the non-people

blank mannequin heads male and female

Before I even start today’s post, I have a feeling I’m going to upset some people. I suspect that even some avid and supportive readers are going to make frowny faces in my direction. But I just have to get this out.

To set the stage, I want to ask you to go beyond mere reading for a bit and to actually take a moment, as best you can, to imagine that a certain personal situation is true and happening to you right now. Envision it. Feel it. React to it.

I want you to imagine that a concerned friend has emailed you a link to a social media post in which you’ve been the topic of discussion, but yet in which you have not been tagged. You follow this link and find that a group of people – some of whom you know but many whom you don’t – have posted a less-than-flattering candid picture of you (or, perhaps, your kids). You don’t know where this picture has come from, only that you didn’t take it.  The caption added to this picture is ridiculing you. What a train wreck you are. How delusional you are. How monstrously un-cute your kids are. What a god-awful spouse you married, and how it’s no wonder that rumors are circulating that you’ve been cheating with someone else who is named in the post.

Below this is a long train of comments where “friends” and strangers alike are joining in to add their two cents, mostly agreeing, really ramping up the humor of it. Adding more pictures designed to humiliate or embarrass. They jab at your body type and how you’ve really let yourself go. One person even goes so far as to say your “very existence is an insult to humanity.” Another says they are “surprised evolution allowed such a step backward.” You scroll and scroll, but it never seems to end.

How would you react? How would you feel? Would you keep reading, driven to know every rotten thing people had said? Would you add a comment to spite them, call them out or express how hurtful this was?

Some years back, I was mentoring a group of guys who were hanging out in my living room on a Monday night. The purpose of the group was essentially to create a safe place where very different people who might never consider being friends “on the outside” could come together, talk about real life, and discover that we are more alike than different.  They really formed a shining example of brotherhood and remain pretty close, even nearly a decade later.

While munching on some pizza before things officially got started, the guys got into a full-blown hate storm on Britney Spears. She was a train wreck. A loser. A psycho. A slut (but they wouldn’t mind “getting a piece before it was all used up”). They laughed raucously about the new South Park episode in which a caricature Britney is so depressed that she takes a gun and kills herself in front of the “kids.”

At first, I let the guys go on.  I wanted to know how they perceived the world and the people in it. I soon began to see that they didn’t think of Britney as a real person at ALL.  She was just a sort of fictional character devised solely for the entertainment or ridicule of the masses.

Britney had recently had the infamous head-shaving incident. She’d not yet lost the baby weight and wasn’t the newest kid on the block anymore. She’d now lost custody of her kids. She’d had two failed marriages, one bitter. Her parents were fighting for control of her finances. As I listened to this fantastic group of guys rip her to shreds, I actually welled up.  I had to leave the room for a minute. All I could see was a young woman in her mid-twenties, suffering badly from postpartum depression among other things, having just had her children taken away, and being smeared across the news and tabloids the whole time.

It soon became known online that a company had all but finished a documentary about Britney’s life and tragic death. It was actually posted that they were “just waiting for her to commit suicide so they could finish it and release it.”

Please – stop and consider the real person here. Imagine it was you. Imagine it was your sister. Your kid. Why is any of this amusing or entertaining? Try to defend it to yourself.

This week, while scrolling through my social media accounts, I saw friends and strangers alike behaving very similarly regarding Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner. Comments were truly horrific. Judgments were made on every front: moral, ethical, spiritual, personal.  Sneering, dogmatic opinions about eternal destination – one even commented that it would have been better if Jenner had been aborted.

Let me say that I’m not faultless here. I’ve found myself rolling with “creative humor” where people are concerned. Sometimes, they’ve been in my physical space (e.g., at the airport or a restaurant). Sometimes, it’s a celebrity. But I have to say, whenever this has happened, I wind up feeling pretty awful soon afterward – so much so that I’ve become much more aware and much less likely to join in.

How do we justify this behavior in ourselves? No matter how many angles I try to view it from, I only come up with something dark inside of us that leads us to think this is OK. Here are a few options:

1.  We believe that people are deserving of our ridicule simply because they have a higher degree of notoriety, income, beauty, or talent in some area than we have.

2.  We do not think of such people as people at all, but rather existing only as objects for our amusement.

3.  We think of most people as objects on our stage rather than as real people, so those in a higher income bracket are no exception.

4.  We stalk and gossip about these people (isn’t that what it is?) as a result of jealousy at what they’ve achieved that we have not; it is our way of bringing them down to size so that we can level the field in our own minds.

5.  We have ugliness inside of ourselves all the time, and these people are “safe” to unleash it on, because we will never know them; so we can purge the junk inside without interpersonal consequences, rather than letting it out on the people in our everyday circles, which would come at a cost.

As for myself, it’s usually that I’ve somehow forgotten that each person around me is just that – a real person, with a real life just as important and challenging as my own. It feels more like watching life as a movie and making fun of actors, than it does like I’m doing what I’m really doing: being judgmental and unkind.

I hate to say it, but it’s really also a form of arrogance: I’m so much more wonderful and stunning and together than that person.

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself sharing with my grandmother online images of stars whose plastic surgery had been botched, permanently disfiguring their faces. Why did I feel she needed to see that? Why do any of us feel it’s entertaining when people in the spotlight, once adored for their beauty, make desperate attempts to remain young and stay relevant? Or when couples divorce and have nasty custody battles that hurt their kids? Or crack under life’s pressures and become drug addicts?

There’s no other way to put it. It’s just ugly.

Even if we justify to ourselves that a person’s income or public role automatically makes them game for our criticism and mockery, I absolutely believe that in allowing ourselves to engage, we are reinforcing a  character flaw in ourselves every time, making it easier for the bile to spill out onto the people in our everyday lives. You can’t practice hatred in corners and expect it not to seep through the cracks and reveal itself in other areas.

I realize that today’s post is heavier than most. But again, I felt it was important enough to take the risk of saying it. I hope that, for some, it’s a challenge to really make the choice to see every person – famous, infamous or sitting beside us – as a real person: one worthy of understanding, gracious treatment and respect.

make the choice to see every person as a real person: one worthy of understanding, gracious treatment and respect.

I do believe – and have found it to be true in my own life – that really making this shift and commitment to action results in a deeper level of “soul peace,” cooler interactions with people, better relationships, and a more positive outlook on the world and on life as a whole.

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