Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Peering into the lives of others through Facebook

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Facebook is millions of lighted-up houses to peer into. Photo / Getty Images
Facebook is millions of lighted-up houses to peer into. Photo / Getty Images

Can I just pretend we're Facebook friends? Do you mind? I mean, it might seem presumptuous, but it's not exactly an exclusive club so please don't feel you have to subscribe to any of my core beliefs to be in my friends zone; you don't have to be a feminist, love Alice Miller and hate tomatoes.

But it just helps to write this column if I kind of figure you're just a bit on my side; not that you're sitting there, tapping the tips of your steepled fingers together waiting to pounce when I say something douchey (that is Twitter).

And I wanted to write about Facebook.

Oh, not another hissy thing about how I'm splitting up with it. I actually de-activated my account last week, but it only lasted for about three days for various boring reasons, including that I had organised a lunch date with Don Brash on Messenger and couldn't remember when.

I know there has been a lot written about the weirdness of Facebook by far more erudite people than me, but I have lately been noticing how if you look at someone's Facebook page, and their family and friend pictures, you can get this wistful feeling of being excluded, even if you don't really want to be in this person's life.

It's not the same thing as envy of someone's seemingly perfectly or glamorously curated life; their chic Grey Lynn vegetable garden (Ew, tomatoes). It is the wistful sense of grief that you can only have one life, whatever it's like, even if it's a really good one.

There is no counter-factual. You can't have your life and this person's life and this person's life and this person's life; you can't be at both book launches and esoteric lectures and also sailing boats and doing power yoga. You can't have your druthers. This is a saying I have only just become familiar with. It's short for "I'd rather", reflecting a preference for something you don't have.

"If I had my druthers, I would prefer to be Rick Rubin".

Of course my economist friends, like Don, would say this was nothing more than opportunity costs. (The loss of other alternatives when one alternative is chosen.)

I'm going to try to feel grateful that someone else does this thing, and does that thing, and the other.

But I think it's more than that. It is the deep frustration that we by necessity can only choose one path in life. Also maybe the feeling of disconnection, of alienation, that no matter how hard you try, you can never really be "in" someone else's life. Even in our closest sexual relationships one feels this: you can be in bed with one person but how do you know you are not really standing in as a placeholder for someone else? You can't. In some ways you can't even be in your own life; at least not in the way it appears to others.

I sometimes look at my own Facebook page and try to imagine how it looks to someone else - here we are making a rainbow cake, and here are my kids doing interpretive dance - and try to live my life as if I were that observing person, who would think all of this was just magnificent and free of that bastard, negativity bias.

I remember as a kid walking home through Hamilton at dusk and looking inside other people's lighted-up houses and feeling the sorrow of never ever being able to be in "that" glowing house.

And Facebook is simply millions of lighted-up houses to peer into. But you can't go home to all of them.

I remember Bob Jones saying he couldn't go to art galleries because he just wanted to buy everything and take it home.

What I'm saying is not that the grass is greener. It is more like Kingsley Amis' lament: "I want more than my share before anyone else has any." But wanting not just yours, but every other bloody cake at the stall as well. You can't. Even Bob can't.

Facebook is one long reminder of this tragic gap. How we have to stand in that space between what we see in the world and what we hope for, looking squarely at rejection, at heartbreak, at loss, at ageing, at death.

The tragic gap, called that by educator Parker Palmer, and tragic not because it's sad but because it's inevitable.

Although Palmer is more upbeat. He says it is the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible: "not because we wish it were so because we've seen it with our own eyes".

So, from now on, I'm going to try to look at other people's lives with a different kind of appreciation; I'm going to try to feel grateful that someone else does this thing, and does that thing, and the other. It's great that other people are playing soccer with their kids or taking helicopter trips or building outdoor fireplaces. It doesn't mean I have to do it. I am doing THIS instead. (Which happens to be taking the kids to get new shoes.)

Oh, and do feel free to send me a request, friend.

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- NZ Herald

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