Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Who am I?

Mark Zuckerberg was talking about his Facebook on television last night: such energy, enthusiasm and all-American confidence, not to mention total dedication to a vision! You might say he fulfils Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s definition of chastity: the total orientation of one’s life towards a goal. Chastity in this sense can serve all sorts of ends and his make me vaguely uneasy. What began as a college website helping young people get to know each other could next year be floated on the stock exchange as a commercial business worth millions of dollars. Why might it be so valuable? Because it’s a web site on which millions of us around the globe reveal personal details about ourselves and these details are valuable to advertisers. The possibility of tailoring adverts precisely to my personal tastes and interests must be very tempting to businesses that want to sell me things. People reveal astonishingly personal details on Facebook because, apparently, they trust Mark Zuckerberg. Already some employers have stumbled on the possibility of discovering truths about potential employees which might not be revealed in interviews.

The source of my unease with Mark Zuckerberg’s vision lies in the question: Who am I and how do I relate to other people? Trawling through this blog, or looking at my profile, you can unearth clues and hints about me and my life, but does that mean you know me? Can you ever really know me if you have never met me, seen how my body language enhances (or contradicts) what my voice is saying: how, indeed, the very tone of my voice can contradict or enhance the words I am uttering. How much detail about my life do you actually need, before you can say, ‘I really know him’? Can you ever penetrate the mystery of who I am?

Then it gets scary. Can you ever penetrate the mystery of who you are yourself? All the major religions answer, no you cannot; not at least by gathering ever more information; not by emphasising the roles you play, the job you do, the things that interest you and so on and so on. The truth about us lies beyond, beneath all this and cannot be contained in lists of information. But it’s a scary truth because all information about us seems to add up to a sense of who we are. If we let it all go we feel naked, lost, vulnerable.

The diarist Anais Ninn used to start each day by saying to herself, ‘I am nothing. I have nothing. I want nothing.’ She did so because she wanted to begin each day in an attitude of hopeful, expectant waiting. She was pretty close to the challenge of Jesus of Nazareth: if you want to be a follower of mine leave your self behind. Such a self emptying reveals the abundance of the universe (or God if you wish) which lies hidden beneath all the information we think we need about ourselves and others.

Facebook and all the other social websites are wonderful tools but let’s not get carried away by inflated ideas about their potential for us mysterious and infinitely rich human beings who need each other in all our hiddeness and mystery if we are to know who we truly are.

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