When I read (or, more precisely, scan/read) the Mary Baker Eddy biography recently, what struck me most was her obsession with the notion that metaphysical rivals were inflicting "malicious animal magnetism" upon her. Her credo, after all, was that through positive thinking and faith, one can access all the blessings of Heaven. Yet her certainty that the power of negative thinking worked adverse effects on her stands as a stark reminder of the flip side of this thinking.
I think that mis-communication poses such challenges for so many people I know, including particularly myself. I'm sure I'm not the only person who in real life feels much more connected to people around me than any connection suggested by my words and actions. I'm one of those "caring guys", but I could show it better.
But what intrigues me most about people as story-telling animals is the extent to which expressed mood and "kind thoughts" does seem to impact how we interact with one another. Please pardon me if I do not offer to adjust anyone's inner essence with kind words and rock candy shaped as crystals. But there is something to this give-and-take of feelings, this whole monkey-troupe-together-in-a-big-world sense of things, that does make the way folks relate to one another make the things they say, and the feelings they inspire, so important. I imagine that ants have an easier time of it, as they exchange nitric acid messages that say "food there, go" or "intruder! attack! attack!". Yet now that I think about it, one of the recent ant books I intend to buy (and I love books about ants) is a myrmyIcan'tspellitcologist who points out that for all their vaunted "we work together in an interwoven social community, issuing orders and taking names" ant social skills, the individual ant is still pretty much an idiot who spends most of the day wandering aimlessly.
I think that internet communication, with its emphasis on written exchanges, really serves as an observer's microcosm of social interaction. Sometimes on LJ or message boards, one can see an interaction turn into a train wreck before one's very eyes. I have witnessed many a train wreck--a journal comment that I just know, deep in my heart, will get a reply that hurts the feelings of the commenter. Sure enough, the "reply to comment" is posted by the affected journaller, and pain ensues. It's like that old Addams Family show, when Gomez used to intentionally wreck the model trains. You could see it coming, but you couldn't really look away.
I've been surprised on-line by how hurt I can be by something a stranger says. I've also, sadly, been surprised when I hurt someone's feelings on-line without really meaning to do so. I've been amazed in those rare instances when someone sets out to just flat out wound another's feelings. I'll never forget the "well-known NPR commentator" type that I asked to appear at a Compuserve Forum chat for which I led a section years and years ago. At that time, this person was a regional minor celebrity, known only, really, to locals, writing a monthly column for the really nice "cool, but not as cool as we think we are" magazine. I asked her to do an on-line chat with our members about writing for magazines. Because I suspected from something she had written that she lacked much facility with the chat room functions in CS, I suggested we do a trial run. We popped on line at a given time (she was late), and during the trial run, she, another forum moderator, and I were in a room, chatting. Suddenly, she said in chat that she had sent a private message to the other moderator (an on-line acquaintance of mine), to say something "oppobrious" about me as an act of "conceptual performance art". I thought little of it at the time, as this sort of on-line thing even then was not particularly novel. But after the "celebrity" left the forum, my fellow CSer told me that what the artiste had done was make, and then retract as a joke, the claim that I had harassed the celebrity. Apparently, this was "performance art". I suppose I lacked the right aesthetic sense for "performance art", or a sense of humour. I was mortified. On the one hand, I disliked the insult, even in "fun", and on the other hand, here I was "hosting" this public chat, which the CS people had promoted with hyperlinks in their initial sign-on banners, and I had this total loose cannon as my "guest". I had a friend co-moderating the chat (in fact, it was the first of many such chats I hosted, and I needed help with with managerial software involved), to whom I explained my concern, and I advised the manager of the forum. We all cyber-shook our heads, but decided to go on with the chat. Needless to say, I scanned each of my e mails to the semi-famous writer to see if anything I had said seemed remotely inappropriate. I found, as I thought I would, that although I had sent a few e mails confirming the date and asking for material to post in the forum library, I had not said anything untoward or inappropriate. I concluded, and conclude, that her "celebrity" apparently gave her license to offend.
In the event, the on-line chat went without a hitch. The "celebrity" handled the chat with aplomb and courtesy, and the whole thing went very well. She provided solid guidance for those who wished to write, and the chat was like a very good fireside chat, we had enough folks to make it fun, but not so many that it became a burden. I sent her a nice thank you e-note, and she responded with a gracious thank you e-note. I suppose I should have let the matter stand. But I asked an on-line friend her opinion--should I e mail the writer in reply how much she hurt my feelings? I elected to follow my on-line friend's advice that I should. I sent a reply e mail, which took on a generally cheery "isn't on line funny" tone, but did put in a sentence about the offense I felt. I never heard back from the writer. I regret expending my feelings on the "I'm hurt" e mail.
I don't believe in "negative animal magnetism", but I still remember the slight of "conceptual performance art". I always think that "conceptual performance art" should be limited to things like playing piano for the grunion, but maybe that's my own small town squareness coming through.
Yet, lest I leave the impression that I am always the offended and never the offender, it was hardly a year or two later when I offended the co-moderator of that chat by telling her about how I'd lost weight by visting a nutritionist, after she and I had gotten into a discussion in which her weight somehow came up. With hindsight, talking to anyone with advice unasked for is a risk (though a risk I take very often), so I get where she was coming from when she said that such matters were so inherently individual that nobody should say anything about such things. So when I thought I was helping, I was inadvertently keying into someone else's body issues. I don't think she ever really forgave me,either, although I don't recall ever saying any of those horrid negative things about weight (a life of dealing with weight that fluctuates between "just right" and "way off" has given me compassion about these things). I hate offending people I don't mean to offend.
I love the way that the internet opens up for me the sense that more people are my kindred spirits than I ever dreamed. I love that sense of deep, intimate,platonic connection I get with people on line. I love making friends on line.
But communication without the nuance of facial expression and vocal tone remains a curious thing, emoticons notwithstanding. The 'net teaches me that positive and negative thoughts and feelings, even expressed in writing by strangers, matter to me. The on-line experience fascinates me and exhilirates me, but the negative aspects also intrigue and confuse me. When I hear the writer, by the way, on the local NPR station, I find her still quite amusing. I laugh through my shame at being mocked. But when I read her first novel, and found it seriously wanting, I posted a moderate but adverse review on amazon. I hope that latter was not my "critic from All About Eve" moment. For that matter, I amazon reviewed her next novel, and found it better.
But I take from all this that I am still learning about internet communication as I go. I feel as though I pass people in the hallway in cyberspace. I'm amazed at how many I feel connected to, and how to a few people I feel the deepest connection. But I also feel that I'm learning about how people are often truly social people, and words, among social people, really matter.
I'm a great loom,
a hundred years old,
some third world shop floor loom,
where giant threads of yarn dangle,
manipulated by gentle hands.
You play me, like a harp,
though the loose weave
sounds no tune,
I'm only really good for making carpets,
like the 10 dollar jobbies at
Santa Monica thriftique stores.
Is that strum high C?
I hear no sound, but feel the recoil,
as if you're an archer, and my emotions
a loose bowstring, too weak for an arrow,
but now your words roil me,
like we're weaving in earnest,
and I want to cry out,
but I have no voice.