“Flight of a Thousand Birds” by Anila Quayyum Agha. Should life be this balanced?

I was intrigued when I ran across an article on the New York Times website titled The Unbalanced Life. It’s widely accepted that we should strive for balance between the various areas of our lives, but Brad Stulberg, the author of the article, tells us that he has been happiest and most alive when his life has been unbalanced:

“Falling in Love. Writing a book. Trekking in the Himalayas. Training to set a personal record in a triathlon. During these bouts of full-on living I was completely consumed by my activity. Trying to be balanced–devoting equal proportions of time and energy to other areas of my life–would have detracted from the formative experiences.”

Though he advocates sacrificing balance to pursue a passion, Stulberg acknowledges that there is a cost to this approach to life. Not only do we miss out on other facets of life, the intensity of our passion may prevent us from being aware of what we are lacking:

“When you are wholly immersed in anything, it’s all too easy to let the inertia of the experience carry you forward without every really evaluating what you’re sacrificing along the way; for example, time with friends and family, other hobbies, even simple pleasures like catching up on the latest episodes of ‘Game of Thrones.'”

When it comes time to stop performing the activity–when the event you trained for is over, the money runs out, or the book/play/painting is finished; when you can’t compete successfully anymore, or you’re injured or muddleheaded or exhausted–you’re not only likely to miss what you had been doing but also to realize everything else you have neglected. You also might discover that your sense of self became so completely entangled with your passion that you don’t know who you are anymore. As Stulberg notes, “It’s as if the more you put in, the harder it is to get out.”

Despite these problems, Stulberg doesn’t think striving for balance is the answer. Instead he advocates for internal self-awareness, or “the ability to see yourself clearly by assessing, monitoring, and proactively managing your core values, emotions, passions, behaviors, and impact on others.” Then, presumably, you’ll not let the thing you’re passionate about control your life. You’ll be deeply involved in something that excites or entrances you, but still will keep up with work, family responsibilities, or the like.

Self-awareness is certainly a good thing; it might help prevent the sort of disaster fueled by passion that was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, the account of an Everest expedition that went disastrously awry. Still, I’m not sure that self-awareness is enough. I’ve known at least a few people who, while pursuing some passion, clearly knew that they were missing out on important things or were negatively impacting themselves or others. At the time, they just didn’t care. They loved what they were doing so much that the consequences didn’t matter.

Stulberg is a proponent of the “Do what you love” approach to life. Many who follow this  path don’t think that it matters what you love, as long as it stirs your passions or emotions sufficiently. Unfortunately, some of us are stirred by things that are really harmful to ourselves or others–substance abuse, gambling, rape, torture, child molestation, and on and on. Other loves do harm in more subtle ways–television, shopping, and overeating come to mind. Some people who do these things lack self-awareness regarding the harm they’re doing, but many are aware.

St. Augustine wrote about the loves that guide our lives. We go astray, he thinks, if we love the wrong things, fail to love the right things, or excessively love things that are only worthy of limited love. In his view, we are fully happy only if we love God first, then order the rest of our loves in accordance with their  ultimate importance. (David Naugle’s Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness is an excellent guide to Augustine’s approach.) It’s great to devote ourselves to things that we are passionate about. Writing and running have long been two such things in my life, and they both give me joy. But some passions can harm us and others, and we need more than self-awareness to keep that from happening. We also need to know what things are worth loving, both as to our highest devotion and as to lesser allegiances. That sort of analysis can present us with a dilemma if our passions don’t match what we know is worthy of our devotion. That is an issue for another post, though.

As has been widely reported, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2013 is “selfie.” The Oxford folks helpfully provide a definition: a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Facebook posts are teeming with selfies. Even an old guy like me who hardly ever posts on Facebook or its many cousins has taken a few of them. Celebrity selfies have a huge following, with whole websites devoted to the latest self-made images of the stars (the accompanying pictures of Justin Beiber and Hilary Duff come from http://celeb-selfies.com/.

Justin-Bieber-2013-selfieHilary-Duff-selfie

The coronation of “selfie” as word of the year resulted in a blizzard of cultural analysis. Jennifer O’Connell huffs that the selfie is symptomatic of our ever-increasing narcissism. Navneet Alang responds to the narcissism charge by noting that humans have long sought to document their activities; the only thing that is new is how public that documentary process has become. Rachel Simmons regards selfies as a form of self-affirmation and thus beneficial for a prime group of selfie practitioners, teenage girls. And Noah Berlatsky faults other commenters for claiming that all selfies have the same meaning; in his view, selfies are works of art, and each conveys its own unique message.

Besides thinking about what selfies reveal about the selves of those who take and post them, it is useful to consider how taking selfies shapes the self. In the article cited above, Navneet Alang touches on that question. Here’s what he says:

“Now that so many more people have access to a space to put their identities out there, it may seem like people have suddenly become self-involved, when in fact, all it means is that there is a new more potent medium and shape for an old social fact.
“The selfie is thus a symbol of a slightly shifting sense of self, one that is more aware of how we always function in at least two modes at once, the private and the public, the internal and the external.”

Perhaps the change in awareness has a greater impact than Alang thinks. “Self-consciousness” is the term that social psychologists use to refer to the habitual tendency to be self-aware (the material on self-consciousness that follows are drawn from Steven Franzoi’s Social Psychology, 6th ed.). There are two types of self-consciousness: private self consciousness, the tendency to be aware of private aspects of the self, and public self-consciousness, the tendency to be aware of publically displayed personal features. These traits are distinct, so that a person can be low on both, high on both, or a mixture of the two. Taking a selfie seems to foster public self-awareness, and taking lots of them probably fosters a more habitual state of public self-consciousness (that’s my surmise; Franzoi doesn’t address selfies). Even if taking selfies doesn’t diminish private self-consciousness (whether it does or not is a research question) those who take and post lots of them may develop the characteristics that have been found to be associated with high private self-consciousness. According to Franzoi, these include greater concern about how others view oneself, more conformity to social norms, more concern about one’s physical appearance, and a greater tendency to withdraw from embarrassing situations.

If selfies and other social media phenomena shape the 21st-century self, what direction might that self take? To the extent that these phenomena increase public self-consciousness, it seems that the self might evolve towards being highly aware of its public face, anxious about how that face is perceived, concerned about being physically attractive, averse to bucking group standards, and more isolated. Given these possibilities, I don’t think I’ll be taking and posting many selfies. Since I’m on the subject, though, I’ve posted below one of the few selfies I’ve taken, photographed (the old-fashioned way, with camera and tripod) in St. Paul’s Covent Garden, London.

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