This may be a little late now, but I wanted to spend a few moments on yearly reviews.
You know, the 20 image long Instagram stories of that sea-swing in Bali, flat whites in Bondi and some waterfalls somewhere.
Not to be outdone, Facebook users do this too, albeit in a generally less visual fashion.
The content of these posts is dominated by two characteristics:
1. “Positivity”. Luxurious holidays. Exams passed. Engagements. Possessions acquired. New jobs started.
2. External focus. People list things that took place outside of themselves, ie, achievements others can see and recognise
I understand the motivation. If you’ve had an overwhelmingly good year, you might want to celebrate it. Even if you haven’t, you might choose to focus on the “positive” events because you want to uplift others, or not appear negative, or show other people you are ‘successful’, or demonstrate your status. (Watch the ego).
Furthermore, you might only include the external events because you presume these are the ones people are most interested in, or because these events are the easiest to show in pictures.
In many cases, the motivations behind these posts are unlikely to be sinister. At best, these posts are driven by a desire to celebrate ourselves and inspire others. Though some would view this as self-centred, it’s probably no bad thing. In all but the most extreme cases, the motivations are likely to be no worse than a desire to project a positive public image, to defend our way of life to others.
This is a natural product of our anti-social-media age.
It’s just not real though, is it?
Social media vs Reality
In the last year, perhaps because of my own difficulties, I’ve spoken to more people about their mental health problems than ever before. There are people having panic attacks, feeling depressed, trapped in loneliness. Sometimes there’s a clear reason, like a bereavement. Sometimes there isn’t. Often, these are the very same people uploading pictures of smiley faces on sandy beaches.
There are quite literally billions of people out there working through their own sets of issues.
This point really hit home for me a couple of years ago. I returned home for the weekend and bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while. He commented at how I looked like I was having the best time. He had seen the photos on my Facebook. He seemed deflated when I told him I hadn’t really enjoyed any of those holidays. Things were not what they seemed.
Achievements don’t mean sh*t
I have achieved many things in my life people would see as good, great or exceptional, depending on their experience. I have also had various experiences that would be viewed similarly.
Some achievements/ experiences of the last few years that might be considered noteworthy to the external observer (dependent on their viewpoint, of course) are listed below:
- Winning the University Four Nations with England Students RL. (2015)
- Getting a teaching job at Harrow School. (2015)
- Guiding my students to good exam results. (2015-2018)
- Receiving 100s of thank-you cards from my students. Receiving a Louis Vuitton scarf from one. (2015-2018)
- Getting paid to play rugby at Hemel Stags during my first year at Harrow School. (2015-2016)
- Visiting Thailand 3 times (2015-2017)
- Visiting India, Romania, Laos, Egypt, Ibiza, Dubai, France, America, Turkey, Ireland, Belgium and maybe a couple more I can’t remember. (2015-2018)
- Playing in the University RL world cup in Australia (2017)
- Pulling quite a few stereotypically attractive women (1990-2018. Lol)
- Getting paid 70-100 pounds per hour in private education (2015-2018)
- Writing my first book (2018)
In response to the list above, I have three comments to make:
- I didn’t enjoy most of those things.
- I take very little pride in some of them.
- Only 1 or 2 of them happened this year.
2018: The reality
The defining theme of the last year was battling against a cluster of mental health problems with a limited degree of success. I have read numerous books, paid several thousands pounds to see two psychological professionals, meditated, experimented with my diet. In my search for a ‘normal’ mental state, I’ve turned over quite a few stones.
At one stage, I got to a point where I could train quite hard. I even pulled together my own team and entered us into the Bournemouth 7s tournament. I scored 4 tries. Two months later I was having multiple panic attacks a day.
I am not ‘cured’ – though I am now classed as ‘clinically insignificant’ – nor do I feel anywhere near as good as I did before.
I still do paid work and write these posts, but my biggest occupation for the last 6 months has been returning to a ‘normal’ functioning state. I don’t expect this to change for at least three more months.
In terms of external achievements, I have gotten less done this year than any in my adult life.
Have I lost? Was 2018 a failure?
I don’t think so.
I’m still here. I’m still waking up and showing up. I’m still trying to make a better life for myself and others.
That’s no small victory.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make here is:
- Achievements and experiences are meaningless without context. You could do the best thing ever, but if you’re not feeling it, it will mean naff all. If you’d have told ‘2008 Me’ I’d be going to Australia to represent my country in 2017, I’d have gone absolutely bonkers. The 2017 me really wasn’t that arsed. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. I was struggling pretty badly with some panic issues to do with adrenaline and asthma and inhalers around games. I worked with a sports psychologist to try and fix this. I didn’t quite manage it. I played, but was nowhere near my best. I was also knackered from my second year at Harrow. I started the tournament quite worn out, and left feeling quite pathetic.
I feel as proud of surviving this year and the way I’ve constantly fought back against set-backs as I do of any of the ‘achievements’ on that list.
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just because someone looks great from the outside, doesn’t mean they are. Dan Bilzerian hires models, cars and everything else he can to market his lifestyle. Others do the same. Just because they are uploading photos of themselves partying and laughing, doesn’t mean they aren’t facing the same void of meaning. In fact, it is often those who present a joyous external image that are using hedonistic behaviour to distract from their fundamental instability.
An appeal to truth
Social media lies. Or rather, people lie on social media. This curated fake image people present just will not do.
Some people are deliberately presenting a beautiful front – and they should consider carefully the effect this is having on their audience members, particularly the young ones.
Growing up wondering why everyone else is happy and we’re not is causing a mental health crisis in our schools, with anxiety and depression both on the rise in young people. This is not a coincidence.
We all have a responsibility to be a little more real in the public sphere. It involves vulnerability; admitting that things haven’t been great and we don’t have much to write home about can make us feel boring or inferior.
But we shouldn’t.
Sometimes life is joyous. Sometimes its really grotty.
Sometimes you don’t need to do or achieve anything to have done or achieved quite a lot.
Sometimes just surviving, just carrying on living with integrity, just conducting yourself in an honourable way, refusing to be crushed by life.
Sometimes, that is the best you can do.
Even if it isn’t shiny or pretty or impressive, this is always, always enough.
P.s. I’d just like to add: I know there are people out there who are sharing their stuff without any thought at all. There are people who are having a great time. That’s cool, but are they having a great time ALL THE TIME. Like 24 hours a day? I don’t know anyone who is.
I know there are also people who feel a pressure to look good because their social media profile is their business. I cannot tell these people how to live.