I sat in the hydraulic chair in the well-decorated salon, under the glare of halogen lights and surrounded by walls painted earthy shades of gray and brick red and dried-leaf brown. My roots glared ugly at me in the mirror, a bland mixture of mud puddle and pebble gray. The blonde that covered most of my head is more my “real” color; the non-color nearest my scalp was a hormone-delivered post-natal gift: after I had children, my hair became nondescript, colorless.
But we have a remedy for that. So I was sitting in the chair, under the expert care of my niece, a lovely thing in her mid-twenties. I’ve known her in every hair color, since we first opened an at-home highlight kit and I pulled her strands through the holes in a plastic cap with a crochet hook. She’s currently a deep, chestnut brown and her hair’s cut in a bob. She looks every bit a dolly. We begin bringing my own hair back to its real color.
And we talk about real.
We talk about relationships and church and the pursuit of authenticity. “I love your haircut,” I mention, “I saw your picture of the color on facebook, but wasn’t it longer?” “Yeah, I did get it cut yesterday, but I didn’t want to post another selfie on the internet. I just wanted real people to see it, get the reaction in person, you know?”
Oh honey, I know.
Because we live in an age where “google” is a verb, “selfie” makes it into the dictionary and the tedious interaction of facebook is being replaced by quicker, more visual and non-committal abbreviations: instagram and twitter and snapchat. We spend time with our kids and the living room is full of multiple screens taking us through Pokemon worlds and sports-videos, memes full of intentionally misspelled words and Pinterest-worthy-perfect craft tutorials—all on our handhelds, all at the same time.
And I don’t want to be yet another blogger who rants about the condition of our technologically dependent lifestyle, because that in itself is too silly to be ironic. What blogger doesn’t want her post to go viral, get picked up by The Huffington Post or Upworthy or viralblog.com, to be shared a bazillion times, to get noticed and like and re-shared and validated?
But the deeper problem is this: we just want someone real and breathing the same airspace with us to say, “Hey, cute haircut!” We want them to reach out and run real fingers through the layers and say, “That looks good on you. Do you like it?” To be engaged.
For anyone who doesn’t blog or manage a website or somehow promote something on the internet, engagement is no longer a term used to describe a couple planning a wedding, or a season of love and commitment that precedes a marriage, or a value of parenting or interpersonal relationships. Engagement is a buzzword, a thing to be better understood by Google analytics and SEO and measured by statistics.
Engagement gets to be measured now, in numbers and graphs on a screen. And then, the internet engines of power suggest we invest money to boost engagement, to encourage likes and shares. Entire sessions are devoted to this concept at writers’ conferences, marketing workshops and on-line webcasts. Because your words, your product, your passion is nothing without measurable engagement. You may as well cancel your blog, let your domain name expire and give up. If you don’t engage, you’ll never build a tribe of followers and you’ll never change the world.
And obscure people like me wonder, how can that farmer’s wife or that red-haired nerdy-looking guy, or that chauvinistic pastor engage people to points of enrapture? We study them, look for a plan or a six-step process. We pound out posts and pithy tweets and hope, hope against hope, that someone pays attention.
Why? I can only answer for myself.
It’s not because I’m desperate for affirmation or bored and in need of a hobby. It’s not because I have grandiose ideas about my talent. It’s because I have something so real, so gritty and gnarly and beautiful, and I want to share it. The internet is the easiest tool, the easiest medium to use to put it out there.
What I have is Jesus.
And as weird as it seems, because I’ve never laid eyes on his face or felt the touch of his hand, because I only imagine the dust-covered feet that travelled in the wilderness or the Judean hillside with Satan at his heels, or witnessed the miracles or heard his voice praying over a simple lunch of dried fish and flatbread, he is the most authentic person who’s ever happened to me. Because there is a miracle that happens in my brain and in my soul when the words I read on the thin pages of my Bible meet with the spirit of Christ and my mind is instructed, my anxiety soothed, my direction well-lit and my fears dissolved. And this miracle is more palpable than an apple in hand, more stunning than the sunsets I try to capture in pixels on my smart phone.
I want that Jesus, that Real, to reach out and touch you, too. And I think this morning, as the cold, November air is cutting and painful to breathe in through nostrils, that no one can replicate the seasons. At Disneyland, they pipe in sounds of birdsong and river-rushing and even scent the air to authenticate the experience. It’s all pleasant and happy. The wild-wind beating in my eardrums or the shocking cold of lake water or the kiss from my son, setting soft and quick upon my cheek—these are things that cannot be uploaded or streamed or filtered into my world on fiber optic cables.
Talking long-distance is a gift, to be sure, but it never beats or even comes close to the face-to-face of coffee with a friend. The distraction and the array of substitutes are almost pornographic. There is no way to imitate the most intimate of relational experiences without robbing us blind of the beauty and the raw of real. Virtual sex cannot replace the real thing, but it satiates for a time the craving. It activates the part of the brain that desperately needs stimulation and until the next click, the viewer believes herself satisfied. The real lie is this: the viewer believes he is a participant.
And I believe it’s this cavernous interior of howling echoes within the soul that keep us all wondering if we shouldn’t pull the plug and crawl out from our web-caves and go fishing or visit with the neighbors over a beer while twilight darkens and the kids come crashing in from their neighborhood haunts and smell of earth and childhood.
I believe that Duck Dynasty is phenomenon because they talk simple and stroke beards and believe in being happy and boring and rough around the edges and we are sick to death of our clean, digitized, graphically designed perfection. I believe that’s why #SFbatkid found himself embraced by an entire city. Here was this real little kid with a life story of tremendous challenges who dared to dream himself a super-hero. And the wish came true and the dream of this little guy engaged a nation. And, I doubt this little guy knows much about boosting engagement; he’s more familiar with booster seats.
We all want a bit of dream-made-real that Disney and Duck Dynasty and even Bat Kid promises. So we engage, dozens of times each day, on the internet, looking for real, and like the Velveteen Rabbit, we learn through the actual, in-real-life embraces that we were real all along, and the love that made us real also rubbed us raw and came to our side and touched our wounds and wiped our tears. That’s the “loving one another” bit of Christ’s summation of the law of Moses: be there, together, loving one another.
I think of my friends who just last night gathered, touched and embraced one another, a circle of unity as they cried to heaven for healing and help and watched, hoping that the wife and mother wheeled away on a gurney would return alive after emergency brain surgery–because they love her and they aren’t ready to say goodbye, yet.
I think of my nurses who relieved my pain, of my sisters who combed glass from my hair, of my little girl who tried to serve me coffee in bed on my first day back from the hospital. I think of my daughter who is paying too much money to live in a dorm in order to find meaningful relationships from her college years. I think we all crave the authentic. And I think we all know it can’t come through clicks and hits and shares and likes. But we keep at it.
But let’s decide to keep at the every-day hard of face-to-face engagement. Let’s put down the smartphones and the hand-helds and dance in the kitchen and laugh over plates of pasta. Let’s eat too many cookies and hike over rocks and feel the splash of rain and do all of this with someone who needs our “real”, who gives it back in equal measure and doesn’t count the level of engagement by site-hits or original views, but by the tone of our voices and the twinkle in our eyes.