By Jen Kinney
I had one of those come-to-reality moments when I opened the photo gallery on my phone today. You know, an icky sinking moment when you realize your life looks nothing like the filtered pictures you seek out on Instagram from time to time? To make matters worse, I then stumbled upon the Instagram page of an “old friend” and felt even more lacking.
It was awful. There I was, in the parking lot of Starbucks, rifling through the beautiful photos of other people and feeling a little fatter and frumpier than usual. Suddenly, my house was ugly, my tomatoes weren’t heirloom enough, and my children weren’t intellectually stimulated in the way they deserved. It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and they were still in their non-organic mismatched pajamas with the mustard stains on them. The crushing failure of my life became crystal clear at that moment.
I sat there drooling over pictures of beautifully lived lives and perfectly arranged meals, and I cursed my poor photography skills and scolded myself for not taking the time to learn how to use my camera properly.
I often tell my children that comparison is the thief of joy, but today I was caught off guard. Today I was exhausted. Today my kids were home from school for the umpteenth time and on their third round of strep throat. Today I was acutely aware of all the goals I’d made in January and still hadn’t met.
Today I opened my door wide to the thief.
I love looking at beautiful Pinterest-worthy photos of food and people and children doing amazing things. But if I’m not careful, I begin to believe these polished moments are the whole story, and that my life, by comparison, is deficient.
As I sat there scrolling through the photos, I had to remind myself that beauty is good. It lures us, inspires us, and even encourages us. But why weren’t these images encouraging me? Because I was stuck in the ultimate battle between perception and perspective.
My perception told me everyone else had a picture-perfect life, while perspective reminded me not everything is as it seems on social media. Most parents deal with children in food-stained pajamas, who have strep throat and engage in epic sibling battles. But when we’re exposed to a deluge of perfection in an Instagram square, perception begins to win over perspective.
Social media has changed how we experience community. Ironically, as our connections expand, people report feeling more empty, isolated, and alone. Could it be because as we share our polished, poised half stories that exude self-sufficiency, arrival, and perfection, we are actually constructing walls that work against intimacy, vulnerability, and grace? Perfection doesn’t require community. Perfection doesn’t need a Savior. Perfection may look beautiful on the outside, but it short-changes us all on the inside.
We continue to prop up perfection as a pinnacle of beauty when we choose to share certain parts of our lives over others. Who’s to say triumph and joy are more beautiful than heartache and struggle? What are we communicating when we share the beautiful photo-shopped moment that followed a screaming fit instead of the less-than-desirable photo that captured a moment of pure joy? Beauty invites us to live more fully, but as long as we celebrate the incomplete story, we will continue to feel empty and lacking.
What’s the answer, then? I know many people who take breaks from social media. I know others who stay off it altogether. But for those of us who work it, interact with it regularly, and want to find a healthy balance, what are we to do?
Instead of seeing social media platforms as menacing thieves of community and relationships, may I suggest we see them for their untapped potential? Instead of recoiling, fighting against them, and lamenting the way relationships are shifting, let’s take charge of them and shape them into tools that encourage one another and can be used to deepen our connections.
Let’s take what we appreciate and value from our face-to-face relationships and apply similar principles to our online communities. We can be cautious and still get real with one another. Let’s make space for the messy, imperfect life where we need God and one another.
We can celebrate the whole story. The pajama-stained, shriveling-tomatoes, desperately-need-a-do-over kind of story. The story that needs a Savior and lives in truth with others as an encouragement.
Jennifer Kinney lives in Shanghai, China with her husband and twin sons. She works as a communications coordinator for a non-profit fighting to end human trafficking in Asia. When she isn’t doing that or playing referee to her two busy boys, she writes at jenkinney.com about her life abroad, random thoughts, and being a mom to a child with epilepsy.
Photograph © Ricardo Viana, used with permission