In the final instalment of a popular advice column, the journalist Oliver Burkeman listed out eight learnings that he believes are the secrets to a happy life. One of these points begins, “The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower”. In the paragraphs that explain what this means, an aside jumped at me: “This is how social media platforms flourish: by providing an instantly available, compelling place to go at the first hint of unease.” How true this is – a tire punctures, and we tell the world. A mosquito buzzes us awake, and we tell the world. Then, we stare at the screen as we wait for whatever proceeds next IRL, watching our notifications as we do.
IRL – “in real life”. I think I encounter this acronym less often than earlier, possibly because the demarcation is no longer as clear. Social media is also life, now. Real life, with real stakes. This is despite knowing that online platforms are not the world. They are always only a bubble, or a tightly knit cluster of bubbles, one that we used to believe was self-curated but increasingly understand is based on algorithmic dictations as well as agendas with money and power behind them.
We understand this, we do, but we frequently behave exactly how the system coaxes us to. Hardly a day goes by when one’s entire timeline isn’t talking about the same topic. When it’s a major event, cataclysmic or otherwise, this makes sense. But sometimes it’s literally about picking an arbitrary target and then – like those little creatures trailing each other off a cliff in the Lemmings game from the early ‘90s, inspired by the myth (aka “fake news”) that real lemmings die en masse this way – following the designed flow. Some days, people lose hours to dissecting another random individual’s equally random opinion. Later, each party’s personality becomes set in stone: there’s the person who fleetingly expressed a fatuous idea, and may it never be forgiven, and there’s the hero whose hot take made that original thought go viral for everyone else’s self-righteous responses and ridicule.
This has an impact on our daily well-being and ability to think holistically, and over time it becomes dangerous on larger levels. Let’s take a hypothetical situation, wherein someone with a talent for making anything about themselves leverages on some incident and begins to spin a narrative around it, drawing in more and more people and implicating them all. Soon, organisations, institutions, the press and more get involved and…
Oh, that’s not a hypothetical situation? Yeah, I know.
This is our cue to derive inspiration from some of the pettier people we know, IRL. You know the frenemies who somehow never hear about any good that comes your way, but always ferret out every tiny trigger and criticism and personally ensure that you’re aware of it? That superpower for acknowledging and talking about only what serves them is something to learn from, and selectively use. When we do this, we can also ask, each time we get distracted by some concocted drama: what is being made to disappear from view because my attention is not there now?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 5th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.