The Philosopher from the 1800s Who Talked About Social Media

Long before Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, there lived a man in 19th-century Denmark who foreshadowed […]

Chad Bird / 11.29.18

Long before Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, there lived a man in 19th-century Denmark who foreshadowed them all. His name was Søren Kierkegaard. We recognize him as a philosopher and a pugilistic theologian. Plus, the guy could tell a story like nobody’s business. And in one of his stories, he all but prophesies the future soul of social media.*

There once was a lily, he says, who lived a happy life beside a rippling brook. This beautiful little flower, in its simple surroundings, was content and carefree. Until one day. Until the day when the bird showed up. Now this feathered visitor was a showoff. A braggart and teller of tales. It would swoop in and fill the lily’s head full of stories of better places and far more beautiful flowers. Each story was crafted to convey the message that, in comparison to other flowers, and other places, this poor lily was a nobody. A failed lily. Captive to simplicity. Embarrassingly inadequate.

Following each visit from the bird, the lily fretted more. It couldn’t sleep. It no longer woke up happy. It felt incapacitated by not-enough-ness. The beautiful little flower, once content, now realized, in comparison with others out there in the wide world, it was ugly, deficient, incarcerated in its familiar surroundings.

But the bird was there to help. The bird had the answer. So together they formulated a plan.

Early one morning, the bird landed beside the lily and began pecking away at the soil around its roots. Now liberated, the lily was placed under the wings of the bird and away they flew to the better place. In that better place, where lilies were more beautiful, where life was fuller, the flower told itself it would truly be a lily worthy of the name.

But, alas, they never made it. High in the heavens, rootless and finally free of its former constraints, the lily withered. And the lily died.

The Kierkegaardian Bird of Half-Truths and Full-Lies

It’s an old, old story, of course, this tale of the lily. As old as a naked woman in a garden who, during a tête-à-tête with a snake, realized life lived as the image of God was not enough. As old as Icarus who, unheeding his father’s wisdom, decided flying low was not enough. An old, old story, ever young, ever manifesting itself in novel ways, now popularized in small phone screens filled with the bird’s big message that, in comparison with others, with what-might-be, we poor lilies are nothing and nobody.

The Kierkegaardian bird living inside our phone screens is half-truth and full-lie. There’s the half-truth. We are indeed not enough. Show me a woman who is curvaceously, intoxicatingly gorgeous, but there’s always someone out there with a face that could launch a 1000 ships to her measly 999. Show me a man who’s the rockstar of his company and the envy of all his associates, but there’s always that someone out there who’s climbed faster, earned more, out-trophied his trophy wife. When we live by rules of comparison, when the bird whispers discontent, we know he’s half-right. In the competitions of life, nobody always wins. There’s always someone better, more successful, more powerful, more in control. There’s always someone who makes us feel incapacitated by our not-enough-ness.

From The New Yorker.

But the bird tells us full-lies as well. The lie is diabolically simple. It says our completeness is found in expansion. Expanding our IQ. Expanding our wealth. Expanding our health. Becoming more in those areas where we find ourselves lacking. “Worldly anxiety,” Kierkegaard writes, “has its basis in a person’s unwillingness to be content with being a human being and in his anxious craving for distinction by way of comparison.”* Anxious craving for distinction by way of comparison. Each word is a blade, knifing our soul. Be more. Fly higher. Eat the fruit. Then, and only then, will we measure up. Then, and only then, will we be enough.

Mirrors and Windows

There are two equally dangerous and disappointing places to look for our enoughness: one is in the mirror, and one is through the window. We won’t find our enoughness in the mirror, not unless we are utterly deluded by narcissism. Because the mirror of our lives will reflect back flaws too deep for psychological or moralistic plastic surgery. We are too far east of Eden for repatriation. We’ve made too many bad decisions. We’re poisoned by too many selfish motivations. Even on our best and brightest day, we find black flies floating in our Chardonnay. There’s always something wrong with us, even if we cram it deep within our consciousness. The mirror reflects back our not-enough-ness.

And, if we don’t find enoughness in the mirror, we certainly won’t find it through the window. Because as we calibrate where we stand in relation to others—at the gym, at the office, and especially in the meticulously curated images of social media—we stare at the ungraspable goals of those who always seem to have more. More popularity. More trophies. More happiness. The bird of comparison pecks away at our roots, swoops us toward the fabled land of human perfection, but, O ancient woe! We wither along the way.

True Anthropology

In this life full of revelatory mirrors and frustrating windows, where our inadequacies are on full display, the church stands there with an uplifted hand and a long finger pointing the way toward a better way to be human. In fact, the only way to be truly human. Follow that long finger and see where it leads: neither to a mirror, nor through a window. The church’s finger points to one man. A man unlike any other for he—and he alone—is enough.

Christianity has been weaponized over the centuries to serve various ideologies: from early navel-gazing Gnosticisms to the innumerable modern religions of Oprah-esque self-improvement. But its message remains unchanged: Christianity is true anthropology. The only way of being truly human in this world. For it points to the God who became truly human. The image-maker who became the image. Jesus stands there, in his complete and perfect humanity, beckoning us to be folded into his divine humanity so that, in him, we become not only enough but reach that perfection that our innermost soul restlessly seeks.

Our lifelong quest for completeness ends, of all places, at a manger. In the tiny God swaddled and nursing upon the milk of his mother. Here is the image of God made flesh. Here is the Bethlehem babe, the crucified Rabbi, the victorious King. Here we behold a man who is God, and a God is who is man, the one who finally and fully makes us truly human by taking us into his own person and making us the people we were always meant to be.

*The Kierkegaard parable and quote is included in Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard (Plough Publishing House, 2014). Featured image credit: Getty Images/Art by Adam Peck.