Let me tell you a secret about performing, one you might not see in soapy movies or reality shows: the best artists are sincere and generous, seeking not to manipulate, but to give.
That’s not the kind of performing that’s on my mind, not the kind that takes place on the stage or at the mic. It’s all the other performances – the performance of life – that I need to shed.
I think a lot about the aching depression of my late adolescence. As that time retreats farther in my history it still comes to mind often, maybe because it had at its root the fundamental question of my own worth that never really goes away. The old ache remains the old ache.
At that time I was always “acting like” myself rather than being myself, a realization that changed my life around the time I turned 21. I felt that if I could get people to see me a certain way, their admiration or approval would validate me and I would finally be enough.
Daily mass and therapy and a whole lot of life helped me encounter my true self. Years later the twin cataclysms of falling ill and falling in love helped me to see and accept that I am, really, truly beloved, with inherent worth that does not rely on anything external but on the love of God.
I still catch myself performing. I know it’s cliche to blame social media for ailments but it is undeniable that these platforms encourage us to perform. At its worst, Instagramitis keeps us walking around with divided attention. Part of us experiences the world, and the other part scrutinizes it for ways to burnish our image. Even those of us who in college dorm rooms and consciousness-raising sessions railed eloquently against the “male gaze” eagerly add another gaze to our lives, always watched, always performing.
There’s a dishonesty to this, even when the persona we present is more or less accurate. By trying to make someone think something of us we are trying to manipulate, to affect them without their knowledge.
(I write this in the “royal we” because it hits so close to home)
I don’t have any easy answers, but I think I’m asking the right question. I’ll take social media apps off my phone Ash Wednesday as I have for the last few years. I’ll start a new journal as I do each Lent, a place to write things that are just for God and me. I’ll add greater awareness of “social performance” to my prayer and reflection.
If I’m at my best, I’ll give myself time and space to encounter God’s deep love for me. This is the love that gives us our dignity and our identity. And when I do perform (it’s part of my livelihood, after all) I’ll remind myself that I’m there to give, not to impress; to share that love that frees me to be myself.
It’s been a few years since I’ve shared some of my favorite Lenten resources for friends looking to add something to their prayer this season. I’m still into Lent At Ephesus for some prayerful music, Sacred Space for Lent for a daily devotional, and Lent Madness for a little bit of lighthearted fun.