week’s massacre at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino was an unspeakable horror, another bewildering, potentially hope-sucking reminder of the fallibility of the world and the human capacity for unimaginable violence. Stunned, confused and so very sad, many of us took to the digital airwaves to look for news, comfort and – if it wouldn’t be too much trouble – SOME ANSWERS, PLEASE.

And some of us kind of got stuck out there.

I know I for one spent way too much time combing the Internet for news updates, uncovering background stories, reading essays and opinion pieces . . . taking in anything that would help me wrap my brain around what had happened. And, within just a week of the tragedy, I also managed to get myself into more than one Facebook comment volley over topics like gun control, the terror threat and treatment for the mentally ill.

This behavior is perfectly understandable. We need information and a sense of affiliation at a time like this. And the online community offers a quick fix.

But precisely because the digital world can, like a high-carb snack, offer such immediate comfort and energy, we can be seduced into relying exclusively on this once-removed way of gathering, sharing and comforting rather than seeking out more intimate, real world encounters. And that’s how we get stuck.

make a differenceThe key is to unplug.

  • Unplug from the frantic search for easy answers.
  • Unplug from the desire to look like we have it all figured out.
  • Unplug from the need to be right.
  • Unplug from the digital noise so that we can hear the real truth of the matter.

And the truth is that we can – we do – matter. And we can make a difference.

We are of consequence, we matter, not because of a digital badge or a twinkling light, or 100+ likes on our Facebook post, but because we are, each of us, an authentic, integral part of a real world community, and as such we have the ability to join together and figure this thing out.

In order to do this, we will first have to acknowledge our overwhelming feelings of grief and powerlessness and really live in that scary place for a while. While there, we can share our sadness, our fear and our sense of hopelessness face-to-face and out loud, and there is real power in that.

Then, we will have to risk looking uncertain, admitting to each other and to ourselves that we have more questions than answers (and we really ought to, shouldn’t we, when faced with something this incomprehensible?).

And, later, we will definitely have to compromise.

make a differenceIt will be difficult to unplug, to get unstuck. BUT WE CAN DO THIS. We can step away from the screen, bring our whole, fragile, fallible selves to a coffee shop two-top, a family dinner table, or the expanse of a board meeting room, and sit down together in community at a real world gathering. We can cry, we can scream, we can talk, we can pray. We can figure something out.

A next step, a compromise.

A way to really matter, and to make a difference.

What about you? Do you sometimes get seduced by the siren song of Facebook posts and comments? Do you have tricks you use to unstick yourself? Are you gathering in some way with others to mourn and discuss what happened in San Bernardino? Please tell us about your experiences below.

If this post got you thinking, you might also want to check out Keeping Your Cool or Making The Table Bigger, or this excellent NY Times article about our addiction to digital devices.

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2 Responses to Yes, We Can Make a Difference

  1. Linda Gardels says:

    Anne, thank you for this calm voice at a time of frenzy. The American Red Cross posted an advisory to not overwhelm ourselves with media coverage of the tragedy, and your words were much more eloquent on the subject. Plug in the Christmas tree and unplug the digital noise. (Although I do miss your friend’s Foursquare posts–I KNEW he was “visiting” some of those places in a drive-by.) Merry Christmas to you and your family.

    • Anne Barker says:

      Thanks for posting your good thoughts, Linda. I didn’t see the Red Cross advisory, but it sounds right on the money to me. I wish the very best for you and your family at the holidays, as we all make time to be with real folk. (And, yes, you busted him; he was a drive-by checker-inner.)

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